ignorance is NOT bliss, or how to pronounce “Coetzee”

I learned how to pronounce J.M. Coetzee’s name correctly this morning. I’ve been saying “Coat-zee,” with the accent on the first syllable. But in my first class this morning, Davide, who is from S. Africa, corrected me with the proper Afrikaans pronounciation. The “oe” sounds more like the “e” in the French “je.” Actually, the first syllable of “Coetzee” sounds exactly like the French “que.” The accent is on the first syllable. The “t” is a really hard “t” followed by an equally hard “z.” And then it gets interesting. The final “zee” is pronounced as two syllables and sounds like “zee-yeh.” The closest I can get in an American English transliteration might be “Kut-zi-yeh.” Ack!

At any rate, I stood in front of my freshman comp. class explaining my research project on Coetzee’s Disgrace and Davide raised his hand and said, “It’s Kutziyeh,” and I got to have one of those phenomenally yucky moments of acknowledging how ignorant I am, even though, as I said to the class, I’ve got a blessed Ph.D. that is now almost two decades old; I’ve written plenty plenty academic papers; I speak German — and still, I was unable to correctly pronounce the name of the author about whom I am currently writing an academic paper. Phmeh. Ignorance. It happens. Important to acknowledge it, correct the mistake, go on, learn from the mistake. American arrogance is a good thing to take down many notches.

I enjoyed the writing we did. We wrote everything we knew about our research topics in five minutes. Then we re-read what we wrote and wrote down any questions, notes about gaps in our knowledge, places we wanted to investigate, observations about our work so far. I noticed I was focusing a lot on Coetzee himself rather than on the novel. I also am trying to do too much. And my original idea of reading Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother alongside Coetzee’s Disgrace to get at the answers for why I feel so uneasy about the portrayal of Black S. African characters in Disgrace…well, that might not be the way to go. But I’m still not sure. Will have to see after more research and thinking.


18 Responses to ignorance is NOT bliss, or how to pronounce “Coetzee”

  1. Checkerberry says:

    I think you shouldn’t feel embarassed about the pronunciation mistake. It is a difficult name; obviously, since it took you a whole paragraph to describe it! Even at the end, I’m still not convinced that it is the correct pronunciation. Don’t sweat the small stuff! So what if you can’t say the guy’s name, you could probably tell a million more things about Coetzee than any other person in the class. Is the issue really that ego in your back pocket? I know, the credibility goes out the window as soon as the smallest inaccuracy is discovered, but if you really know your stuff, just move on to the next part. Besides, you could’ve easily said you were using the Deutch pronunciation. Take W.E.B. Dubois for example. My history teacher (and the book) insist on pronouncing it [du-boyz], but anyone who knows even the most basic French knows it’s really [du-bwah]. But does this minor difference lessen the quality of a well educated Ph.D.? I say not. At the very least, if you always remember that nobody knows everything, you will never be dissapointed in learning new facts. My father-in-law, who also has a Ph.D., handles new information like this, “Oh, really? That’s interesting, I didn’t know that.” It always makes me feel smarter to tell him something new, and NEVER makes me think less of his intelligence.

    Final wurdz: The difference between Ignorant and Stupid was that Stupid knew better.

    • bruce says:

      Except that W.E.B. himself pronounced it “DuBoze.” Names, like all other linguistic phneomena, are contingent on time and place–for whatever reason he and his family chose not to follow the French pronunciation That doesn’t make him wrong–any more than it makes sense to tell Mo’Nique that she doesn’t need an apostrophe in the middle of her name.

  2. valencia31d says:

    Don’t feel bad..we all have fallen short . You just happen to have gotten caught by the fallen short bug. However, you measure up high in so many ways that this very, very, did I say very, little mistake means nothing.

  3. Krisseroo says:

    Thanks for passing this on; I’ve been trying to figure out how to pronounce “Coetzee” for ages! And Checkerberry, your history teacher is right. I know the French pronunciation is “right” in a technical sense, but DuBois himself insisted it was pronounced “du boyz”.

  4. Kacka says:

    Thanks to you I finally discovered how to read Coetzee`s surname. Still a nightmare, though 🙂

    Many thanks anyway.

    Did you enjoy reading Disgrace??

