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Don’t let them call you by anything else.
January 17, 2014 7:30 PM   Subscribe

The Names They Gave Me. From the essay: " 'Your name is Tasbeeh. Don’t let them call you by anything else.' My mother speaks to me in Arabic; the command sounds more forceful in her mother tongue, a Libyan dialect that is all sharp edges and hard, guttural sounds. I am seven years old and it has never occurred to me to disobey my mother. Until twelve years old, I would believe God gave her the supernatural ability to tell when I’m lying. 'Don’t let them give you an English nickname,' my mother insists once again, 'I didn’t raise amreekan .' My mother spits out this last word with venom. Amreekan. Americans. It sounds like a curse coming out of her mouth." By Tasbeeh Herwees in The Toast.
posted by sweetkid (125 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read this the other day, and it really, really made me think of this PSA:"We have to keep our Irish names. Maman me l'a dit..."
posted by jacquilynne at 7:47 PM on January 17 [11 favorites]


I read this earlier when it was linked in a comment and was hoping it would make it to an FPP.

People mispronounce and shorten and change my totally unremarkable, biblical name every day, which is both infuriating and apparently unstoppable. I can only imagine how much worse it is in her situation.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:48 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Worth reading the comments for once.
posted by sweetkid at 7:55 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Great article.

Name stuff hits me right in the feels.
posted by Sphinx at 7:59 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I appreciate the irony of Tasbeeh's "I don't remember his name" with regard to the math teacher who finally cared enough to get the pronunciation of her own name correct.
posted by Justinian at 8:00 PM on January 17 [11 favorites]


I'm really into The Toast right now. This was a great piece.
posted by cali at 8:00 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


I appreciate the irony of Tasbeeh's "I don't remember his name" with regard to the math teacher who finally cared enough to get the pronunciation of her own name correct.

I don't remember a lot of my college professor's names.
posted by sweetkid at 8:02 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


Worth reading the comments for once.

The Toast is one of the few places where I find that to be true, every single time.

This piece is so gutting and then so beautiful.
posted by Elsa at 8:04 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


The real horror is that she is old enough to write this piece now but was only in third grade when 9/11 happened.
posted by Justinian at 8:09 PM on January 17 [17 favorites]


I have had people correct me on my wife's name's pronunciation. Hell, once, someone corrected her. People are idiots.
posted by sonic meat machine at 8:12 PM on January 17 [11 favorites]


I bet she doesn't really say that to baristas. I hope, anyway.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:23 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


I don't remember a lot of my college professor's names.

I read that line as a specific choice by the author. Like once somebody finally bothered to get it right, she was able to blend into the sea of typical college kids who'll forget their professor's name by next semester. She didn't have to hold on so tightly.

I also think that not giving the professor a name works well because it doesn't make the whole piece about The White Man Who Finally Understood Me or whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 8:27 PM on January 17 [19 favorites]



I read that line as a specific choice by the author.


Yea, I kind of thought that, too. Or at least I wouldn't have thought she would have mentioned him by name, for not wanting to say White Man Who Finally Understood Me reasons.
posted by sweetkid at 8:28 PM on January 17


I have a name that's commonly abbreviated and I hate it. Its not the same thing, but its made me VERY aware of the reasons for being sensitive to this. As an elementary school teacher, I'm VERY aware of this sort of thing and very openly ask my students how they would like to be addressed. I can't imagine not doing that.
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:28 PM on January 17 [8 favorites]


Was it just my junior high or are teachers like deliberately clueless about name pronunciation?

I grew up in southern Louisiana, where a lot of people are Cajun and have unusual last names by American standards. However, I would guess that most of my teachers were also from the area, and many of them had Cajun last names, themselves.

And yet every damn year on the first day of school it was like, "Jeen Paul Port-ee-yer? Is there a Jeen Paul Port-ee-yer?" And then poor Jean-Paul Portier would pipe up, "It's Jean-Paul Portier, sir."

Later I transfered to a high school with a large proportion of Asian students, and there was this one administrator at every sort of ceremonial assembly type thing who would make an awful joke about murdering everyone's last name. Christ, dude, you're the principal of a school full of Mehtas, Dengs, and Nguyens. Just learn to pronounce stuff and move on. This is not ever going to stop being your job.
posted by Sara C. at 8:33 PM on January 17 [19 favorites]


When I got to college, one of the guys in my dorm was from the Middle East, though I'm forgetting which country. He introduced himself and then said, "but you can call me [Anglicized version of his name]." Like the teacher in the article, I asked him to repeat his actual name several times so that I could get it right; he really lit up and ended up complimenting my pronunciation. And I say this not to be all White Savior myself, but because it seems to me like learning the actual pronunciation of someone's name is a reasonable expectation, and I don't understand when people don't even try.
posted by jaguar at 8:44 PM on January 17 [13 favorites]


I had brunch over the weekend with a couple of new friends(she's black, he's white, I'm Indian American) and the guy said "You pronounce your last name X way right" and it was PERFECT. Better than the way I tell most Americans of any race to pronounce it, in fact.

Turned out he had lived in Maharashtra. where my last name is from. My jaw seriously dropped and I'm sure I lit up.

It's not that people have to pronounce it like that, but just the amount of people who are all, "Oh, people are just CURIOUS about your heritage" when they're really looking for a box to stick you in - that, to me, is what actually curious looks like.
posted by sweetkid at 8:48 PM on January 17 [22 favorites]


Before I left for college in the US, I was advised by relatives that I should take on an "English" name to make it easier for Americans to pronounce. This would be the second time I considered it. I flirted with the idea ten years before when my elementary school classmates experimented with "English" names in the fashion of Hong Kong actors and singers--that is, if one wasn't born into a Christian family that gave you on at birth to begin with. But my family was very secular and we didn't consume much Chinese pop culture at all, so taking on an English name felt false to me at eight and again at eighteen. At eighteen, at least, I had enough political consciousness to believe that if I could learn how to pronounce Buchanan and Goldstein, Americans can jolly well learn how to pronounce my string of vowels. When I graduated, however, and later joined Facebook, I was frequently confused when old classmates added me, because a whole buncha them lost weight, lost their glasses, grew out their hair, and went by new Western-sounding names.

