Pronunciation of “Winnetou”
Page 1 of 1

Author:  Philip Colston [ Thu Apr 03, 2008 6:05 am ]
Post subject:  Pronunciation of “Winnetou”

I had always taken for granted that the legendary, beautiful name “Winnetou” was properly pronounced “Vinnetou”, according to the German manner. English names in Karl May’s stories, such as “Old Shatterhand”, were clearly meant to be pronounced in the English manner. But it seems that most, if not all, of the names of American Indian characters were spelt phonetically—in German, which would make “Vinnetou” the correct pronunciation (from the standpoint of English).

This seems to be in line with a mysterious feature of Winnetou’s Silver Rifle. Karl May had the Silver Rifle and the Bear Killer built to order by a gunsmith, and the butt stock of the former has a design that looks like a “V”, made in silver tacks. This design was followed for the rifles used in the 1960s films. The question is: is the “V” meant to be a letter, and if so, is it meant to signify “Vinnetou”? It would imply that Winnetou had the design added to, or altered, after inheriting the rifle from his father, Intschu-Tschuna. If this is so, it would mean that the English spelling of Winnetou’s unique name is in fact “Vinnetou”, and that the spelling “Winnetou” is a German phoneticisation.

Here is a link to a picture of Karl May’s own rifles:


Interestingly, one aspect of the television mini-series Winnetous Rückkehr (Winnetou’s Return), 1998, that earned scorn amongst May fans is the fact that the rifle used in it had a “W” in the design of silver tacks.

I wonder if any-one can confirm that “Winnetou” is meant to be a German phoneticisation of a name that would be spelt “Vinnetou” in English? :?: :?:

Author:  Bill [ Thu Apr 03, 2008 12:54 pm ]
Post subject:  Winnetou's rifle

Hello Philip - the left side of Winnetou's gun carries letters "V" one above the other; the right side letters N and S. Here we have another puzzle in the mystique of May's famous rifles: The letters N.S. point more to Mexican or Spanish origin, as they could stand for "Nuestra Senora." The double V V could mean "Virgo Virginum." At least this is one of the explanations.

Author:  Philip Colston [ Fri Apr 04, 2008 7:20 am ]
Post subject: 

Hello, Bill,

I always presumed that the “V” on the stock of the Silver Rifle was a single V with doubled tacking to give the figure more body. But now that you mention it, it certainly could be two Vs superimposed, or even a stylised “W”. It is amazing how much there is to learn and discover about Karl May!

Several months ago, I saw a booklet on the topic of Karl May’s three rifles for sale on eBay Germany. It looked fascinating, but the seller did not ship overseas, so I could not bid (he never answered my query about a previous item, so I did not try again in that instance). Do you know of this book, and of where it could be obtained? I thought I had saved the information to my files, but I can not find it now.

I would be interested to know what you think about the pronunciation of “Winnetou”. I had presumed the English V-sound, which is the way it is pronounced in Germany. But there are Indian names with the prefix Winne- (phoneticised in English), such as the Winnebago tribe of Nebraska, and Chief Winnemucca of the Northern Paiute. (By the way, the following account—


—is very interesting in that the characteristics ascribed to Winnemucca are highly consistent with Karl May’s principles, and with the elevated nature of Winnetou.) So, it could be that the term “Winnetou” was meant by May as an English phoneticisation, to be properly pronounced with the English W-sound.

Author:  Bill [ Sat Apr 05, 2008 2:31 am ]
Post subject: 

My greetings to you Philip! As you are aware much has been written in the past years about the origin of the name Winnetou. Karl May never disclosed precisely how he came to it. Speculations are plentiful; however no one knows for certain the origin of the name. You have quite rightly and with great insight pointed out one important detail, the question of either “W” or superimposed double “V”s on the rifle. Allegedly this gun has been procured by May after the Winnetou story had been written. In such case Karl May would have had something to say to the gunsmith about the “W” or “V”s. However the gunsmith could have had the rifle in stock as such, even with the NS on the right side of the rifle (I do not dare to speculate about the third possibility that the gun is authentic, simply because I would be laughed at by all the so-called KM experts).

As far as the name “Winnetou” is concerned. Right from the beginning Karl May used “W”. As you know the pronunciation differs in English and German, even if the word is spelled the same in both languages, as in “winter”. Again there are two possibilities: Had May used in German “Vinnetou” it would have been pronounced “Finnetou”; this would sound awful. On the other hand my impression is because Karl May was well acquainted with the Red Indian culture and history; he therefore went along with what he knew from there. Here comes your opinion that May followed the Indian names’ usage [Thank you for pointing up the w-page on chief Winnemuca].

Unfortunately I do not know the book you mentioned; perhaps it will surface again later somewhere?

