As part of CMI’s ongoing focus on diverse and multi-cultural communities, we regularly feature music and music-makers from those diverse communities. It is important to us that our work be reflective of the many communities we seek to reach. In recognition of Jewish American Heritage Month in May, we hope you enjoy this light-hearted look at Leonard Bernstein by one of NOTE’s newest contributors – Michael Silverstein.
How to Pronounce My Name
People used to have no trouble pronouncing my last name, Silverstein, with the last syllable pronounced steen. They also had no trouble with Goldstein, Bernstein, Weinstein, and all the other -steins, which were all pronounced with the same steen ending. The only time anyone used to address me or the other -steins with a stine ending was when they wanted to be offensive; such a pronunciation amounted to a backhanded ethnic slur.
And then Leonard Bernstein came along. He didn’t cause trouble in this realm right away. As a young man from a small town near Boston, he was known as Lennie Bernstein, with a steen ending.
But then he began to be recognized as a talent, moved to Manhattan, and started hanging around with a more culturally oriented crowd. You didn’t go by a nickname like “Lennie” with these folks. So he became Leonard Bernstein, though still with that steen ending.
Lennie’s fame continued to grow with the years, as he moved beyond writing music for popular stage productions such as West Side Story and became the conductor of a major symphony orchestra. It was a nice professional evolution for a kid whose father ran a small bookstore, and he deserved the many plaudits that came with this new post.
Alas, plaudits apparently weren’t enough for the man. He needed a more outward sign of his elevated status as a cultural icon. And that’s where our paths crossed – when he made introductions so much more onerous for people like me.
If a Bernstein such as Leonard were now a cultural icon in this country, he seemed to feel, then such a person should somehow be more closely associated in people’s minds with European cultural icons. And since Leonard was now in the classical music business, the natural linkage was with the great Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein – pronounced Rubinstine. So it was that Lennie Bernsteen ultimately became Leonard Bernstine.
Bernstein’s moniker metamorphosis also happened to coincide with an ethnic-identity surge that had afflicted many Jews in recent years. They seemed to feel that pronouncing their names the way they were pronounced in European countries from which their grandparents fled in horror was a worthwhile endeavor. Go figure.
I don’t see this identity crowd as primarily to blame for the pronunciation hassles I must now endure, however. In my view they have simply done collateral damage in this regard. The steen/stine confusion is primarily due to that Lennie guy.
It’s gotten to the point that I’ve toyed with the idea of changing the spelling of my name to “Silversteen” to eliminate, or at least lessen, opportunities for mispronunciation. Or maybe even going whole hog and changing my name to Smith. If I did go the latter route, though, I just know some public figure named Smith would start pronouncing his last name Smythe, the Anglo-Saxon ethnic-identity crowd would sign on, and the hassles would start again.
Michael Silverstein is a Philadelphia-based writer and can be reached at [email protected].
Pamela Bernstein says
Thank you! Your article confirms what I suspected all along — just how closely did subsequent generations hold to the original pronunciation…
I had assumed that as an “ein” as opposed to “ien” spelling relegated my name to “Steen” rather than “Stine”. As I got older I found that rule didn’t seem to apply.
I know have an answer for myself and others who keep asking me “what determines the pronunciation?”
Dr. T.C.Halle says
I found this piece by Mr. Silverstein to be very refreshing. As it happens, I’ve been enjoying the N.Y. Philharmonic New Year’s Eve concert tonight–honoring conductor Leonard Bernstein…but have found it irksome..to hear his name rendered “Bernstine,” over and over again (w/o exception) when I have heard it pronounced at least dozens of times–through the years–as “Bernsteen!!” Yes, with the name Anglicized, but this has been a relatively frequent practice in the USA (and elsewhere, such as the UK). Hell, I don’t pronounce my own name as it is vocalized in “Deutschland!!” (but the same as Halle Berry does her first name)!! ; )
And, I have appreciated this author’s words….EVEN MORE…in light of some other articles dressings us down for having “mispronounced the name (you ignorant rubes!!)!!” Apparently when the man was Lenny, he DID go for the “steen” version. …and only much later (when he got a bit huffy, perhaps) did he switch to the “stine” one…so GIVE US A BREAK, PEOPLE!!!
