Any discussion about Immanuel Kant nearly always turns into a disparity over the elocution of his surname (Kant); by looking at his bibliography, we can make a reasonable assumption of how his surname should be pronounced. Various philosophy blogs and social media groups contain online memes that make a jest of equivocating the late philosophers last name. The problem is that these memes play off a common mispronunciation. Unfortunately, due to his celebrity status and citizenship of an historical sovereign state his last name is often mispronounced, and this is the point of contention. I understand the pettiness of this topic so I’ll be brief in my explication. But I do believe, as an academic and student of philosophy, that we must aspire for precision and rigor. What has been irksome for me is hearing the name Kant pronounced with the American English homonym “can’t”. The word “can’t” uses a short vowel ă which is equivalent to the phoneme /a/ in canyon or candle. However, to say “can’t” (the contraction for the English verb “cannot”) is a mispronunciation of the late philosophers surname.So we must answer the hard question, what actually can be considered the proper pronunciation of Kant? To understand this lets first take a brief exploration into his bibliography. Immanuel Kant was a 18th century Prussian/German philosopher born in the Kingdom of Prussia in April of 1724, in the capital city of Koenigsberg. The city of Koenigsberg is where the late philosopher would spend most of his life. He attended the University of Koenigsberg as a student and later a lecturer. Kant is considered a heavyweight in terms of his contributions to the enlightenment period and philosophy. His most famous works, known as the three works, are generally considered to be the magnum opus of his philosophy. With his three works as well as his three critiques, Kant gives us a profound incite into the limitations of metaphysics, epistemology, and moral reasoning. I wont try to recreate his philosophy here because that’s not the purpose of this article. Perhaps attempting to give a summation of Kantian philosophy in a few short paragraphs would be a bastardization no matter how well intentioned.
Before we move on we must dispel a tiresome rumor that the Germans have the correct pronunciation. Modern day Germans somehow perceive themselves as an authority on Kant. This claim is weakened when we consider several key historical pieces of evidence. Yes, while Immanuel Kant was ‘ethnically‘ German he was born in the capital city of Koenigsberg in the Eastern Kingdom of Prussia. Today the city of Kaliningrad (formerly Koenigsberg) is now an enclave of Russia. It is located just northeast of Poland and Lithuania, nowhere near a German border. Lastly, Kant never traveled more than 100 miles away from his home in Koenigsberg. Which would mean Immanuel Kant never stepped foot in what is modern day Germany. And so it is therefore we can say with a degree of confidence that the modern German pronunciation of the late philosophers surname is likely incorrect. This is also hinted by the fact that modern day Germans speak a kind of standard German dialect called High German; this of course can vary by region. Kant likely spoke a German dialect called plautdietsch or low Prussian. I say ‘likely’ because in Prussia’s former capital there were a mixture of various low-German dialects known as a dialectical continuum. Unfortunately, plautdietsch has no formal orthography (writing system). This sub-dialect is also considered a moribund language or endangered language only spoken by a few thousand of its native inhabitants. This is possibly due to a phenomenon known as language shifting, which historically will often occur due to the shifting of political powers within a region. When this happens the ruling language is then seen as more sophisticated as it becomes associated with its ruling class.
Think of the British accent you know today which is known as received pronunciation or BBC. Coined by British-English linguist AJ Ellis, which sought to bring a classification of phonetic language in British society. This RP accent became the standard of the aristocracy and social elite during the 19th century during the reign of Queen Victoria. BBC has now become the standard English accent across the country, and is also the name of Britain’s major media news network BBC news. This is but one example of how historically languages change due to class prejudice and social status. There is a wonderful video by the historic linguistic scholar Jackson Crawford PhD., who explains this phenomena in more specific detail. I make this point because during Kant’s lifetime the city of Koenigsberg (now Kaliningrad) was the de facto political capital of Prussia. Although he traveled for work as a tutor, spending nearly nine years in Arnsdorf, it is an historical fact that Immanuel Kant was born and spent much of his career in the northeastern Prussian capital of Koenigsberg. Again, we must take into account that this region spoke a mix of German dialects. However, given the fact Immanuel Kant was an academic professor at the University of Koenigsberg and tutor for the aristocratic nobility, meant that he would have likely spoken eastern plautdietsch. Once again, this dialect was associated with Prussia’s then ruling class and aristocracy. Another point of contention is Kant’s father because this would be where the late philosopher received his surname. ‘Johann Georg Kant‘, was a merchant tradesman part of the Hanseatic League. The Hanse were an organized merchant coalition who traded throughout northern Germany and Denmark but mainly operated out the port city of Lübeck and Koenigsberg. Historically Lübeck spoke middle low-German. This would mean that low-German would have been a familiar dialect to the senior Kant. Notwithstanding, that Johann G. Kant was a merchant by trade and would have likely been familiar with several German dialects of the Baltic region. However, it is historically written that he also lived most of his life in Koenigsberg where he passed away in March of 1746. So this leaves little doubt that the Kant family was acculturated into that region where the values, customs, and dialectical language would have been adopted.
If you’ve managed to read this far then please let me apologize for the long-winded exposition. But given the bibliography and historical facts we can say with all likelihood that Kant and his family spoke a German dialect of Eastern Plautdietsch. Eastern Plautdietsch differs from Plattdeutsch or Pratt which is considered another low-German dialect. The slight difference between Eastern Plautdietsch and Western Plattdeutsch is the constants with the former dialect having a mixture of Dutch. In the northeastern region of Prussia, Kant would likely be pronounced closer to the middle Dutch word khant: which means the side of or face of an object. Derived from the Middle Low German kant(e) ‘edge’, ‘corner’. And that would be how you properly pronounce Immanuel Kant’s last name. If you are still skeptical here are 104 videos of academic lecturers and social critics that pronounce the late philosophers surname properly.