Pronunciation of names and places in C.J. Cherryh’s “Foreigner” books

Author C. J. Cherryh is one of the last great living masters of science fiction, easily on a par with ClarkeHerbert, or Wolfe. Her strength is in building worlds populated with believable humans and non-humans, and then writing those characters in such a way that the reader ends up deeply empathizing with them—even the most alien of aliens.

Her best-known works are the long-running Alliance-Union novels, which taken together describe a war-filled future history epic of the expansion of humankind off of Earth and into the rest of the galaxy. However, for the past couple of decades Cherryh has been focusing on a different series altogether: the Foreigner books.

The series (starting with Foreigner) tells the tale of a lost human colony ship forced to take permanent refuge at far-off world populated by heretofore undiscovered aliens: the three-meter tall black-skinned atevi. Atevi don’t experience the same emotions as humans and have an innate perception of numbers that’s described as roughly analogous to the human perception of color. Humanity and atevi are similar enough that they quickly establish cordial relations, and different enough that war is inevitable.

But I’m not going to do a whole series recap—we’d be here forever, since the series at this point consists of 19 books with at least two more to come. Instead, I want to focus on a very touchy subject, and one about which readers of the books will no doubt have very spiky feelings: pronunciation of names and places.

N.B. Folks who haven’t read at least one Foreigner book should probably bail on this entry, because this post probably isn’t going to be super-interesting unless you’ve already got some Ragi words bouncing around in your head.

Look who’s talking

Cherryh includes a pronunciation guide and limited glossary in the end of some of the books, but the primary sources of canonical pronunciation are the narrators of the two different sets of audiobooks.

The one most familiar to readers (well, listeners) will likely be Daniel Thomas May, who narrates the Audible versions of the audiobooks. May is outstanding with his characterizations and performance, and he’s also extraordinarily consistent in his pronunciations of a whole mess of alien words—but I’m not convinced he’s correct in many of his pronunciation choices.

The narrator who gets it right, I believe, is Kimberly Schraf. Schraf narrates the National Library Service talking book versions of the first ten titles in the series. However, the only legitimate way to listen to Schraf’s versions is to be sight-impaired, as NLS talking books are only available to sight-impaired individuals. (You can also get them by, ahem, sailing the high seas, as it were, but you’re on your own for that.)

Specific examples: names and accents

May’s Banichi is buh-nee'-che, while Schraf’s is bah'-nih-chee. Schraf’s pronunciation mirrors the phonetic spelling given in the Foreigner glossary and also follows Cherry’s rules for which syllable to accent depending on vowel length. Schraf is objectively correct here, since Cherryh’s glossary is by definition canonical.

(The differences in pronunciation on this particular one might arise from the fact that May treats the middle syllable in Banichi’s name the same as the middle syllable in Algini’s name—both long e sounds. On one hand, this seems like a valid alternate pronunciation, like “dayta” and “dahta,” perhaps. On the other hand, how do you pronounce the name of the nine foot tall assassin? It’s like the old joke: “Any way he wants”…)

May’s Illisidi is ih-lee'-sih-dee, while Schraf’s is ill-uh-see'-tee. Again, at least as near as I can parse the rules, Schraf is “correct” (though correctness appears mutable, based on the glossary’s many caveats). And, again, the difference here potentially comes from the choice of vowel pronunciation—long e for May, short e for Schraf.

May’s Cajeiri is kah-zher-ee', while Schraf almost over-humanizes it to kuh-jer'-ee (cuh-Jerry!). Though May’s choice gives the name a more alien gravitas, Schraf’s much better choice follows from the canonical “Jeri-Ji” diminutive. (And here I must guess at the spelling of “Jeri-Ji,” because the only books I have with him in them are of the audio variety!) However, while I believe Schraf’s pronunciation is closer to the truth, she also makes the j sound overly J-like, defying the glossary’s notes that j is more like a midway between ch and zh (Schraf does this with Jagoas well, giving it almost a hard j instead of May’s soft zh).

The word paidhi is one of the most important words in the entire series, and May and Schraf differ fundamentally in their approaches to it. May gives it a spectacular flub, rendering it pie-dee', with a long i and long e and a heavy accent on the second syllable. This ignores explicit guidance given in the glossary on how to pronounce the word with a palatal h. Schraf, on the other hand, follows the glossary religiously with pite'-hee—still two long vowels, but with the accent in the right place and with almost a hiss on the last syllable.