  5. sandy says:

    I didn’t like _Disgrace_ after my first read, but after several reads and lots of study, I’ve come to respect the novel. You might also be interested to listen to Coetzee’s Nobel Prize in Literature speech and the video of the banquet. One presenter there pronounces his name “Cutzee.” The videos are at http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2003/

  6. Thank you for this information, I was browsing for the correct pronunciation and here i found your writing, ah! information like this do oodles of good to some body like me who has no clue whatsoever to proper afrikaans pronunciation

  7. msbaroque says:

    I had this the other week when I had the temerity to mention Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia to someone who actually knows things; I was still muttering under my breath two days later. Most unpleasant.

    I have a few South African friends, anyway, so I know better than ever to try to say Coetzee in public.

  8. eva orbe says:

    Am a South African who is an English teacher, and was just wondering if anybody ever thought of asking a South African how to pronounce Coetzee!

  9. coetzee says:

    I am a Coetzee and you’re phonetic spelling is pretty much perfect except for the the Z actually sounds like an S, so it would be Kut-SEE-yeh. I promise you, I’ve heard it wrong more than a million times in my life. However, I always appreciate and pay attention to the few people who get it right.

  10. Machiel J.F Coetzee says:

    The first coetzee to settle in Afrika Came with rhe ship Asia in 1678 to South Afrika. Wife Sara van der Schulp. Dirck Coetzee originated fro Kampen Netherlands. The were from the Chateau Couche in France. Fled . Inquisition Edict of Nantes (1589) etc. Theships logbook shows he was a adelborst(Royal Blood).The spelling in the V.O.C. (Verenige Oosindische Companjie)register shows COESIE. He signed Dirck Couche. Once in the Cape of Good Hope the followng spelling of the surname appears Cousie, coetze Coetzee and Coetsee. He was given farms wheich are to day the towns of Stellenbosch and Coetzenburg. Once again fleeing from Btitih occupation Diederik Coetzee founded the town Zeerust west of Johannes burg in 1850
    The Coetzee are Afrikaners and their language is Afrikaans. The surname is fonetically close to Kutsee. not the American Z pronanciation. Z should sound as the S in Snake. The ee in zee sounds like the Zeeland in Hollands.
    If interested the folowing book is available: DIE STAMOUERS COETZEE EN NAGESLAGTE IN SUID – AFRIKA by N.A. Coetzee Julius Jeppestraat 246,Waterkloof ,PRETORIA 0181.Printed by Perskor Boekdrukkery Doornfontein Johannesburg.

    • sdshattuck says:

      Thank you so much for this excellent information. Since I speak German, it’s difficult NOT to pronounce the “tz” combination as a hard “t” followed by the “z” sound. The student who originally corrected my pronunciation in class was a non-Afrikaner South African, so I’m not sure I got the full Afrikaans pronunciation. Thank you very much for the reference.

  11. Machiel J.F Coetzee says:

    IF you still have problems with pronouncing COETZEE this will help.
    The letter C is pronounced the same as the letter K.
    The letters oe is the sound of the U in the words used by J. Ceasar Et tu Brute! . The oo in Zoot
    The letter Z is not the ZZ zebra Zorba but is the s sound in snake,son,sun.
    The ee sound is a problem . I dont thinkit exits in S. A> English. The word “see” in Afrikaans means “sea” Pacific, Indian, Red sea etc.Zee is not pronounced as “sea”. The E sound in the word “Eros “

  12. Bob says:

    The BBC note that JM Coetzee pronounces his name “kuut-SEE”:

    “kuut-SEE-uh was the Unit’s original recommendation in the early 1980s, based on the advice of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and his London publisher, Secker and Warburg. However, that vowel can also be pronounced as a monophthong (kuut-SEE), especially by those from the south of the country, and this is the pronunciation that [JM Coetzee] uses and prefers the BBC to use too.

    “We have a letter from JM Coetzee himself in our files, written in response to our query, making this very clear and, as our policy is always to say people’s names in the way that they wish, that is what we have recommended ever since.”


  13. […] my most viewed post is the one from Oct. 2006 called “ignorance is NOT bliss, or how to pronounce ‘Coetzee,’” I thought I’d follow up. A comment from Sept. 2010 by Bob offers a link to a section of the […]

  14. hans says:


    audio fragment below, just follow the link


  15. SG Guru prasad says:

    Thanks for dispelling the ignorance that I had, on this. Therefore, its Mr Kut zi yeh. Fine.

  16. Greg says:

    …I’ve always said KUTziyeh or kutSEEuh myself, but it seems pretty clear here: Coetzee himself pronounces it kutSEE. Not kutZIyeh or anything.

    Regardless of the usual pronunciation of the name (see: Du Bois), the surname of the author J. M. Coetzee is, then, kutSEE.

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