In college, at the beginning of each class when a new professor read out names of students on the roll, I always knew when they got to mine, because there would always be a pause, followed by a most apologetic "Okay, I'm not quite sure how to pronounce this..." or "I'm really sorry if I mispronounce this, but [mispronunciation my vowel-y name]...?" But everyone got it right after a while, and nobody's ever attempted to give me a nickname or truncate my name for their convenience. Americans tend to emphasize a different syllable, but it doesn't bother me in the slightest. You'd have to pronounce my name in Mandarin with the right tones for accuracy, and well, that's not going to be easy.

I do just give my initial, J, to baristas because it sounds like an actual name, and it's just faster that way because I rather be caffeinated sooner than spend a few extra minutes bantering about my name. That said, I used to give my partner's name, which he picked himself when he moved to the US from China as a child out of his favourite American movie, Star Wars. I am quite glad that he did not go with Darth or Jabba.
posted by peripathetic at 8:49 PM on January 17 [15 favorites]


I've been an immigrant twice. I was born in the Soviet Union where my very Jewish last name would have been enough of a liability, so the name of the Jewish relative after whom I was named was converted to a name that sounded fine in both Hebrew and Russian. I change the pronunciation of my last name, foisted unto my family at some point by one census or another in Eastern Europe, depending on whom I'm speaking to but I carry it with pride. Even then, its unfamiliarity leads to misspelling and mispronunciations even of the simplified version.

I always felt different enough being an immigrant, having to hear my name turn to ashes in other people's mouths would not have been a welcome addition. There is no strength bestowed by this constant hurdle. The celebration of your identity, your culture, your past, is not trod upon by those who are either too ignorant or too lazy. They would not celebrate you anyway.

Reading this made me very sad. I am glad she found the joy in the identity her mother gave her. But to me the joy of two cultures coming together, despite those who who would not or could not share, is greater than obstinacy. Perhaps assimilation is a surrender to be avoided, but some concession is an exchange for which both parties are richer and brought closer to each other.
posted by anateus at 8:56 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


I should add that I don't mean one should always maintain one's identity malleable. Rather, in my reading of the piece it seemed to me her mother's admission created a closing within her reciprocal to the closing of those who would not even try to pronounce her name.
posted by anateus at 9:01 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


A coworker of mine died unexpectedly last year. He was an immigrant, and his name looked like a common American name but was pronounced very differently. To sit through the memorial service they held at work, with so many of the speakers mispronouncing his name, was a heartbreaking addition to an already tough day. The first time someone would mispronounce it, you would hear a smattering of, "it's (correct pronunciation)" and the speaker would say it more or less right the next time and then go back to the American pronunciation. Maybe he was just the type of guy who didn't really correct people when they got it wrong; knowing him I wouldn't be surprised.

This is a wonderful piece.
posted by matcha action at 9:01 PM on January 17 [10 favorites]


The celebration of your identity, your culture, your past, is not trod upon by those who are either too ignorant or too lazy. They would not celebrate you anyway.

It is merely polite to learn how to pronounce other people's names, and to use what they prefer to be called. Ignorance or laziness is not an excuse. If you met someone named Richard or Rebecca, would you presume to call them "Dick" or "Becky" right away because that's just easier or more intimate?
posted by peripathetic at 9:03 PM on January 17 [8 favorites]


The structure of the poem really reminded me of Lisel Mueller, another poet I really quite admire. So many layers and bits of nuance. Loved this piece, utterly beautiful.
posted by StrangeTikiGod at 9:04 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


This really resonated with me, thanks. It was an interesting point that came up in my family that between my mother, father, sister and I- not one of us anglicize our last name the same way. One family, four pronunciations. How can I expect English speakers to do any better? The funny thing is, their 'mispronunciation' is usually closer to the original Farsi than the anglicization I correct them into.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:13 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


Also- I do tend to have some sympathy for people attempting to pronounce names that contain letter combinations that don't happen in English. Tasbeeh is hard. In English, an [s] next to a voiced consonant typically turns into [z], and final consonant h almost never happens. You're asking people to code-switch into a language they don't speak. That doesn't mean you have to pick an English name but "Tazbee" is a pretty fair approximation.

Why I tolerate maybe half of everyone I know calling me Key-in when it's pronounced Key-on is another story.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:18 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Ugh, my immigrant parents named me something that's apparently only hard for Americans to pronounce correctly. (Almost every other nationality gets it right). What drives me crazy is that while I can sort of sympathize with people who first read my name and then pronounce it incorrectly, I have absolutely no understanding of all of the people--the depressing majority of people I meet--who hear my name first and will instantaneously repeat it back incorrectly. Or will say my name wrong, hear me gently and promptly correct them, and continue to say my name wrong.

These days I give up after I correct someone twice, and at least it becomes a really good way for me to instantaneously tell how good a friend someone is if I hear my name being called from across a room/field/whatever.
posted by TwoStride at 9:24 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


If you met someone named Richard or Rebecca, would you presume to call them "Dick" or "Becky" right away because that's just easier or more intimate?

A hell of a lot of people do. My parents called me by my middle name, to avoid confusion with another relative. I've never gone by anything else. But damned if I don't have a constant flow of people presuming to call me by a diminutive of my first name. It's nice -- my parents unwittingly gave me a free asshole warning system. Salesman can call, ask for that name, and I just say "no," and hang up.
posted by tyllwin at 9:25 PM on January 17 [6 favorites]


My name is a fairly common/recognizable name in English, and almost no one pronounces it correctly. As for baristas--I say Smith (although it is not my name). The person usually looks relieved (as in "I don't have to think to spell this").
posted by datawrangler at 9:32 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I've also come up with a fake nickname I give to baristas and yoga instructors so that my meditation isn't interrupted by irritation at my name being mangled.
posted by TwoStride at 9:35 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


tyllwin: "A hell of a lot of people do. My parents called me by my middle name, to avoid confusion with another relative. I've never gone by anything else. But damned if I don't have a constant flow of people presuming to call me by a diminutive of my first name. It's nice -- my parents unwittingly gave me a free asshole warning system. Salesman can call, ask for that name, and I just say "no," and hang up."

