The Name of the Game: How to pronounce LaTeX correctly (once and for all – or not)

In this post, I want to address the question of how to pronounce “LaTeX”. And explain to you, why this question cannot be answered if you want to take the investigation seriously. It turns out to be a classical Humanities’ style thinking kind of logical dilemma.  Unlike other explanations, I dont’ want to provide an answer (because there isn’t one) but rather explain why this question is not just a matter of “knowing how it’s pronounced” and thereby, show why we need the Humanities.

Description of the current situation

There are multiple pronounciations currently in use which are all considered to be more or less valid. But it can sometimes come to holy wars if you refuse to adopt the accepted pronounciation at large in your social or work environment. This is why I want to prove in this article that the question of how to pronounce “LaTeX” is actually a logical dilemma we can’t solve. I thus invite everyone not to be aggressive about the pronounciation convention of your choosing.

The most important pronounciations are:

  1. either “Lay” or “lah” for the first syllable (no holy wars involved)
  2. and, here’s where it gets complicated: “tec”, “tech” or “teks”.

As I said above, it is ok to use any pronounciation of your liking as there is no unified pronounciation anyway and probably won’t ever be. In the following, however, I’d like to deconstruct some of the prescriptive texts indicating there was one “correct” pronounciation. I do this to show that

a) we don’t have the solution for every problem,

b) for some problems, there probably won’t ever be a solution

c) if you’re an asshole to someone because they don’t use your favourite pronounciation, you do this because you’re an asshole and not because you’re right.

Collection of some prescriptive texts available to us

We learn from the LaTeX project’s about site:

LaTeX, which is pronounced «Lah-tech» or «Lay-tech» (to rhyme with «blech» or «Bertolt Brecht»), is a document preparation system for high-quality typesetting. It is most often used for medium-to-large technical or scientific documents but it can be used for almost any form of publishing.

LaTeX is not a word processor! Instead, LaTeX encourages authors not to worry too much about the appearance of their documents but to concentrate on getting the right content.

According to the [Wikipedia article](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaTeX#Pronouncing_and_writing_%22LaTeX%22) ), Donald Knuth wanted the word to be pronounced like the Ancient Greek techné which is why the “German” pronounciation with “ch” is recommended by the [LaTeX project site](https://www.latex-project.org/about/). They also don’t mention one very common mistake present in many other explanations:

Just asking for a pronounciaiton like ch, in fact, is super unclear because the pronounciation of “ch” varies a lot in different languages and even in German, there are two slightly different versions of it (Ach-Laut & Ich-Laut). In “Blech” or “Brecht”, like the example suggests, it’s the Ich-Laut, but what Knuth really meant, was definititely more on the side of the Ach-Laut. Why I think that is will be explained in the section about Problem II / the conclusion.

Also, when they write “Brecht”, we don’t even know if they mean the ‘correct’ German pronounciation or the very common English mispronounciation which is more like “kh”. This holds true for most examples where the explanation is written in English but uses German words as examples. How the hell are we supposed to know which one they mean? This is is where engineers who find general education to be superfluous err in the dark and aren’t even aware that they might have overlooked a problem. (I hope to convince all the engineers out there that the Humanities are imporant, valuable to everyone and not a superfluous thing because they don’t seem to have pratical, real-life uses if you don’t bother taking a close look. Not unlike computer science, the Humanities promise to teach you ‘how to think clearly’ – a skill which is definitely high in demand and useful, even necessary, for programming.)

Problem 1: Ach- and Ich-Laut

Now check out this Wikipedia section:

The final consonant of TeX (on which LaTeX is based) is intended by its developer to be pronounced similar to ‘loch’ or ‘Bach’. However, English speakers often pronounce it /ˈtɛk/, like the first syllable of technical.

The characters T, E, X in the name come from the Greek capital letters tauepsilon, and chi, as the name of TeX derives from the Greekτέχνη (skill, art, technique); for this reason, TeX’s creator Donald Knuth promotes a pronunciation of /tɛx/ (tekh)[15] (that is, with a voiceless velar fricative as in Modern Greek, similar to the ch in loch). Lamport writes “TeX is usually pronounced tech, making lah-teck, lah-teck, and lay-teck the logical choices; but language is not always logical, so lay-tecks is also possible.”

First thing: I had to Google to find out that ‘loch’ and ‘Bach’ are actually pronounced more or less the same way. However, I suspect that the correct Scottish ‘loch’ should be deeper down the throat than (correct) German ‘Bach’ (no ks involved). Seeing as English speakers usually pronounce it “lock” and “Back”, I assumed “lock” was the correct pronounciation but the correct Scottisch one is really “loch”, more or less like the correctly pronounced German “Ach-Laut” (both being produced in the back of the throat).

