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Monday, March 18, 2013

The Pronunciation of Helena

Michelle writes:
Hi Swistle! My husband and I aren't having a baby yet, but I have a question about the name Helena. I love it and would definitely consider using it if we were to get pregnant and find out we were having a girl. The only issue in having is I'm not sure which pronunciation I like most (Heh-lay-nah or Heh-lee-nah) or which most people would say on first glance. I was hoping you could put up a poll to find out (I also think this would help me figure out which I'd prefer, if I was disappointed/happy in the way the results ended up). Thanks!


I have also heard a third pronunciation, which is like HEH-leh-na, with the emphasis on the first syllable instead of on the second---sort of the rhythm of Eleanor, or like Helen with an -ah on the end.

My own favorite pronunciation is heh-LAY-na. The name Elena (with the eh-LAY-nah pronunciation) has been on my own girl name list.

Let's have a poll over to the right! ...Wait. Do you want a poll about which pronunciation people like the most, or about which one they'd use at first glance? Let's have TWO polls, one for each question.

35 comments:

Katty said...

Not that this decides the matter, but for what it's worth actress Helena Bonham-Carter is definitely pronounced HEH-leh-nah with the stress on the first syllable.

Linda said...

I was JUST thinking about this because we're watching the Harry Potter movies with our kids and Helena Bonham Carter is the only Helena I "know." I've only heard her name pronounced like the alternate that Swistle suggested: HEL-en-ah. That's my favorite. It feels ethereal and feminine.

Fran said...

I automatically think of the alternate Swistle mentioned but I think that is how you pronounce the capital of Montana so I am not sure if that one would go for a pretty girl's name.....

Trudee said...

This is a name I've considered because I would love to use the nn Lane/Laney. So I would prefer the he-LAY-na pronunciation. But the problem is that my own inclination would be to say HEL-en-uh when I see it written. So that's off the table for me since I'd probably never be able to get my own child's name right consistently. :)

Kayt said...

I default to HEL-en-uh, like the city in Montana, probably because I have family friends that live there. I prefer the pronounciation he-LAY-nah. Between the friends in that city, and the pronounciation issues, we took it off our list, although I think it's a beautiful name.

Amy said...

When I see it, I automatically say it HEL-len-nah. However, I have heard it pronounced Heh-LAY-nah and I like that just as much.

bari said...

I also see HEL-eh-uh or Helen with an A. Its so pretty!

Anonymous said...

I also hear HEH-leh-nah most of the time, and that's the first pronunciation I'd try. If you like heh-LAY-na, I think the easy option is to go with Elena instead, which will almost always get you the correct pronunciation (although just to confuse that, I know one adult Elena who pronounces it EH-leh-nah...but she's forever correcting people!) I've never heard the "heh-LEE-nah" pronunciation and it wouldn't cross my mind. If you like that one, Lena or Lina would work nicely and get you the right pronunciation most of the time.

artemis said...

(Okay, 10:53 again and I just realized--I HAVE heard the heh-LEE-nah pronunciation! That's how St. Helena, a city in Northern California, is pronounced. However, it took a while for that to register, and I've never heard that one used in the context of a first name.)

Bitts said...

I think if you want it be pronounced any other way than "HELL-uhnna" then you'd have to change the spelling, due to the capital of Montana. I would be really surprised if anybody pronounced it differently on the first try. If you want it pronounced another way, you could try Helina (Hel-EEN-uh) or Helayna (Hel-LAY-nuh). I think that's the only way you could get people to approximate the pronunciation you want on the first try.

Karen L said...

If I saw it on a class list, I would be almost immediately unsure whether it was HEHlenna or heLEYna. heLEEna would not occur to me. Just like Sonya could easily be either SOnia or SAHnia.

I'm kinda surprised that the poll is so one-sided, but I guess that is the effect of capital of Montana. (I'm Canadian, so I'd have to squint if pressed to remember the capital of Montana, but I would pronounce it HEHlenna.)

If you leave the spelling as is, you'll get some pronunciation errors. If you change the spelling to make the pronunciation clear, then you'll get spelling errors.

Which is most okay for you?

Hellenna often misspelled Helena?
Helena often mispronounced HeLAYna?
Helena often mispronounced HEHlenna?
Helayna often misspelled Helena?

FWIW, I like the original spelling and I also like both pronunciations, so I'd just pick the pronunciation that sounds nicest with the middle and/or last name and/or siblings.

Or if you like HeLEEna, I like Helina as a spelling.

Brigid said...

Oh please don't spell the name any differently. None of the mispronunciations are grating, but starting your daughter's name with "Hell" is a really bad idea.

I spend a lot of time with Russians and Greeks, so while I love the English HEL-en-a, a Hel-AY-na like Elena or Hel-EE-na like Lina would not bother or even surprise me.