I have the same warning system given to me by my parents. It's also very annoying that companies get all hung up on using "your legal name" (it is my "legal" name, twerp, my middle name is right there on my birth certificate and passport) when signing up for services. To this day, when I call someone from my cell phone and the person has a name with their Caller ID--this is becoming more popular, apparently--people think it's my dad calling.
posted by fireoyster at 9:37 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I work with a large number of people from India, who have lush and varied names. In the past I tried to learn full pronunciations, without much success, then quickly realized I'd be better off using the names they called themselves (which were often quite short and simple) -- now I'm wondering how many of those are choices made to make it easier on the Americans they work with. I think I'll do a little asking around.
posted by davejay at 9:46 PM on January 17 [5 favorites]


Oh, and I changed my name in large part because my last name was so ethnic and easily mangled and I just got sick of dealing with it, so it really does make things easier if you decide to go that route...and yet sometimes I have to spell my four-letter last name because people smack a useless "s" on the end. No matter how simple...
posted by davejay at 9:47 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


it seems to me like learning the actual pronunciation of someone's name is a reasonable expectation, and I don't understand when people don't even try.

My Irish friend's name is Cliona, and for years I was pronouncing it wrong - but only because we were pen pals first and I'd only ever seen it written. I was pronouncing it the way many of you probably are - like "Fiona", only with a "Cl." I was embarrassed when we finally met in person and I heard her say it for the first time, and shamed myself into learning how to pronounce it right - more like "CLEE-n-ah" - but in time I went on to saying it with a hint of her own West Cork speech when I say it too, because that's the way she says it and her family say it and DAMN does it ever sound wonderful when you say it that way.

She told me once about a college professor she had, an English man, who claimed to be flummoxed by her name and insisted on rearranging the letters and calling her "Nicola" instead. She really, really didn't like him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:51 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


My name is Mary. A lady at the library calls me "Mah-ray."

Many years ago when i worked at the University of Arizona, a professor I worked for was named Wieslaw Wisniewski. I could spell it and type it, but when he pronounced it or someone else called him by his first name, I couldn't catch it at all. One day he asked me why I never called him by his name. I told him I couldn't pronounce it if I tried. So he stood over me and made me repeat many times, "Vee-es-loff Vish-nef-ski." When he left, I wrote it down just that way on a card and propped the card up in front of my telephone on the desk. I carried that card with me when I went to lunch and when I went home it went in my purse. After a couple of days I had it and was no longer confused by letters that just didn't make those sounds in my American mind.

He was a good friend once I mastered his name.

I will say, though, that even if one isn't an immigrant, surnames are always mispronounced by some teacher somewhere or by some coworker. And they're turned into nicknames that can be terrible, even if the name is as American as apple pie. I had a friend named Segar - Cigar; a friend named Shriver - Shivers; a friend named Turkin - Turkey; a friend named Gould - Gold; a friend named Campbell - Soups; a friend named Wright - Wrong; everyone can think of a whole string of 'em.
posted by aryma at 9:58 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


One of my high school classmates was named Nihar. He pronounced it with a stress and a long E on the first syllable. On the first day of one of our math classes, the teacher pronounced it with an accent on the second syllable and a schwa on the first. This annoyed him, but he didn't correct her, thinking she would catch on. Maybe she would hear the kid next to him pronounce it right. She didn't. She kept mispronouncing it, and his annoyance increased. Out of spite, he let her keep mispronouncing it until the last day of class, when, as he left the room - and here his voice rose as he told this story - he turned to her and said, "By the way, it's NEE har."

I forget what he said her reaction was. I wasn't there to see it. But his story and his justified anger stuck with me from the first. I have a bad memory for names, but I try to get them right.

Thanks for posting this, sweetkid. It's a good piece.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:59 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


there was this one administrator at every sort of ceremonial assembly type thing who would make an awful joke about murdering everyone's last name. Christ, dude, you're the principal of a school full of Mehtas, Dengs, and Nguyens. Just learn to pronounce stuff and move on.

Yyyyeah, but pronouncing words with phonemes not in your language can be hard, and the common close-enough transliterations into English phonemes might be pretty far off the mark even if they're tolerable. Doubly so when the written transliterations into the Roman alphabet aren't very helpful, like with Deng. Even if he "learns to pronounce" Nguyen, he's still going to say it with a strong American accent of one sort or another and might still be murdering their names. I've been in Buffalo since 07 but still run into a string of consonants I've never seen before pretty much semester.

And while it's less applicable to names like Deng or Nguyen, for now, another fun part of American English is that different families pronounce the same name in different ways, duh-boyz versus duh-bwah versus doo-bwah. Likewise, even if I can pronounce Wierzbowski or Leonarczyk like locals do, that's probably pretty far from how the names would be said in Poland.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:59 PM on January 17 [9 favorites]


I have had an interesting experience with a name of a middle school student, whose name I knew to be pronounced in one way (as a friend of mine had the exact same name-- same region, and later I checked last name and we confirmed that there was a 99.9% chance this student was from X country/region), but since his friends in school had learned to mispronounce his name in a certain way and I pronounced it in the traditional way, he recorrected me.

Very weird.
posted by oflinkey at 10:00 PM on January 17 [1 favorite]


At starbucks, and take-out places, I never give my real name. I've found that if the name is difficult or unique they tend to call it out timidly, and it's easy to miss. I always give name like Chuck or Clint. Names they can't help but yell.

