Dune is a classic science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. There have been attempts to film it, including an upcoming movie version covering the first half of the book. A lot of the names and vocabulary are clearly meant to evoke the Greco-Roman world.

  • Paul Atreides is the protagonist. Atreides is used as a family name and the name of a royal house.

  • Paul's father is Duke Leto Atreides. Leto is pronounced with an ɛ in the trailer.

  • Paul's mother, Lady Jessica Atreides, is a member of an order called the Bene Gesserit, with "G" as in "German."

I first read the book when I was a kid, so I had no idea if the words made any sense, and I guessed pronunciations, like Leto to rhyme with Cheeto and a hard G for Gesserit.

Is it actually possible to make sense of the words, and their pronunciation in the trailer?

Leto, I've now learned, is a goddess, which seems pretty off as the name of a patriarch -- assuming there isn't some other classical Leto who is male. I guess the name is Λητώ, so the accent is on the wrong syllable. I suppose it's debatable whether the vowel is right, since historically η was pronounced lots of different ways. One of them was probably the IPA vowel ε, as in the trailer.

Atreides is a genitive, used as a patronymic. So as far as I can tell it makes very little sense to treat it as a family name, or to have a Lady Jessica Atreides.

I don't know any Latin, but looking at a pronunciation guide, it seems like the soft G used in Gesserit in the trailer makes sense because it's followed by an "e." I suppose Bene just means good. Does Gesserit mean anything?

If it's thought more appropriate, this question could be moved to scifi.SE. There do seem to be some people there with knowledge of classical languages, e.g.: https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/197596/meaning-of-p-r-s-aes-triplex-in-heinleins-space-cadet

  • Do you want an answer to cover just these examples, or in Dune more generally? The latter will yield fewer results without a fuller list.
    – cmw
    Oct 7, 2021 at 1:41
  • 1
    I'm not going to write up a full answer, but I think a lot of what you are looking for is already dispersed on Wikipedia, for example the etymology section of en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bene_Gesserit. It is also worth noting that a lot of the terms in Dune originate in Hebrew or Arabic words (for example 'Haderach', 'the way') rather than Latin or Greek.
    – dbmag9
    Oct 7, 2021 at 8:07
  • @cmw: I'm open to anything, but it would would be impractical to make an exhaustive list. The book has a lot of unusual or made up words in it -- it has a whole glossary in the back.
    – user3597
    Oct 7, 2021 at 9:40
  • @dbmag9: Interesting, thanks. It would seem not to make sense that gesserit is subjunctive.
    – user3597
    Oct 7, 2021 at 10:06
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    @SebastianKoppehel: But I think the meaning is like "provided that it be done well," or "provided that he behave well." In other words, the subjunctive really is part of the meaning. E.g., you can release a prisoner on parole, provided that he behave well.
    – user3597
    Oct 7, 2021 at 22:36

1 Answer 1


"Atreides" refers to the House of Atreus (Ἀτρεύς). The genitive of Ἀτρεύς is Ἀτρέως. Atreides is a singular first-declension masculine patronymic (Ἀτρείδης or Ἀτρεΐδης) formed with the patronymic suffix -ίδης. Ἀτρείδης was used as an epithet of Agamemnon or Menelaus, and sometimes of other descendants of Atreus. The plural form is Ἀτρεῖδαι (latinized as "Atridae", and anglicized as "Atreids"). The use of Atreides in Dune as the last name of Leto, his wife Jessica, and son Paul could be taken as showing the same development of a singular patronymic to an invariable surname as in English "Johnson".

Since Dune is set in the future, the pronunciation used in the film could have developed in any way that the creators imagine.

The ancient Greek pronunciation of Ἀτρείδης as transcribed by Wiktionary is reconstructed as [a.trěː.dɛːs], a contraction of earlier Ἀτρεΐδης [a.tre.í.dɛːs] (where the caron represents a rising low-to-high contour tone and the acute represents a high tone). The pronunciation according to "English" rules is /əˈtraɪdiːz/, or possibly /əˈtriːdiːz/, as the regular pronunciation in English of the diphthong <ei> in Greek words is the PRICE vowel /aɪ/ (as in Deimos, seismic, meiosis, eidolon) with the FLEECE vowel /iː/ as a less common alternative that appears in some names (such as Cassiopeia). The modern Greek pronunciation is [aˈtri.ðis].

The trailer seems to use /əˈtreɪdiːz/, with the FACE vowel. This vowel also shows up occasionally as an English pronunciation of <ei> in other words/names taken from Ancient Greek. I'd guess the main cause of this pronunciation of <ei> is analogy with its pronunciation either in unrelated English words pronounced with /eɪ/ such as vein, or in other languages unrelated to Greek (such as Spanish reina, Italian sei, and Japanese (romaji) sensei), but conceivably the /eɪ/ in /əˈtreɪdiːz/ could be based at least in part on approximating the ancient Greek pronunciation /eː/. In the English version of the "Erasmian" pronunciation of Ancient Greek (a fairly artificial pronunciation system that is based on ancient pronunciation, but that also has other goals like helping students to memorize the spelling of Ancient Greek words), the conventional pronunciation of ει is /eɪ/.

At 9:24 of the Youtube video David Lynch's Dune (1984) - WTF Happened to this Movie?, by JoBlo Videos, you can see a pronunciation guide titled "Dune Terminology", which the video implies was distributed to viewers on the opening weekend of Lynch's movie. The pronunciation given there for Atreides is A-tray-i-deez with four syllables ("tray" is underlined, represented in my text here by bold), where the "ey-i-" portion appears to be based on the Homeric pronunciation with hiatus (although the stress is in a different position from the ancient Greek accent).

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