Lashley said...

The Helena I see on a daily basis is pronounced HEHlena (Helen with an A). She is consistently correcting people and encountering people who "can't" say it that way, even though she uses what seems to be the most obvious pronunciation. I think there will be mistakes no matter which way you spell or pronounce it!

I did know another Helena a while back who used the HehLAYna pronunciation. Her last name was one syllable that rhymes with Bake though, so I think made that option the best. I'd consider your own last name when deciding on your favorite pronunciation!

Anonymous said...

I always see it as Heh-LAY-nah but I think I'm in the minority. I knew a Helena who pronounced it this way when I was young so I think that set my expectations for life. It is also my favourite of the three. I think the Lina pronunciation is the least intuitive. I don't think people would have too much trouble getting that your daughter's name was Helena pronounced like Elena. That and the pronunciation Helen-uh are equally heard.

Leslie said...

I grew up with a classmate who was a heh-LAY-nah, so that's my first association, but I've always loved the HEL-eh-nah pronunciation best. I wouldn't be surprised to meet someone with either pronunciation and I would be easily adjustable between the two (I think of both pronunciations as standard). I haven't encountered heh-LEE-nah before, but I also think I would adapt to it if corrected.

Helena is a very pretty name, regardless of which pronunciation you use!

Alexandra said...

I much prefer HEH-leh-nah, but I think there will be pronunciation issues no matter what, and it won't be a deal-breaker. For what it's worth, in Italian, the name Elena is not pronounced Eh-lay-nah, but Eh-leh-nah.

Anonymous said...

For many years I pronounced it as heh-LAY-na until I heard that Helena Bonham Carter pronounces her name as HEH-leh-na, which I think may be the preferred way the name is pronounced in the UK.

...Looked it up in Forvo: the 2 UK speakers -- and the Australian -- pronounced the name as HEH-leh-na, while the two Americans said heh-LAY-na. http://www.forvo.com/word/helena/#en

brianne said...

Swistle, have you ever done a post with YOUR favorite boy and girl names? Our tastes are so similar, I'd love to know your list!

Swistle said...

brianne- No---I've thought of it, but it seems too difficult!

Ariane said...

My husband and I named our 9 month old daughter Helena. We pronounce it huh-LAY-neh (though when I first suggested the name, he was set on HEL-en-neh.)
The Baby Name Wizard has an interesting explanation about how in what different geographic areas of the US you will tend hear the three different pronunciations.
I took my daughter to the doctor last week and she was called by each of the three pronunciations by three different people. So, I think the pronunciation issue is unavoidable, but after a couple times of correcting someone they will get it right. Changing the spelling to Helayna or Helana was definitely not an option for me, though I think my husband wishes we had made the spelling correlate to the pronunciation better. (He never had pronunciation issues with his name, but I've had pronunciation issues my whole life and it doesn't phase me.) My first exposure the name and huh-LAY-neh pronunciation was the model Helena Christensen when I was a kid.

Anonymous said...

HEH-leh-nah for sure. I would go for Halina if you want the ee sound. It is a less common but real name.

Kim said...

When I see Helena I automatically pn it as Hel-en-ah.

If you want Helena pn Huh-LAY-nuh, and want the spelling to reflect this, what about Helaina?

Marilyn said...

I say it HEL-en-a, just like "Helen" with an "uh" after it.

Noames said...

My mom's name is Helena, pron heLAYna, and maybe it's different now (she's in her 60s, and naming preferences have certainly changed since she was in school) but she says nobody ever got it right when she was a kid, enough that she was mad at me for naming my daughter Eva (pron. Eh-va) because she felt she would always be correcting the pronunciation (from EEva.)

But I think its a great name, and I actually like all the pronunciations.

Helena said...

I literally gasped when I saw this as I'm a Helena. Ha-LAY-na. I've also moved around the US a lot as a kid and have heard it all.

I joke that "HELEN-ah" is my preferred mispronunciation. Growing up on the east cost, that's what I heard all the time. "ha-LEE-na" is like nails on a chalkboard to me. I didn't start hearing it until I moved to the Midwest. (For what it's worth - very unscientific study).

My name has been interesting for me because I've always maintained that it's due to my constant need to correct people that I want my kids to have simple, easy-to-say names. I think all names have drawbacks, though. I have a personal rule that I'll only correct people twice. After that, it gets embarrassing so I just go with whatever they call me.

That said, I'm pumped ha-LAY-nah is winning in the poll.

Ms. Key said...

I have a student with this name this year, and it took me a month to get it right (didn't help that she was a bit shy and didn't exactly correct me at first). First, I called her "hell-en-ah" (Helen with ah at the end) because growing up I had a neighbour friend named Helena, pronounced that way.