My name at birth was a 4 syllable Arabic name. For the first part of my childhood I suffered through all sorts of butchering of the pronunciation, including every kid who thought they were clever coming up with the exact same stupid joke as if they were the first to think of it. When I was around 10, we traveled to Nigeria where there were plenty of people with my name. So much so that there was even a shortened nickname that everyone started calling me immediately. There was even a children's book where the main character had the same nickname. It was glorious.

In the same way that some Roberts are forever "Bobby" My name after that just became the shortened nickname. Even had it legally changed a few years later. The shortened 2 syllable name trips up most people, but not much. Nobody pronounces it quite right, but I don't really mind. It's such a subtle change in intonation that it's not worth the trouble.

Over the years I've just come to introduce myself with the Americanized pronunciation. The only people who say my name properly are my family, Which is kind of nice. Makes it special. Also native Arabic speakers. I had a roommate from Jordan a few years back, and the first time we met, I introduced my self and she immediately replied with my full birth name pronounced as beautifully as I've ever heard it.
posted by billyfleetwood at 10:07 PM on January 17 [10 favorites]


Yyyyeah, but pronouncing words with phonemes not in your language can be hard, and the common close-enough transliterations into English phonemes might be pretty far off the mark even if they're tolerable

The problem wasn't that he was being over-humble about his inability to pronounce students' names exactly as they ought to be pronounced in their home languages.

The problem was that he couldn't pronounce their names. Names that are not that unusual, from ethnic groups that have always been a major population at the school. He'd have been saying the name Patel (sometimes several times over) at every high school graduation, for years and years. It's not that hard to pronounce if you make a slight effort.

Also, even if you know there will inevitably be the kid whose name you screw up, why single out every non-Anglo person in the whole school, over and over, year in and year out?
posted by Sara C. at 10:11 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


I am glad this got linked, I read this when Tasbeeh (fellow Libyan) tweeted the link yesterday and was immediately reminded that to this day, even when I provide people with a superfriendly, American pronounceable permutation of my name, they still butcher it.

I intro myself as emad.
I figure it should be simpe, it is pronounced like email but mad instead of mail. It is common for People to add extra letters to even this simple pronunciation.
posted by mulligan at 10:11 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


I used to manage a restaurant a long time ago and most of the kitchen staff were fairly recent Mexican immigrants. They taught me some spanish, and I taught them some english and it was all good.

But they would leave notes for me sometimes that would start with "diche". I'd never heard the word before. I tried looking it up and asked a few people and nobody knew what it meant. So, one day, I just asked one of the guys what "diche" meant.

He told me that was my name. See, I've been called DJ since before I was born and that is what I go by. They were just spelling it the way it sounded to them - Di Che. We all had a laugh and after that they called me El Diche.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:14 PM on January 17 [17 favorites]


My name is Pravit. Thanks to the awkward romanization system used to write most Thai words and names in English, in Thai it's pronounced nothing like you would guess by looking at it. For starters, the "v" is actually pronounced like a "w."

However, I never felt very strongly about the correct pronunciation of my name. Growing up, I just assumed nobody would be able to pronounce it like my parents did, and I wasn't going to train everybody I met how to (especially since I couldn't pronounce it well in Thai myself, growing up speaking English).

So early on, I just decided I would let people pronounce it however they wanted. Most English speakers pronounce it as "prah - vit", with the stress on the first syllable and an "ah" as in "father", and gradually that came to be how I pronounced my own name if asked. A few people used "ae" as in "cat". A few people called me "pra - VEET", which sounds vaguely Indian to me. To some people I became "Prav". I never corrected anyone, because they're all the "wrong" pronunciation anyway, right? (unless they said "private". I draw the line at arbitrarily flipping two English vowels).

As such, I don't have any strong mental idea of what my name should sound like. It's like having different names as far as I'm concerned. I associate my Thai name with my parents and being a child. I associate my ambiguously pronounced English name(s) with my constructed identity as an adult. Which is why I always feel so awkward when people ask me how my name is "correctly" pronounced in Thai - because I don't even view it as my "true" name, and my Thai accent isn't perfect, so even I'm mispronouncing it to some extent.

Oh, and baristas who ask me my name? I just make something up that's easy to pronounce. Usually "Paul."
posted by pravit at 10:17 PM on January 17 [15 favorites]


I figure it should be simple, it is pronounced like email but mad instead of mail. It is common for People to add extra letters to even this simple pronunciation.

I deal with this all the time. It must be that the part of the part of the brain that we use for names is somewhere different than the part we use for language. Which would also explain the weird notion that people have thinking that naming your child Mychael makes them unique from all the Michaels in the world.
posted by billyfleetwood at 10:20 PM on January 17


He'd have been saying the name Patel (sometimes several times over) at every high school graduation, for years and years. It's not that hard to pronounce if you make a slight effort.

I apologize for not grokking the depths of this guy's dumbfuckery, but how on earth do you mispronounce Patel?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:27 PM on January 17 [4 favorites]


Yyyyeah, but pronouncing words with phonemes not in your language can be hard, and the common close-enough transliterations into English phonemes might be pretty far off the mark even if they're tolerable.

LARN MOAR LANGUAGES THEN. But joke aside, the effort is more important than accuracy, and saying a name in a different accent is not the same as butchering it.
posted by peripathetic at 10:28 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


But joke aside, the effort is more important than accuracy

For some people. I've met others who didn't seem to feel that way -- mostly Chinese students who asked me to just use the English name they chose and not to try with their actual name.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:33 PM on January 17 [3 favorites]


I have a very typical Western name that is frequently shortened, and the shortened version is what I go by most of the time. It contains sounds that do not exist in the Japanese language, and there was no way I'm aware of to go about spelling it in a way that would reflect the English pronunciation in Katakana, so I was stuck with a name that meant "fat guy" while I lived there. That didn't bother me, but for some reason it used to piss me off to no end that my French teachers back in Canada would always tell me that "in French, your name is ____" cuz fuck you, my name is the same in French as it is in English. I don't call Jacques "Jack" and Jean "John", do I?

