In Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver travels to a land of Houyhnhnms. When I read, I like to hear the names in my head because it helps me to get into the story. However, I do not know how to pronounce Houyhnhnm. Do we have any guidance from Swift, the word's origins, or other sources for how to pronounce Houyhnhnm? If so, how do they recommend?

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    Not an answer, because I haven't checked anything; but I think (1) it's clearly meant to sound like a neighing or whinnying horse and (2) you should think of it as Houy-hn-hmn; if I were writing the way I say it phonetically it might come out as "whee-h'n-h'm" or something of the kind. – Gareth McCaughan Jan 23 '17 at 13:24
  • I have heard it pronounced who-nee-him, and this is how I vocalise it. – Mick Jan 23 '17 at 13:41
  • However, acceptable pronunciations can be found easily enough online. – Mick Jan 23 '17 at 13:45
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    The correct answer to this question is No. – CHEESE Jan 23 '17 at 15:40
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    @GarethMcCaughan I've always imagined it was imitative of the, more conversational sounding, whicker. – Spagirl Feb 12 '17 at 17:30

According to Merriam-Webster, either \ˈhwi-nəm\ or \hü-ˈi-nəm\. (hwi-num or who-i-num)
The upside e is a schwa, representing a light and unaccented "uh" sound.

That's about it.

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The word's origin is in mimicking the whinny of a horse, which is after all what the Houyhnhnms are.

To my knowledge Swift never gave more specific pronunciation guides than that. There's probably no precise human equivalent, just as mung-mung, guau-guau, and woof-woof are all ways that humans try to reproduce the sound of a dog.

My English professor rendered it as "whin-in-im", and I'm sure her colleagues had a whole host of variations. I think that any of them is more or less equally valid. English speakers do have some experience in that initial aspiration, at least those in places that haven't undergone the wine-whine merger.

The extra h's in "Houyhnhnm" do imply more aspiration in the ns, but I think that's more important in the written than spoken form. Pronouncing it would be a bit like switching accents in the middle of a sentence, for an accent you don't really speak. With a natural language it would risk sounding pretentious.

So, when called on, I mimick my old English prof, just because that's what gets the point across. I'd say that any other set of speakers pronouncing the word will end up in the vicinity of that, and mimic each other to reach a consensus, but that's neither more nor less right than any of their original pronunciations.

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  • When you say my old English professor, do you mean: (1) your elderly professor of English (2) your professor of Anglo-Saxon (2) your former professor of English (4) your elderly professor from England (5) your former professor from England (6) some combination thereof? Inquiring minds want to know. 🤓 – verbose Feb 12 '17 at 21:13
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    She was young at the time... but that was 30 years ago. I need a whole new tense structure for that. I also had an Old English professor, who was quite young, though he'll never be as young as he was then. – Joshua Engel Feb 13 '17 at 14:53
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    I once met an Old English sheepdog. He was a puppy named Beowoof. – verbose Feb 13 '17 at 21:19

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