BTW there is also a discussion on the Silver rifle of Winnetou and the two Old Shatterhand’s rifles in “Wild West: Red Indians and the Frontier Men”.

Author:  Philip Colston [ Sat Apr 05, 2008 11:53 am ]
Post subject: 


As was discussed on the other thread you cited, double-barrelled rifles (as opposed to shotguns) were not very common in the Old West, despite their popularity in England and Europe, and with white hunters in Africa. Colt’s did produce a very limited quantity of their 1878 model double-barrelled shotgun as rifles (in calibre .45-70), for friends of Sam Colt’s son, who took over the firm after his father died. And some English and European double rifles certainly did reach the Old West. By the time double rifles chambered for metallic cartridges were available, repeaters had already reached the market, and these became wildly popular in the West. Many of May’s adventures occurred in this transitional period, where all sorts of guns were in use, from flintlocks to lever-action repeaters like the Henry rifle and its Winchester descendants.

Karl May describes the Silver Rifle and Bear Killer as muzzle-loaders, taking powder and bullets or balls at the front end of the barrels, and the two rifles owned by May are of this kind. It makes sense for the chronology involved, and many muzzle-loaders were used even after the cartridge guns came out. (In the films, for convenience, the guns are cartridge types.)

The Silver Rifle is a most unusual gun, with a stock styled in an archaic manner reminiscent to those of 17th century shoulder arms. I have never seen anything like it with provenance to the Old West, but that does not mean that a custom-made double rifle, with ornate Germanic styling could not have made it to the West, where Intschu-Tschuna somehow acquired it! There are other one-of-a-kind arms from the Old West.

I think it is exceedingly unlikely that the Silver Rifle was anything a gunsmith would simply have in stock, even in Germany. And the Bear Killer is unusually large. It resembles a mid-19th century elephant gun, except for the ornate trigger guard and belling at the muzzles of the barrels. It is a well conceived rifle.

Now, Bill, you are treading into subject matter that is very complex, but which we must ultimately introduce on this forum. It is my opinion that Karl May actually was Old Shatterhand. The precise meaning of this is another matter. I think it is possible for individuals to create their own reality, and I do not consider this process in any way a form of mental illness. Yes, Karl May suffered from emotional problems in his youth (quite understandably, for a sensitive genius born into desperate poverty), well-detailed and explained in your excellent book Karl May: A Medical Casebook. But by the time he was a successful author, all of this was behind him. His work, and his indefatigable work schedule through the years, evinces a man of rock-solid mental stability, as you pointed out in the book.

The question is really: did Karl May actually travel to America, become Old Shatterhand, and meet a great, young Indian chief—or is this part of an alternate reality, though not necessarily less real than ours? The bona fide Karl May researchers may laugh (and I hold that kind of laugh in contempt), but this is a legitimate question. There is so much accurate detail in May’s work that it is hard to imagine research conducted from Germany under the conditions of the Victorian era could have provided all of it. On the other hand, there are chronological problems. While Karl May could have travelled to America, it does not seem that there was sufficient time for all of the adventures (though of course, May could have combined real and fictitious events in his stories).

I think that we will ultimately have to embark on discussion of this topic on a separate thread. I hope that forum readers are not somehow put off by it. { :?: Are you out there, readers? Why not make yourselves heard here? :?: }

To return to the subject of the pronunciation of “Winnetou”: Karl May did phoneticise many Indian names in the German manner, as in the case of Intschu-Tschuna and Nscho-Tschi, Winnetou’s father and sister. And as I stated at the outset, I always assumed that “Winnetou” was properly pronounced “Vinnetou” (as phoneticised in English). But the name Winnetou is so special (as is the character), that perhaps May reproduced an English phoneticisation. This is supported by other Indian names with the Winne- prefix. I am beginning to suspect that “Winnetou” might properly commence with the English W-sound........

Author:  Bill [ Sat Apr 05, 2008 3:18 pm ]
Post subject: 

Hello Philip - I read with great interest your post. To the rifles - just a few notes: The "Henrystutzen" really is a Winchester 1866 King patent Sporting rifle calibre 38 (= 9,652 mm). What is less known is that the original barrels of the Winnetou's Silver rifle were stolen by a visitor to the Karl May Museum. They were replaced by what is on show now. The Silver rifle’s stock some consider to be of Mexican origin. You have mentioned that you have never seen anything like that coming from the Old West – indeed if the rifle originated further down south. The Bear killer (Burton 1855 kent = engraving on the barrel) according to some was a gun used on elephants. A peculiarity is that each barrel has its own front sight (instead of aiming through the low between the two barrels). The gun weights 10, 40 kg – some weight to carry! The ornate trigger guards on the rifles some consider have been added in Europe.