I just had a kind of embarrassing experience mispronouncing names recently. Our daycare provider is Iranian, and when I met her and her husband I could swear she said his name was Bruce. You know, whatever, stranger things have happened. I found out recently it's actually Beruz. NOTED. But it does sound pretty close tho.

Pronouncing sounds that are alien to you is difficult though. My best friend growing up was Czech and apparently, even though to my ears we were saying exactly the same goddamned thing after each going back and forth 5-10 times with him trying to correct me, I cannot pronounce Vaclav Havel correctly. And I have no idea what I'm doing wrong or what about the way I say it is off.
posted by Hoopo at 10:39 PM on January 17


Over the years I've just come to introduce myself with the Americanized pronunciation. The only people who say my name properly are my family, Which is kind of nice. Makes it special.

I feel the same way. My name's not difficult or anything, but I'm fine with going with the Anglicized pronunciation of my name. I actually like the somewhat enforced code switching that the different pronunciations of my name engender, and it feels like home when my family pronounces my name "right." Though even among my family, pronunciations differ between Yas-meen and Yasa-meen, and Yasaman when my dad's feeling fancy, so I've never felt wedded to a specific pronunciation.

My last name though...ugh fuck that noise when it comes to trying to explain how to pronounce it. It's a pain in the ass. I don't particularly like how it sounds when it's anglicized, but it's such a pain to pronounce it properly, then spell it, then explain where it's from, then explain that no, it is not the same as this famous person's last name though they are spelled similarly, oh, where am I really from? Blah blah blah.
posted by yasaman at 10:47 PM on January 17 [2 favorites]


oflinkey: "but since his friends in school had learned to mispronounce his name in a certain way and I pronounced it in the traditional way, he recorrected me."

I had this experience with a girl at my high school who shared my mom's non-English-language, "ethnic" first name. One of the few speechless moments of my life.

My mom is proud of her name, has never caved in to the Americanized pronunciation or to using a translated version, and tries at least the first few times to correct everyone who thinks they "know" how to say it. But even so, she deliberately made sure that I had an American name so that I wouldn't have to deal with everyone mispronouncing it like it was up to them.

(Ironically, though, my name is similar enough to several other common first names that almost no one gets it right on the first try.)
posted by capricorn at 10:55 PM on January 17


One of the formative moments of my life was about a non-American name. I was in 7th grade and friends with a girl from Vietnam. She taught all of us how to say her native name (which I can't remember how to spell, but I bet I still say it mostly correctly. Or at least as correctly as I ever did.) she was very instant on the pronunciation, which wasn't difficult if you tried it a few times. When in French class they had us pick French names, she revealed to me that she had been told to use the name 'Sarah' when she came to the US to fit in better.

I was flummoxed.. That was a thing? Who told her that? There are people that do that? I had no idea.

I'm glad she told me that. I try really hard to pronounce people's names the way they want because of her. I suspect I fail more than I succeed. But she made me aware of just how tough fitting in in America can be for immigrants.

Unrelated aside, people just love to butcher the spelling of my first name. It doesn't matter if I've only ever had text-based communication; they spell it the "popular" way, even though the alternate spelling is what ever other person with my name I've met uses. It's weird how much it frustrates me; I can only imagine how much mispronounced names must bother people.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:27 PM on January 17


I imagine that in some cases, like perhaps for the subject of the FPP, it's about asserting your cultural background or identity in face of hostility or willful ignorance more than anything else. For others it's a matter of indifference. I have a very Scandinavian first name and have absolutely no desire to slow down interaction by insisting on having my interlocutor address me 'correctly'. In fact, I'd rather people don't even try, because it's boring and tiresome to have to go through the same explanations and instructions and background elucidations etc. over and over again. And indeed what if the required sounds either don't exist, or are going to be hopeless approximations anyway? One of my friends here in LA is from the old country and it's comedy hour when he tries to explain to people how to pronounce "Kjell".

I really don't care. It's just a name. I would be just as happy if I was identified by a random number, since my identity is not bound up with my name. Conveniently, my middle name has a very common Christian equivalent in English, so I go by that. From my perspective, I think it's a courtesy to try to make things easier for the other person.

That said, of course, I always make an effort to call people however they wish to be addressed. I have a decent ear for languages, so most of the time it's not an issue. However, just as people feel that having an unusual name is a good "asshole" detector that spots the jerks who insist on mispronouncing their names, one can go too far - some folks honestly are just no good with languages. Can you imagine if someone pretended to not understand the mother in the article, because of her heavy accent - I've witnessed more than once assholes who would insult immigrants merely because they had a slight accent ("learn English, you ****!"). Some people can live in a country for decades and have a really hard time learning the language - it's not their fault that they are built that way.

We can all use a bit more tolerance and benefit of the doubt. Jerks are gonna jerk of course, but many people are well-meaning and try their best, so I figure why not give 'em a break.
posted by VikingSword at 11:50 PM on January 17 [17 favorites]


I teach high school, so every year there are usually a few names I've had to say for the first time. I always make the point of asking all of my students what they prefer to be called, and will attempt to learn the pronunciation of 'difficult' names with the student's help.

There have been a few occasions I can recall where a student has very quickly accepted a subpar attempt at their name from me just to hurry up the whole 'spotlight on the weird name thing', which I completely understand, since a lifetime of dealing with it must be excruciating for teens in particular. Of course, the upshot of that is that I then perpetuate the idea that Anglo guys can't or won't pronounce that, or throw the spotlight back on them for an awkward round two or three.

It's a tricky business, since it's not like I have a right to co-opt what may be a very uncomfortable experience for the student so I can be the liberal hero that makes this a Teachable Moment, but I also don't want to be the douchebag that keeps chewing on someone's given name like a piece of gristle in a prime cut of bacon.