Getting back to the actual problem (the pronounciation of “LaTeX”), this information is misleading and Knuth also explicitly calls for the pronounciation as “kH” (what we think the sound in Greek techné was supposed to be pronounced like). “kH”, however, is not what ‘loch’ and ‘Bach’ are pronounced like. So confusing…

Now see the following quote from the TeX Book, Chapter 1, page 1 (highlighting added to make some points):

Chapter 1: The Name of the Game

English words like ‘technology’ stem from a Greek root beginning with the letters τ χ; and this same Greek word means art as well as technology. Hence the name TEX, which is an uppercase form of τ χ. Insiders pronounce the χ of TEX as a Greek chi, not as an ‘x’, so that TEX rhymes with the word blecchhh.

It’s the ‘ch’ sound in Scottish words like loch or German words like ach; it’s a Spanish ‘j’ and a Russian ‘kh’. When you say it correctly to your computer, the terminal may become slightly moist.

The purpose of this pronunciation exercise is to remind you that TEX is primarily concerned with high-quality technical manuscripts: Its emphasis is on art and technology, as in the underlying Greek word.

If you merely want to produce a passably good document—something acceptable and basically readable but not really beautiful—a simpler system will usually suffice. With TEX the goal is to produce the finest quality; this requires more attention to detail, but you will not find it much harder to go the extra distance, and you’ll be able to take special pride in the finished product.

On the other hand, it’s important to notice another thing about TEX’s name: The ‘E’ is out of kilter. This displaced ‘E’ is a reminder that TEX is about typesetting, and it distinguishes TEX from other system names. In fact, TEX (pronounced tecks) is the admirable Text EXecutive processor developed by Honeywell Information Systems. Since these two system names are pronounced quite differently, they should also be spelled differently.

The correct way to refer to TEX in a computer file, or when using some other medium that doesn’t allow lowering of the ‘E’, is to type ‘TeX’.

The [German Wikipedia](https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/LaTeX#Aussprache_und_Schreibweise_von_%E2%80%9ELaTeX%E2%80%9C) confusingly explains it differently (why??):

Die Zeichen T, E, X im Namen kommen von den griechischen Großbuchstaben TauEpsilon und Chi, so wie sich auch der Name von TeX aus dem griechischen τέχνη (Geschicklichkeit, Kunst, Technik) ableitet. Aus diesem Grund bestimmte TeX-Erfinder Donald E. Knuth die Aussprache als [ˈlaːtɛx], das heißt mit einem stimmlosen velaren Frikativ („Ach-Laut“) wie im Neugriechischen. Dagegen äußerte Leslie Lamport, er schreibe keine bestimmte Aussprache für LaTeX vor.[19]

Die von Knuth bestimmte Aussprache bereitet nichtgriechischen Muttersprachlern oft Schwierigkeiten. Daher herrscht im Deutschen die Aussprache [ˈlaːtɛç] mit einem stimmlosen palatalen Frikativ vor („Ich-Laut“), im Englischen die Aussprachen [ˈlɑːtɛk] oder [ˈleɪtɛk]. Die Aussprache mit x [ks] ist unüblich.

In this, at least to the truly attentive reader, there is some general awareness to the fact that Ich- (after i,äöü and e) and Ach-Laut (after a,o,u) are not the same thing. And, instead of “prescribing” a correct solution, the article merely states how the word currently is being pronounced in different regions.

The Ich-Laut is produced by “pushing air between your teeth” (sorry for this bad and slightly ridiculous , but nevertheless useful, explanation) while the Ach-Laut is produced in the back of the throat. The Ich-Laut is a fricative (stimmloser palataler Frikativ, to be exact) and is actually related to the ‘h’ from ‘huge’.

Ich-Laut: The phoneme /ç/ of the German language, the sound of the letters ch in German coming immediately after ä, e, i, ö and ü, also found in other languages. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ich-laut

Ach-Laut: The guttural phoneme /x/ (the voiceless velar fricative) of the German language, the sound of the letters ch in German coming immediately after a, o and u (central and back vowels), also found in other languages. https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ach-laut#English

The Ach-Laut is the version of “ch” after a, o or u and called stimmloser velarer bzw. uvularer FrikativAlso, linguist’s please don’t kill me, neither of the ‘ach’ nor ‘ich’ sounds are like ‘technical’ which is “kH”. Please correct me if I’m wrong about that. I think it’s likely Ancient Greek techné should have something created in the back of the throat like an Ach-Laut. The German Ach-Laut, however, is not compatible with e, like in TeX. Also, the Ich-Laut is very far away from containing something like a k which is being asked for, even if it’s aspirated and barely audible. 

Another example definition, for illustration purposes. The point, however, is already clear, I expect.