There is a long time period during Karl May’s young years, about which nothing is known for sure. It occurred to me many a time that May’s knowledge of local scenery and conditions was too good to be acquired only from books. Of course any narrative could have been superimposed onto personal knowledge of real localities as May could have seen. Discussion on this subjects is long overdue, in particular because the German researches were, are still are, not familiar with local conditions of the places May described in such intimate details (acquired where from?). When I was younger I planned to visit all the places May described, but life commitments were against it. The “Silver Lake” which I saw is however exactly the same.

To the pronunciation of “Winnetou” – in my opinion you are absolutely right in what you say.

Author:  Philip Colston [ Sun Apr 06, 2008 8:38 am ]
Post subject: 


Many thanks for adding that very interesting information! I thought that the Bear Killer looked English in style. Indeed, the elephant gun of the mid-19th century was typically a large-bore English double rifle. I had noticed the individual sights. The double rifle was developed from the double shotgun, which itself had been brought to its essential perfection in the English fowling pieces of the late flintlock era (early 1800s). A shotgun typically has a small bead at the muzzle, between the barrels, to aid in sighting (though it is not strictly necessary, since a shotgun shoots not a bullet, but a “cloud” of small lead pellets). Shotguns do not normally have rear sights. Sometimes, a raised rib is added between the barrels, to aid in correct sighting; this originated in Manton’s “elevating rib”. There is an art to soldering the barrels to their joining ribs so that the barrels fire to approximately the same spot at normal distance. This process is called “regulating” the gun.

A rifle, which fires a single projectile with each shot, requires much more precise sighting than a shotgun. A rifle will have both a front and rear sight, often with some adjustment possible, to aid in “sighting in” the rifle to a particular load at a particular distance. You can deduce from the foregoing that a double rifle would be more difficult to regulate than a double shotgun: the two barrels must fire to the same point of aim at a specified distance (usually a somewhat short distance, since a double rifle is traditionally an arm for dangerous large game), and one pair of sights must serve both barrels. This is one reason why double rifles have always been costly. However, the problem of regulation can be greatly simplified by providing each barrel with its own pair of sights (not a common plan, but a very logical one). Indeed, this is really the only way to sight a double rifle for “pin-point” accuracy and range flexibility. The fact that Karl May’s Bear Killer is provided with individual sighting for each barrel is perfectly consistent with his claims for the deeds accomplished by means of that gun.

The trigger guard of the Bear Killer is of the ornate Germanic style, not historically consistent with the austere, English style of the gun, but the combination is not at all bad looking.

It is really quite remarkable how the greater the scrutiny, the more accurate May’s stories turn out to be.

As we have discussed in the other thread, the Henry repeating rifle was a real commercial gun, famous in American history, and in the history of firearms. It was the first cartridge rifle with a reciprocating bolt (with a spring-loaded cartridge extractor attached). These features continue on the most modern automatic weapons. The Henry rifle came on the market in 1860, and was consistent with May’s chronology. In 1866, the Henry design was modified with a side loading gate (this is what King’s patent refers to). This permitted a wooden fore stock to be added, since the cartridge follower in the magazine tube under the barrel no longer needed a tab projecting through a slot along the bottom of the magazine. The new rifle was produced by the Winchester Repeating Arms company, as the Winchester model 1866. It was essentially a Henry rifle with the improvements just mentioned. The cartridge it fired was the same--.44 Henry rim fire.

Only when the rifle was further modified to become the Winchester model 1873 were new calibres devised—the .44-40 centre fire first, followed by the .38-40 and .32-20 (the first number refers to the calibre, in decimal inch measurement, and the latter number indicates the amount of black powder in the cartridge case, in grains). May’s rifle in the picture linked above is a Winchester model 1866 sporting rifle, easily identified by the brass frame it shared with most Henry rifles. In a picture of May’s study, I have seen another Winchester model 1866—in this case a carbine version.

I can not understand how the 1866 sporting rifle could have a .38 calibre barrel unless the gun was extensively modified some time after production.

What happened to the Silver Rifle is simply terrible. I hope that photographs of the original barrels exist (if so, they could disclose the sight arrangement), and that the barrels will some day be recovered. That was a monstrous crime!

Guns from Old Mexico are usually of two varieties: well-worn standard commercial arms, or copies of them made in Belgium or Mexico; and high-grade, well ornamented arms owned by wealthy people. When silver ornamentation was employed, it usually consisted of elaborate inlaid designs.

The method of decorating a rifle with metal tacks is typical of American Indians, and was very common. The stock of the Silver Rifle is not Mexican in style. It looks far closer to the European style of the 17th century. German target rifles of the 19th century were often very ornate, with archaic stock designs, often highly “roach bellied” like Winnetou’s gun. The Silver Rifle is strikingly Germanic in appearance, but the stock decoration is of Indian style. It looks like a German rifle acquired by Indians and later decorated with the silver tacks. The result is unique, an arm perfectly suited to the unique person Winnetou was.