Side note: My name is Jackson and I reasonably frequently have to put up with being called Jason, just because it's not a typical first-name. All the phonemes are common, and it's still even a common name, but people will hear what they assume you said regardless.
posted by man down under at 12:02 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


You might try looking up some names here. I looked up Nguyen and found several variations, so it's not completely foolproof. But if you get your students' names in advance and really wanted to make an effort, it couldn't hurt.
posted by Sara C. at 12:08 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]


Tasbeeh is a gifted writer. Her sensibilities are acute and a bit scary.
posted by mule98J at 12:30 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


It's interesting; on one hand, my last name -- a fairly common Eastern European first name with modest popularity here -- is frequently mispronounced, with the wrong accent or vowel sound, or whatever, and I sometimes feel a little jab if its been a rough day, but I generally don't care; it's not like I think my name is some sort of prayer or song, or that referring to me in conversation needs to be treated as a valuable undertaking requiring your rapt attention. I'm a live and let live guy and frequently won't bother correcting people, especially in short-term interactions.

I always try to pronounce people's names as they want; that seems like the least I can do. But it's not always possible -- the article took me back to my evening Arabic class, when a frustrated first-time teacher spent 20 minutes trying to teach an entire room of the best-intentioned people conceivable a difference between two letters that none of us could hear. Pronouncing Arabic words correctly wasn't something being asked of us by a random new acquaintance; it was the exact experience we had sought out this class for, and we were failing miserably. The next week, the old teacher came back, said that unless you were raised speaking Arabic you weren't going to hear that difference and moved the class on to other material.

The other thing I was reminded of by reading people's stories here, is the cabinet meeting the dean of our engineering program held every June. He brought in a mixed bunch; younger and older professors from all of the departments, and each hand-selected for the committee. The group was a regular United Nations; a Chinese structural engineer, a French surveying engineer and so on. The purpose of the committee was to go through the 500 names of the students who were about to graduate, and for the dean to pronounce their names as correctly as possible when he gave us our parchments. (He was Sri Lankan himself, so he no doubt had experience with name mispronounciation). There was a second round of checks with the students on the big day, but the names committee helped get the process rolling. This article raised my estimation of him another notch.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:42 AM on January 18 [15 favorites]


I have a three-letter last name which is mispronounced about 80% of the time, but I don't spend a ton of time getting caught up in it. Most people pronounce it like the common spanish article with the same spelling, but I guess it's actually of Polish extraction originally, my father is from the Netherlands.

My first name is misspelled about 50% of the time, and the weird thing is I've never met anyone with that spelling or even that "name". The misspelling is an extra consonant which seems like a natural pairing with the short vowel sound preceding it.

I say all of this as both a person who is horrible with names and has a hard time pronouncing English words, let alone proper nouns in an alien-to-me language. I figure I can be easy-going about my own name since I'm terrible with the names of others.

There is a special circle of hell reserved for teachers and other authority figures who intentionally mispronounce a student's name in front of other students to make a crappy joke; congratulations, fuckwad, you've just legitimized bullying and harassment.
posted by maxwelton at 1:09 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


This brings back being an angry thirteen year old, with the one teacher who mispronounced every name that wasn't English. As a class (not just the individuals who were being mispronounced), we corrected her - they weren't 'difficult' names, had no sounds that aren't a part of everyday English. And she never, ever got them right. It never occurred to me at the time that this might have been deliberate, but with names that easy I'm now wondering.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:32 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


This reminds me of a family story. My Grandmother came to America from Norway in 1905, at age 16. She did cleaning and sewing for room and board with some distant relatives, and she attended high school. In senior year, there was a composition assignment on a Bible passage. Grandma wrote the paper, referencing her own English translation of her Norwegian, Lutheran Bible, and the teacher rejected it, since it was not the King James Bible. Or, maybe she thought Grandma was just making things up. This was more than 100 years ago! Details are unclear.

She took an 'F', and repeated the whole last year, rather than use a different Bible, or so I am told. Mom brought that Bible to her graveside service.
posted by thelonius at 2:51 AM on January 18 [5 favorites]


My son has a fairly trendy anglo name with a "th" in the middle. In New Zealand it posed no problem, of course, but then we moved to Switzerland, where the German and Dialekt speakers have no such sound. His name is mispronounced by default. We started out by laughing it off, then earnestly over-pronouncing the sound to encourage people to try it, repeating it over and over when the other person seemed to genuinely want to say it right. We discussed with our son whether he wanted to go by a more German-sounding "nickname" at school so his friends could pronounce it (he said no). We are lucky that his teacher *does* try, and he is comfortable and confident in his own identity and heritage -- the benefit of white privilege, I guess.

It really made me think about the enormous number of Chinese and Korean immigrants to NZ who arrive with ready-made anglo names so no one ever has to worry about trying to pronounce their names, and how many teachers/friends/colleagues never think to find out their real name and use it.
posted by tracicle at 3:31 AM on January 18


The number of times I've had to tell people "please don't call me Jeffrey" is really heartbreaking.

But the lesson I'm taking from this post is that I really need to start telling barristas that my name is "Fuck".
posted by jefflowrey at 4:05 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


One of my good friends in college was Kuwati and when we found out that her full name was six names long, it became our mission to learn them all and to pronounce them correctly. I'm sure it was both endearing and slightly maddening to have her drunk American friends striding across campus chanting her name, trying to get it right.
Twenty years later, at my wedding, the remaining few folks of that group drunkenly chanted her name, including her British husband's surname for her. She corrected us on our pronunciation of his name.
posted by teleri025 at 4:16 AM on January 18 [9 favorites]


Someone's name is one of the most important sounds in their life. Getting it right is almost as close as you can get to a universal standard for the most basic and fundamental level of politeness.

I am terrible at remembering names ( i am getting better!), but I try very hard to get the pronunciation right. I have found in my travels that most people love to to teach you their name and incidentally it is a great way to make new friends.
posted by Freen at 4:20 AM on January 18


Bonus: things you thought were true about names, but are not:
http://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/06/17/falsehoods-programmers-believe-about-names/
posted by Freen at 4:30 AM on January 18 [4 favorites]


I had friend in junior high who was named Clodores, which I later found out is a fairly common name in New Mexico. She was teased horribly.
posted by fraxil at 4:38 AM on January 18


If you aren't exposed early in life to the distinctions between sounds that carry significance in a language, then it becomes exceptionally hard to make them, or even to hear them, later in life. Tasbeeh -> Tazbee may not even sound any different to an Anglophone without an ear for languages, even if it looks obviously different on the page; and if you can distinguish 's' from 'z' before a 'b', you may still have difficulty distinguishing 's' from 'sˤ'.

