Thursday, March 29th, 2018...6:42 pm

A Quick Look at EU’s <Eu> Mathematicians

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Shawn Predicala

For some of you who didn’t know about this before, this could be the most enlightening discovery of your lives or it could just be another random and useless fact, but yes, the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler’s last name is actually pronounced /ɔɪlər/.

As a nerd math major, I encounter the names of many mathematicians, and I personally learned about this pronunciation of Euler from writing the math contest named after Euler in grade 7 (ok yeah, I’m a nerd). However, I still occasionally pronounce his name as /ju:lər/, because for some reason it feels natural to me. To make matters worse, I am currently in a course based on the works of another mathematician, Euclid, which is pronounced /juːklɪd/, which doesn’t help me remember how to pronounce Euler.

Due to this difference in pronunciation, I live in constant fear that I might slip up and embarrass myself in front of my peers in my math classes, so to try and help myself and others avoid such a mistake, I have decided to look into why the names of these two mathematicians with similar spellings have such different pronunciations.

Euclid of Alexandria is regarded as the father of geometry, and he provided us a compilation of his greatest hits in the form of Elements, a compilation of his theorems and works. He worked in Greece, where he was known as Εὐκλείδης (/evˈkli.ðis/ in Modern Greek), which is now anglicised to Euclid (/juːklɪd/). This pronunciation is usually attainable upon sight, as it follows the pattern of other words in English that contain the same pair of graphemes, <eu>, such as eucalyptus, eukaryote, and euphemism, where all the <eu>s are pronounced /ju/. This similarity comes from the language of origin of these words, which as you can guess, is Greek. Although little is known about Euclid’s personal life, including his birth, much of his work was done in Greece, hence the Greek pronunciation of the <eu> sequence in the beginning of his name.

The Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler has provided us with many great formulas and theorems that are too numerous to discuss here, so I will focus on the pronunciation of his name. Although it also starts with <eu>, Euler was Swiss and spoke German, so it follows the German pronunciation and is pronounced /ɔɪlər/, similar to how it is pronounced in Deutsch, which is, of course, German.

The way that people pronounce the names of these two mathematicians can tell us some things about how Greek and German influenced English, specifically in regards to the combination of <eu>. The pronunciation of Euclid as /juːklɪd/, as well as the numerous examples of Greek loan words that follow the /ju/ pronunciation, shows us the early influence of Greek on English. Most words that begin with <eu> are of Greek origin, and as English speakers we tend to pronounce <eu> consistently using the /ju/ pronunciation. Even with Euler, the most common way to anglicise the name is to say /ju:lər/, which is common possibly because of the difference in the time of influence of Greek and German on English and the existence of many Greek loanwords in English compared to German. The German pronunciation of <eu> is almost non-existent in English words, and examples of words that use this pronunciation are German words such as Deutsch.

In fact, the <eu> combination is a combination that has many varying pronunciations depending on the language it is used in. In English, it is generally pronounced as /ju/ while in German it is generally pronounced as /ɔʏ/ or /ɔɪ/, but English primarily uses the former pronunciation as opposed to the German pronunciations. Other languages also have different ways to pronounce <eu>, such as French, but due to the lack of French mathematicians whose names contain <eu>, we can rest easy when it comes to this particular pair of graphemes (and worry about all the other difficult-to-pronounce French names some other time).

Works Cited

Contributions of Leonhard Euler to Mathematics.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Feb. 2018.

Euclid and His Contributions.”, The Gale Group Inc., 2018.

[OED]. Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, June 2017, (various entries). Accessed 20 March 2018.

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