Sorry I still don’t know how Leonard himself pronounced his last name. So many words. Little clarity.
It is really quite simple. In German “ie” is pronounced like English “ee”, and German “ei” is pronounced like English “eye”. Thus the original German “Stein” is pronounced like “stine” and not “steen”. Furthermore, the word “Stein” means “stone”. Of course, in America and/or other English speaking lands names such as Weinstein, Silberstein, and Bernstein were mispronounced with “steen” at the end, but local common practice certainly does not make this right. And while we are on the subject of those specific names, why do people say “Weinstein” like “Wine-steen” instead of “Ween-steen”? And that should clearly point out that “ein” is never “een”. One should also think of Albert Einstein and realize how silly it would sound to say either “Eyen-steen” or even “Een-steen”. Yes, Lennie may have gone by Leonard as he grew up. But then that is common for a grown man to give up his childhood nickname. Similarly “Bern-steen” may have been ok in America, but as he began conducting abroad it must have become clear that the rest of the world pronounced his name with “stine”. Don’t forget that he was conducting the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic. Lastly, if you really want to get specific one could look into the origins of these names. Obviously they came from European cultures where our American “ee” sound had no place. The horrors of what was perpetrated during World War II, or any other war, can not erase the fact that Germanic languages existed for hundreds of years even before the ideologies that led to those wars. Thus although one may have the right to pronounce their own name however they may choose, such a change to adapt to a new environment only further removes one from their own past and the history of their name. I encourage everyone to be more tolerant of those who are not afraid to be called by the proper and original pronounciation of their name. This is not, as some have been quick to judge, to be pompous or pretentious. And having some knowledge of how our names are pronounced in the rest of the world (or even originally) does not necessarily mean that one is now looking down on the ignorance of those who do not know this.
James McKeel says
Thank you, Paul!
Right on the money. In the end people will pronounce names they way they want to or learned to, but that’s no reason to make the Americanized version gospel. I’m a voice teacher and when my students need to pronounce German they need to know the rules.
Peter Harms says
beautifully put. Bravo Paul.
Howard Brown says
Life would have been less confusing if Lenny had changed his name to its English translation: Amber.
Then he could have named his daughter Ewig.
Mary Farrell says
Thank you for this article. As a child I went to one of Mr. Bernstein’s children’s concerts in Washington, D.C., and I may not remember much of what the orchestra played (beyond “Peter and the Wolf”) but I distinctly remember him telling us he was NOT “Bernstine” but rather “Bernsteen.” I long worried that the Stine pronunciation was disrespectful, but it was just more evolved 😉
People seem to be assuming that families have much control over how their surname is pronounced. I’m guessing that immigrants with names ending in -ein would have preferred the locals pronounced it as -ine, but simply gave up trying to correct them.
Erwin Krause says
Another problem with changing the “ei” vowel combo to “ee“ is that you may actually change the meaning of the name by doing so. Example: Anthony Weiner pronounces his name „Weener“. Weiner(Winer) is an occupational surname: one who is somehow connected to the wine industry. Wiener (Weener) refers to one‘s ancestral homeland. His forefathers came from Wien (Vienna) pronounced “Veen” in German. (I apologize for using using Anthony as an example)
Simon Varnstein says
I will agree with Paul here. My name is pronounced Varn-stine, and even Varn-shtine if you want to do it the proper way. My parents immigrated from Germany during WW2 and i would take it as an insult to their memory if people called me Varn-steen. I have no problem correcting people about it, and saying “like Einstein”. Would you say Dwight Ee-senhower? Obviously not. It funny how second or third generation jew migrants can’t pronounce their own name and just get along with it. It reminds me of this bit from Louis CK about native Americans… we clearly know now Columbus didn’t discover India, but we’re like “nah, you’re Indians”.
Thomas Hukari says
I walked by a high school gym years ago and heard choral students rehearsing The Sound Of Music thusly: “Eedelwees, Eedelwees…”