The name TeX is intended by its developer to be /’tɛx/, /x/ being the velar fricative, the final consonant of loch and Bach. (Donald E. Knuth, The TeXbook) The letters of the name are meant to represent the capital Greek letters tau, epsilon, and chi, as TeX is an abbreviation of τέχνη (ΤΕΧΝΗ – technē), Greek for both “art” and “craft”, which is also the root word of technical. English speakers often pronounce it /’tɛk/, like the first syllable of technical. ( [LaTeX Wikibook](https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/LaTeX/Introduction) )

And the same thing from Overleaf:

LATEX (pronounced LAY-tek or LAH-tek) is a tool used to create professional-looking documents. It is based on the WYSIWYM (what you see is what you mean) idea, meaning you only have focus on the contents of your document and the computer will take care of the formatting. Instead of spacing out text on a page to control formatting, as with Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer, users can enter plain text and let LATEX take care of the rest. ( [Overleaf’s Learn LaTeX in 30 minutes](https://www.overleaf.com/learn/latex/Learn_LaTeX_in_30_minutes) )

These definitions, while they don’t really clear things up, show that there is a logical problem with the explanation provided by our master Knuth himself! Bach and Blech certainly don’t use the same ch sound. While the explanation that TeX chi should be pronounced somewhat like in loch or Bach is technically correct, the German sound in Bach cannot be used with after an e. So the Bach example is void and null if we wanted to use it to explain the pronounciation of TeX. Computer Science people from the TeX scene probably weren’t aware until now that they would need help from the Humanities to solve this question. Sadly, a lot of people generally seem to think the work Humanities people do is useless. But it is not. If we ignore it, a lot of our “arguments” are just void and null because we’re not aware of the flaws inherent in them. Language is complicated. They definitely got that right in the Wikipedia definition!

Back to the starting points for the investigation

To sum it all up, we know two things:

  1. First, Donald Knuth wanted TeX to be pronounced like Ancient Greek techné.
  2. Some hints suggest it should be pronounced like Scottisch loch, German Bach or Brecht. But we already learned how they were bad examples.

We encounter a plethora of problems here, if we look closely and ask what exactly is meant by those two statements. This is a good example to show why we need the Digital Humanities: In Computer Science, we usually take big complicated problems and break them down into small, simple ones. In the Humanities, most of the time, the closer we look the more complicated seemingly trivial problems become.

Problem 2: We actually have not much of a clue about how exactly Ancient Greek techné was or is to be pronounced

If we wanted to go the trouble and find out, in a scientifically correct way, how Ancient Greek chi was pronounced, we would do best to trace from which Phoenician sounds chi came and how it transformed when Ancient Greek words were introduced into Latin because we know a lot more about how to pronounce Latin than Ancient Greek.

And then, we would have to consider that Ancient Greek had many very different sounding dialects and was by no means a uniform language. This might have been done in Allen 1987’s  Vox Graeca (in the Resources section) which I didn’t bother to consult in preparation for this post. But, as we can see from the explanations above, this seemingly simple problem quickly leads us to a truly Socratic aporia.

Also, another thing is: It is likely that Knuth was a learned man but still probably not fully aware of the subtleties of Classics / Ancient Greek scholarship. So when he prescriptively said, TeX should be pronounced like Ancient Greek techné, he didn’t know (or didn’t take into account or didn’t care) that we can’t tell for sure how techné really was pronounced in Ancient Greek. This means, he probably had a specific modern restitution of the sound in mind but we can’t be sure which one.

Also, it would most certainly defy what he wanted if we just picked one we think he likely wanted used because – if this “staying true to the Classics” thing” was important to him and it’s certainly seems so – , I assume, he would have considered it more important that we pronounce it correctly according to Ancient Greek.

This however, requires information we don’t have. Logical dilemma. This is why we need the Digital Humanities. A Humanist probably finds it fascinating to think about this problem while a Computer Science kind of person probably is more than fed up with it by now already. They will probably just want a prescriptive “right answer”. In fact, I kept multiple students, researchers and professors of Ancient Greek busy for a few hours in total, discussing the question of how to pronounce Chi. The conclusion is that we know it phonetically is a “velar fricative”, so not pronounced between the teeth, like a German pronounciation like “Technik” would suggest. And we also know, the sound is considered something like “kh”, so there has to be some k sound involved, even if it’s very slight. Quite in accord with Karl Popper’s idea of falsificationism, we were not able to provide a correct solution but we were, in fact, able to falsify the German “ich-Laut”.

This is the beauty of the Humanities. A right answer would stop you from becoming a philosopher. The ability to cope with uncertainty is what makes you different from a machine (at least for a few more years to come, hopefully). So I invite you to reflect about this some more 😉

With this, I leave you for today.

Best,

the Ninja

And thanks, by the way, to my Humanist friends who happily discussed the linguistic problem with me (and helped a lot, of course!).

 

Resources

W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca: A Guide to the Pronounciation of Classical Greek, Cambridge 1987.

Donald E. Knuth, The TeXbook, Boston 1986.

 

 

Aporia (Ancient Greekᾰ̓πορῐ́ᾱtranslit. aporíālit. ‘impasse, difficulty in passage, lack of resources, puzzlement’) denotes in philosophy a philosophical puzzle or state of puzzlement and in rhetoric a rhetorically useful expression of doubt. (Wikipedia).

Socrates was known to humiliate “experts” by asking them seemingly trivial questions about their area of expertise which would end in a philosophical dilemma where they ended up having to admit they didn’t have the answer. A very useful method which, in fact, you can still use today, in order to elegantly unmask incompetency around you. Please, use with caution though.

 

 

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