How to Pronounce Louis Brandeis

17Oct16

(I have been doing this blog for so long that I am starting to lose track of what I have written. I thought I had addressed this issue in an earlier post but I cannot find it. If I do find an earlier post on this subject, I will probably delete it in favor of this one.)

I have discovered a series of YouTube videos that seem to have been created by robots that are trying to teach humans how to speak English correctly. There is even one that claims to show the correct pronunciation of Louis Brandeis. The most striking thing about this video is that it is dead wrong and is unfortunately muddying what is already a divisive (in the most minor way possible) issue: whether Brandeis’s first name is pronounced Lou-is or Lou-ee. The robots claim it is Lou-is, but are they right?

The final word on this raging controversy has to be Todd C. Peppers in his article “A Justice by Any Other Name: the Case of Louis D. Brandeis,” which was published on pages 8-9 in the Volume 19, 2nd issue of The Supreme Court Historical Society Quarterly. (Unfortunately, I cannot find any copies of this article online.) Apparently, during a conversation with Brandeis’s grandson Frank Gilbert, Peppers made the mistake of referring to Brandeis as “Lou-is.” Gilbert quickly corrected him: “It was pronounced ‘Lou-ee’ not ‘Lou-is’.” After having heard it pronounced “Lou-is” his entire life, Peppers was intrigued and decided to look further into the matter. Brandeis’s other grandchildren, Alice Popkin and Walter Raushenbush also confirmed the “Lou-ee” pronunciation and he uncovered anecdotes about Brandeis’s daughter Elizabeth Raushenbush and the son of Brandeis’s law partner Edward McClennen that confirmed it as well.

One would think that this would be persuasive enough, but Brandeis biographer Lewis Paper holds a contrarian view. He suggests that Brandeis used the “Lou-ee” among close acquaintances and that he used “Lou-is” in formal and professional situations. One can understand his reluctance to accept what seems like unimpeachable evidence. Nowadays the name “Lou-ee” seems more appropriate for a pool hustler than a Supreme Court justice. But, not only is there no historical evidence for this dual pronunciation, I would argue that there is plenty of circumstantial evidence against it.

First of all, there is Brandeis’s uncle Lewis Dembitz. Dembitz’s first name was originally Ludwig, but once he emigrated to America, he anglicized it to Lewis. Lewis is clearly pronounced “Lou-is.” If Brandeis’s parents wanted their son’s name to be pronounced “Lou-is” surely they would have spelled it the same as his uncle’s.

Secondly, Brandeis is the only one of his siblings to have been born in Louisville, Kentucky. There is no evidence to back this up, but I have have always felt that he was given the name Louis in honor of their new home. And as natives from the city are quick to point out, the city’s name is pronounced “Lou-ee-ville,” not “Lou-is-ville.”

And for a final bit of evidence, we can look to, of all places, HBO’s comedy Veep (or for you classicists out there, Seinfeld). Actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus has always had to tell people, her name is pronounced “Lou-ee-Dreyfus” not “Lou-is-Dreyfus.” As she explained in an interview once, “It’s a French thing.” That is why Louisville is pronounced the way it is; it is named after the French king Louis XVI. And Brandeis’s parents were cultured people, and the idea of 19th century cultured people giving their children names with French pronunciation is not that extreme.

But what about those YouTube robots? Should artificial intelligence finally be considered more accurate than human intelligence? Apparently not. Not only do they mis-pronounce Louis but they can’t even pronounce Brandeis right.

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