It is entirely possible that Karl May visited America long before his supposed “first trip” there in 1908. A trip to visit all of the locations in the stories would help to answer this question, and it would be a delightful undertaking as well. However, travel of that kind is problematic for me too, at this time.

The power and emotion with which May writes of Winnetou does seem to indicate that he might be at least based upon an actual person to whom May was extraordinarily close.

Author:  Marlies [ Sun Apr 06, 2008 3:57 pm ]
Post subject: 

W vs V
In German, W is always pronounced like the English V and the V is always pronounced like the English F (although V is 'soft' whereas F is a 'sharp' sound, and there are exceptions, but I can't think of one right now). Winnetou is pronounced Vinnetou and not Ouinnetou (as the English W would be). Having said that ... (most/some?) non-English speaking people are aware of the 'English' W pronounciation, so was May - no matter where he got the name from, he Anglicized (or Americanized) it with the W (it looks better, too). The enigma of Karl May :-)

Author:  Philip Colston [ Mon Apr 07, 2008 9:02 am ]
Post subject: 

Marlies, perhaps I should have pointed out the pronunciation of “W” and “V” in German more clearly at the outset, since this is an English-language forum.

How can we know the proper pronunciation of “Winnetou”, as Karl May understood it? Without a sound recording of May speaking the name, or direct documentary evidence, we can only theorise. Those who speak or know German, or who at least understand German pronunciation, have always pronounced the name as “Vinnetou” (English V-sound). This is what I had always presumed to be the correct pronunciation.

If “Vinnetou” (Eng. V.) is correct, then the English spelling of “Winnetou” would be “Vinnetou”. This gains some support if the stylised symbol on Karl May’s Silver Rifle is in fact a “V”. The reason: Winnetou’s name is an Indian word, and Winnetou was a native American in a country whose language was English. If his name was pronounced “Vinnetou” (Eng. V.), Winnetou would have spelt it “Vinnetou” in English. Should he have desired to decorate his rifle with his initial, the symbol would have been a “V”.

Further supporting this hypothesis is the fact that Karl May phoneticised Indian names according to the German manner, quite naturally. If this is what he did in the case of Winnetou (that is, if “Winnetou” was intended to be a German phoneticisation of an American Indian name), then “Vinnetou” (Eng. V.) is the correct pronunciation.

On the other hand, there are well-known Indian names that start with “Winne-”, and May would have been very familiar with them. Examples:

Winnebago tribe:


Winneshiek, a Winnebago chief:


Paiute Chief Winnemucca:


Far more importantly, the consonant “V” sound (Eng.) is very uncommon in Native American languages, whereas the absolute opposite is true of the “W” sound (Eng.). This is also something May, a keen student of languages, would certainly have known.

If we consider the above information, the only concrete support for the “Vinnetou” pronunciation (Eng. V.) is the symbol on the Silver Rifle—if that symbol is in fact a letter “V”. It seems more likely to me that the name Winnetou was meant by May to be an English spelling of a Native American name, and that the “W” was meant to be pronounced in the English manner.

Author:  Marlies [ Mon Apr 07, 2008 9:52 am ]
Post subject: 

...well...my husband, an Aussie with no experience in Germanic pronounciation quite happily pronounces Winnetou with the English W...came as natural as 'G'day' to him. :wink: that doesn't prevent Germanic language people from pronouncing it as they were taught to pronounce the alphabet. I've long-since ceased pronouncing it with a V, in fact have never pronounced it with a V since having lived 'downunder' ... and actually, hearing it said with a V in any of the movies nowadays, it is a 'foreign' sound to me.

... as someone else somewhere else for something else once said: 've hafe vays of making you tok.' :wink:

Yes, I think May was aware of the differences in pronounciation and I'll take a stab in the dark and say, he meant to have Winnetou pronounced as an English W. Otherwise Shatterhand could have become Schutterhand (maybe ...) :wink:

Author:  Philip Colston [ Mon Apr 07, 2008 10:01 am ]
Post subject: 

And of course, there is nothing “wrong” about people pronouncing the name Winnetou however they choose, or according to the standards of their native or adopted languages! I was simply trying to elucidate the pronunciation as Karl May understood it. I certainly do not mean to suggest that German-speaking people adopt the English pronunciation, especially considering the often profound, life-long impact of May and Winnetou. :)

Page 1 of 1 All times are UTC + 1 hour [ DST ]
Powered by phpBB © 2000, 2002, 2005, 2007 phpBB Group