There are many others, including vastly different takes on aishidi’tat (May: aye-shade'-ee-taht , Schraf: eye'-shu-tee dad), mecheiti (May: meh-cheh-tee', Schraf meh-chay'-tee), and Bu’Javid (May: boo-zha-veed', Schraf: boo-jay'-vit), but the thing that continually resurfaces in May v. Schraff is May’s insistence on stressing the accent on the final syllables of many words, especially if they end in an i sound, or if they trail a -ma or -ji suffix behind. May’s Atevi is ah-teh-vee', while Schraf’s take is the dictionary-strict ah'-teh-veeCenedi is a doozy—May plays fast and loose with sen-eh-dee', presumably choosing to interpret the opening c as soft in order to avoid saying the name as “Kennedy.” Shraf on the other hand goes all-in with ken'-eh-tee, basically just saying “Kennedy” with a t instead of a d.

I’d guess that May’s insistence on stressing trailing -i sounds is a stylistic choice in order to add some recognizable “foreignness” to Ragi words. It works very well and he’s extraordinarily consistent in his adherence to the practice, but in many cases he’s elected to say a word in a demonstrably incorrect way in order to stick with it.

D, T, or something in between?

Which brings me to the second huge difference, and what might be Schraf’s only real misstep: she clings so religiously to the note in the glossary about making d indistinguishable from t that to the listener it often sounds as if she’s purposefully swapping d for t and vice versa.

After listening to so many Schraf books, that D/T thing was the hardest adjustment to make when I got to May instead. It impacts so many important words—words that after hearing so often one way, I have a difficult time spelling correctly. To me, Tabini should always sound like it’s almost got a D in front, but May gives it a hard TDamiri in my head should sound more like Schraf’s take, “Tamiri.” Tano, Illisidi, Tatiseigi, Bindanda, on and on and on—Schraf renders them “Dano,” “Illisiti,” “Dadiseigi,” and “Bintanta.”

The human island

The third is puzzling and difficult to figure out: is “Mospheira” a human word, or a Ragi one? Because May speaks it as I did when I first picked up the print version of Foreigner so many years ago, and the way that Schraf pronounces it in the audiobook version of Foreignermos-fay'-rah, with the “ph” treated as the human phoneme. But starting in Invader, Schraf switches to a very strict Ragi reading of the pronunciation (again, going by Cherryh’s glossary notes as ultimately canonical)—she says mos-pay'-rah, treating the “ph” as a separate “p” and “h” (and also treating the ‘h’ as palatal, exactly per the dictionary, so it comes out almost with a hiss). This continues to the name of the spoken human language—May says mos-fay-ee', cramming a whole third syllable in there, while Schraf goes with mos'-pay, two syllables and palatal.

A grab bag of other words

Without opining any further, here are some additional words and their differing pronunciations between the two narrators. I’ll indicate which one I believe is correct—though, spoiler alert, I’m going to pick Schraf for most things.

May: aye-zhee'
Schraf: aye'-jee (preferred, other than the j)

May: ah-zhur-ee'
Schraf: ah-jur'-ee (preferred, other than the j)

May: on'-tar-oh
Schraf: on-dar'-oh' (believed correct)

May: bah-zhee' nah-zhee' (j correct)
Schraf: bah'-jee nah'-jee (accents correct)

May: bin-dahn'-dah
Schraf: bin-tahn'-tah


May: has'-drah-wad
Schraf: has'-trah-wat

May: zheh-gar-ee'
Schraf: jeh-gar'-ee (preferred, other than the j)

May: loo-cah-see'
Schraf: loo'-cah-see (believed correct)

May: mah-chig-ee'
Schraf: mah'-chig-ee (believed correct)

May: mah-shee-mee'
Schraf: mah-chee'-mee (believed correct)

May: man-chee'
Schraf: man'-chee (believed correct)

May: nah-dee'
Schraf: nah'-dee (This one’s tricky, because per the glossary the accent changes, but Schraf’s choice is generally more correct.)

May: nah-zhee-dah'
Schraf: nah-jee'-tah (preferred, other than the j)

(Madam) Saidin
May: sy-deen' (long i in first syllable)
Schraf: sy'-teen (long i in first syllable—more correct than May, I believe)

May: shay-zhee-dahn'
Schraf: shay'-jee-tahn (more correct, I think)

May: tuh-bee'-nee
Schraf: duh-bee'-nee

May: tah'-no
Schraf: dah'-no

May: tah-teh-say'-gee
Schraf: dah-deh-say'-gee

May: tash-reed'
Schraf: dash'-rit (believed correct)

May: vay-zhee-ko'
Schraf: veh-jee'-ko (preferred, other than the j)