Does this look like fnu? I mean fun? What do you reckon it is? If you read the New York Times, you may already know the answer, but if you don’t, I’ll tell you that it’s a name for a person.
Not really a name like any you usually see, is it? Certainly it’s not in keeping with English phonotactics. Anglophones, looking at it, will tend to say “Fuh-noo Luh-noo.” Since we can’t start a syllable with /fn/ or /ln/, we tend by instinct to turn it into something that fits the rules of English pronunciation by stuffing in a vowel. This is like how an Italian speaker might say like as “like-a” or a Spanish speaker might say spoon as “espoon”: they’re not used to pronouncing the consonants in those positions, so they add a vowel to make it an allowable syllable.
There’s nothing intrinsically unpronounceable about /fn/ or /ln/. You can say toughness and wellness; those have the /fn/ and /ln/ across syllable boundaries, but you’re saying the sounds next to each other – syllables are mental, not physical, constraints. Say “ffff” and then break into “no”: “fffffffno!” It’s just a matter of getting used to it to make the /f/ shorter to say /fno/. Now say “helllllllno!” Drop the “he” and say “lllllno!” Same deal – just shorten the /l/ and make /lno/. It’s nothing other than mental barriers keeping us from say Fnu Lnu just as written.
It’s true that you don’t see /fn/ or /ln/ combinations in all that many languages. We have a combination similar to /fn/ in English: /sn/. But /s/ is more strident than /f/; it stands out more. It’s also two sounds made in the same place, whereas /fn/ moves from the teeth and lips to the tongue. So /sn/ is a little more likely to be found than /fn/, since /fn/ may over time shift to become /sn/ for ease and better sound. On the other hand, /ln/ is said in the same place – the tip of the tongue doesn’t move – but that’s part of the reason for its rarity: the lateral /l/ sounds almost too similar to /n/ when it’s next to it. You’re quite likely to get assimilation, so it becomes /ll/ or /nn/, and then maybe just /l/ or /n/. So both words, Fnu and Lnu, are possible and are not hard to say, but they are less likely to be found in a given language.
So what language is this name Fnu Lnu from?
Judi Tull, of the Newport News Daily Press, must have been wondering that in 1994 when she reported on an indictment containing the name. Not too long after the article went to press, she found out. And so on a subsequent day the newspaper published the following:
An article in Saturday’s Local section incorrectly reported that a suspect identified as “Fnu Lnu” had been indicted by a federal grand jury. “Fnu Lnu” is not a name. FNU is a law enforcement abbreviation for “first name unknown,” LNU for “last name unknown.” Officials knew the suspect only by the nickname ‘Dezo.’
In other words, Fnu Lnu is something that was just put in to fill a gap, and was misread. So, since it’s English, say it as you will. But really, if you say “fuh-noo luh-noo,” you’ll be reading in something that’s not there, just to fill a gap.
And, hey, I didn’t say it really was a person’s name. I just said I’ll tell you that it’s a name for a person.
A play called Fnu Lnu was written and produced off-Broadway, inspired by the erratum. And the abbreviation is still in use. Read more in the January 4, 1998, Daily Press and in the July 15, 2013, New York Times.