My point is that it's best not to assume that a difference that sounds obvious to you will do so to someone else - this goes for other dialects as well as languages.
posted by topynate at 4:43 AM on January 18 [6 favorites]


This annoyed him, but he didn't correct her, thinking she would catch on. Maybe she would hear the kid next to him pronounce it right. She didn't. She kept mispronouncing it, and his annoyance increased. Out of spite, he let her keep mispronouncing it until the last day of class, when, as he left the room - and here his voice rose as he told this story - he turned to her and said, "By the way, it's NEE har."

I forget what he said her reaction was. I wasn't there to see it. But his story and his justified anger stuck with me from the first


I'm pretty sure my reaction would have been "jeez, dude, why did you wait the whole damn semester to tell me that?"

It's fine to want your name pronounced however you want it pronounced. But expecting people to just magically intuit what that is and then getting pissed off when they guess wrong, but still never correcting them for some reason, is kinda not fine.
posted by ook at 5:35 AM on January 18 [12 favorites]


So there's this guy who regularly calls me at work to discuss the sizing of our ad in his magazine.

He likes to talk to me, because I'm the only one in my company who pronounces his name correctly.

His name is Miguel.

Sometimes, honestly, this country. What the hell.
posted by Katemonkey at 5:43 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


ROU_Xenophobe: " For some people. I've met others who didn't seem to feel that way -- mostly Chinese students who asked me to just use the English name they chose and not to try with their actual name."

I went to school with this kid called Danny. Every year, there'd be a cringe-inducing exchange between Danny and each teacher where he'd go to length to convince them that he preferred to be called Danny and would they please stop trying to pronounce his Chinese name. I'm sure he was experiencing this whole storm of conflicting pressures around his name and maybe he would have preferred to use his Chinese name and felt he couldn't or shouldn't, I don't know, but I'm guessing he would have preferred teachers just accept it when he told them to call him Danny.
posted by hoyland at 6:00 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


My name has an English equivalent that I like and that I use. Sometimes people insist on using the original name and while I appreciate the intention, the pronunciation is a bit tricky for English speakers and it uses cases, so someone would need to learn two words and when to use them; I tell people to use the English version and don't think too much of it. It's just an occasional reminder of otherness. However, when ma belle bothered to get the cases and the pronunciation right, she made me melt inside.
posted by ersatz at 6:05 AM on January 18


It really made me think about the enormous number of Chinese and Korean immigrants to NZ who arrive with ready-made anglo names so no one ever has to worry about trying to pronounce their names, and how many teachers/friends/colleagues never think to find out their real name and use it.

I'm happy to try to pronounce any name someone introduces themselves to me as, but I think asking "no, no, what's your REAL name?" to people who aren't white would have to be horribly obnoxious, along the lines of being asked "but where are you REALLY from?" If, after getting to know someone, it comes up that they immigrated, that's one thing and maybe names would come up then, but I am going to assume that people want to be called the name they introduce themselves as.
posted by jeather at 6:32 AM on January 18 [12 favorites]


Kudos to the Dean who hosted the name committee. We encountered this at the graduation of our friend from her Masters program. Her name is Pei Pei, the Dean or whoever was presenting the certificates, called her Master Pee Pee. It was simultaneously galling and hilarious and she took it in good spirit, but imagine having to go through life with dozens of these interactions daily? Basic human consideration isn't much to ask.
posted by arcticseal at 6:47 AM on January 18


Occasionally I meet someone who pronounces my last name the correct "German" way and then I have to laugh and tell them we don't pronounce it that way.

But I'm not an immigrant so it's different. That was a good story and I like the way she described her mother.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:57 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


I have one of the more simple Indian names, but it never sounds right coming out of the mouth of fellow man. My mother says it's because tongues are shaped differently over time between Indians and Americans. I mostly go by the first syllable of my first name, "Dar" because its easier to pronounce and it was the name of The Beastmaster, one of my favorite films.
posted by Renoroc at 7:04 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


My name is Geoffrey.

I have lost track of the number of phone calls I have gotten with someone laboriously going "can I speak to Juh... gee... Gee-off-er-ee?"

It does let me honestly say there's no one here by that name. But my friends know that screwing up how it's pronounced is one sure way to piss me off.
posted by mephron at 7:13 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


A line that is perhaps not being considered enough:
I want to say yes. Call me Tess. But my mother will know, somehow. She will see it written in my eyes.
There are multiple vectors of oppression here.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:14 AM on January 18 [7 favorites]


Just learn to pronounce stuff and move on

That is somewhat easier said than done. Lots of people in America anglicize their names, or had them anglicized generations back. You might know the "correct" pronunciation of the name, but it's not the way the student wants it pronounced. In my experience, if I had a "Portier" in my class, it would be more likely to be pronounced "Port--ee--yer" than not. I've had Nguyens who have insisted on having the g pronounced as a hard g, too. The weirdest thing of all, to me, is how often students will refuse to own up to a preferred pronunciation. I always begin the first class asking students to correct me if I get their names wrong, and it astounds me how often they will profess not to care or have to be coaxed to tell me how they, themselves, pronounce it. Often it is cases like Pravit's above, where they are so used to people being unable to pronounce the name as they or their parents' do that they're genuinely content to let people come up with whatever works for them.
posted by yoink at 7:45 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


My wife, who is Chinese, and I moved back to the US about a year ago, and I tried to prepare her for the name mangling before we came, but neither of us realized how pervasive it would be. I can't blame Americans for not knowing how to pronounce a pinyin 'c' and calling her Miss Cow, but I'm really surprised at how many people either can't or won't pronounce her nickname correctly. It's already easier than her real given name -- two syllables, with no pinyin 'x' or 'zh' or 'ü' to confuse people, how hard could it be? Just listen to what she says and repeat it back.
posted by bradf at 7:48 AM on January 18


That is somewhat easier said than done. Lots of people in America anglicize their names, or had them anglicized generations back. You might know the "correct" pronunciation of the name, but it's not the way the student wants it pronounced.