Then, when she sort of corrected me, I went to "Heh-LAY-nah" like Elena, thinking that was what she meant after she said I wasn't saying her name "quite right" (she was so quite and polite, only 9 years old, haha).

THEN... eventually, it all came out that her family calls her "Heh-LEE-nah".

I think I'm saying it right now, but I really went through the ringer on this one trying to ensure I was saying my students name right!! It helped once I finally met her mom. She even said her own family members say her name different ways sometimes, lol.

Oy.

Anonymous said...

I've seen this name discussed elsewhere... maybe the Baby Name Wizard site? Not sure. The conclusion is that it was a regional thing. For what it's worth, I live in Indianapolis and would pronounce the name Heh-LAY-na. Didn't realize the capital was pronounced differently until the name discussion (I know, I know). Heh-lehn-uh sounds strange to me, because in MY mind Heh-LAY-na is the only correct pronunciation (even though I realize in reality that's not true).

Emily said...

I have known both a Helena (pr. heh-LAY-na) and a Halina (pr. heh-LEE-na) who worked at the same place. Halina (who was Polish) went by Holly. But it was funny, because she pronounced Helena's name the same as her own.

Also another example of the name from pop culture is Helena (pr. heh-LAY-na) Cassadine, a character on General Hospital.

Anonymous said...

I would never think it was heh-LEE-nah, but I'm about 50/50 on the other two. I don't think it would be hard for me to remember one or the other pertaining to a specific person, though.

Meredith said...

We live in the Midwest and named our almost four-year-old Helena and pronounce it Huh-lay-na. I love that the pronunciation lends itself to a ton of nicknames: Lena (Lay-na), Laney, Lane, and you could even get Nell, Elle, Ellie, etc. if you wanted. I wish that when we sent the electronic birth announcement that we had clarified pronunciation but it hasn't been too much of a problem, probably because she's at an age where we introduce her first instead of people reading her name. Somehow the pediatrician's office always gets it right. I don't mind the Helen-a pronunciation, though, and I even like the idea that if she wants to someday, she could tell people to call her by that pronunciation. She could have what feels like a new name without changing anything!

Here are my caveats: My mom, and other visual learners, sometimes had a hard time remembering the pronunciation at first. No big deal. What really drives me crazy is that there are people in our area--like my dad!--who honestly do not hear the difference between Huh-lay-na and Huh-lee-na. It's mostly a generational thing, I think. I mean, these people hear me call her Lay-na but still can't get it straight after four years. (Can you tell that Huh-lee-na is my least preferred pronunciation?) But these are mostly the same people that pronounce 44 as "farty far." Then there are the same two people who always ask me how to pronounce it, because they knew women who were called Huh-lee-na, and they know that's not right but can't keep straight which one my daughter is. Again, these are women in their 70s.

While it seems like I'm complaining quite a bit, I just wanted to give you all the scenarios we encounter. Normally, though, it hasn't been an issue and we're quite pleased with her name. I wouldn't change it. :)



Butterflyfish said...

I used to think HEHlena until I met a hehLAYna (which I like, with HEHlena very closely behind).

Emily said...

My daughter's middle name is Helena. We say Heh-lay-na, or the Spanish pronunciation Heh -leh -na (also Italian pronunciation). I cringed the first time someone said it "Heh lee na"! We live in the South, though. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have a beautiful baby girl who is called Helena. We say it as heh-len-a and found that most people say it that way. But I have also heard he-lay-na and hel-ay-na.

Heidi said...

All of the comments are interesting to me; I am thinking about naming a future daughter Helena, but after reading these comments, I'm leaning towards spelling it "Helana." since we definitely like the "He-lay-nah" sound better, not only by itself, but also with our last name. My first and middle name is Heidi Liana, so "Helana" would be a combination of those two names. I have been undecided though because my Grandma's name is Helen, and my SIL's middle name is Elena; so the spelling Helena would be more special to them. I would love to hear more thoughts anyone has.

Anonymous said...

I'm a HuhLeeNah and love that this pronunciation is true to my eastern European heritage and very easy for Greeks and Russians to pronounce. My Greek coworkers have assured me that the true pronunciation of Helen of Troy is Huh-lee-nah. I can't complain when they refer to me as a goddess :) I have several friends from the Midwest that call me Huh-lay-na. They don't seem to notice the difference in pronunciation so I don't let it bug me. However, I absolutely cannot stand being called hel-en-nuh, possibly because I live near Montana. I much rather prefer the Greek goddess pronunciation over the capital of Montana. I work in international business and am called E-len-a by Italian, Spanish, French, and Portuguese speakers. I can't complain because that pronunciation sounds so exotic with their accents. Overall, I love my name and feel it is well worth the occasional pronunciation correction. Oh, also, my mother added an accent mark over the second e which does seem to help.