Indeed. I was T/A-ing a class once and there was a person named Joachim in the class. When handing back papers I would call him by what I thought the pronunciation was - Jo-ah-keem - like in the bible. I sorta thought it might be Wah-keem, but he wasn't hispanic so I hedged with the more arabic pronunciation.

Anyway, one day he got all pissed off and said "It's pronounced Josh-im! What's wrong with you?!?!".

And, Well ... I had never heard that before. Lesson learned.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:04 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


She sounds petulant. If you move to a new country the people there will not be able to pronounce your name as it was back home. Just as many Libyans would have a hard time with Anglo names and will give them an Arabic twist so that they can say them comfortably. People have different accents, and will say your name differently. It is not a slight.
posted by sid at 8:12 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


I grew up hearing a lot of very different languages constantly, so it's much easier for me to adapt to new words than it'd be for someone who only ever heard/spoke one language.

I've always wondered what would be the smallest set of languages you could learn that would give you the largest set of sounds. Like if you knew Korean and Hebrew and Portuguese would you be able to pronounce ALL THE SOUNDS IN THE WORLD?
posted by emeiji at 8:30 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


I knew a kid in middle school whose Cantonese given name wasn't hard to pronounce, but its 2nd syllable had the unfortunate effect of kids mimicking the fuzzy aliens on Sesame Street. He went by Tom.

With my name, people just don't hear it. They call me something else entirely until I correct them. Sometimes it's a sound-alike, other times I wonder if they have cotton balls stuffed in their ears because the names they say are basically three random syllables with the "ah" sound at the end. And my name is, if not commonly used, a rather well-known Anglophone/Hispaniphone (sp?) name.
posted by droplet at 8:37 AM on January 18


Like if you knew Korean and Hebrew and Portuguese would you be able to pronounce ALL THE SOUNDS IN THE WORLD?

Almost; you are leaving out the !(click) from the sub-Saharan languages.
posted by Renoroc at 8:41 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


My mother spits out this last word with venom. Amreekan. Americans. It sounds like a curse coming out of her mouth

This cries out for a little explanation.
posted by IndigoJones at 8:52 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


Oh, and friends who take the time to learn how to pronounce our names: don't be afraid to be a "name ambassador"! That is, after I've given up on the person who has not heeded my own pronunciation of my name (or corrections of their mispronunciations), I've had a few friends who have tactfully trained up some of these people in my stead. Sometimes the lesson sticks with a third party. I've been grateful to the friends who take the time and help out, especially since one of the common mispronunciations of my name is like nails on a chalkboard to me. (Other ones have become fun, in-jokey nicknames that I'm totally fine with among those friends).
posted by TwoStride at 8:59 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


For some people. I've met others who didn't seem to feel that way -- mostly Chinese students who asked me to just use the English name they chose and not to try with their actual name.

Sure. My point is, use whatever people tell you to use to the best of your ability. If your student's real name is, say, Xuan but he asks you to call him Dave, then obviously do as he says. I and many other international students do not adopt this practice.
posted by peripathetic at 9:02 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Hispaniphone (sp?)

I've generally seen "hispanohablante" for this.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:14 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


My last name is constantly mispronounced and misspelled, because it looks like a typo for an English word. Behold my username, and ye shall find it.

However, since I'm an American white guy, and since the pronunciation was anglicized centuries ago, this mostly only causes a problem with record-keeping. I note with some private amusement that there's a fork in the family tree, where family members had split off the spelling based on a phonetic(-ish) spelling of the Anglicized pronunciation. In some alternate universe, I'm a Stisherbeast.

...

Hispaniphone (sp?)

I've generally seen "hispanohablante" for this.


For you pedants out there, "hispanophone" is the English word, and hispanohablante is an equivalent Spanish word.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:30 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


If your student's real name is, say, Xuan but he asks you to call him Dave, then obviously do as he says.

I'm going to nitpick, but with a point: for those families where there are Chinese names and Western names, there is not always a name that is more "real" than another. My wife's family only ever uses her Western name. Some family members go by the Chinese names in all affairs - pretty easy to do when your name is, say, Man - and others go by the usual divide between the Western name being used for public/business affairs, and the Chinese name being used among Chinese-speaking relatives. They never talk about real names or fake names, only Chinese and Western names.

Either way, "please call me X" is going to be the sole deciding vote.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:35 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Oh, and friends who take the time to learn how to pronounce our names: don't be afraid to be a "name ambassador"!

That's really reassuring to hear, TwoStride. My BFF is Thai and, though the area we grew up in is bewilderingly diverse, the length and complexity of Thai names threw people off every time.

Over the years she and I evolved a system where she would introduce me and I would introduce her. My pronunciation was kind of variable and she used an American name with some folks anyway, but it worked well enough at the time. Nowadays I wince a little bit ('variable' is the kind way of putting it) but it got us both through the vicious part of middle and high school with the minimal amount of damage possible.

As for my own name, a fairly large area of the world pronounces it completely incorrectly and cannot hear the difference when I correct them. Lee-SUH is very different from LEEZ-uh. Unfortunately, it is mainly older and/or male people who persist in asserting their pronunciation so I don't often correct them.

I have a lot of sympathy--empathy I suppose, though I'm just older enough that I grew up in a time and place where the majority pronunciation of my names was correct--for Tasbeeh.
posted by librarylis at 9:43 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


This was wonderful, thank you for sharing it. I take great care with spellings and pronunciation of names. Names are very important to get right.

I was given a (still unbelievable to me, even now) truly horrid nickname by my fifth grade teacher. It stuck, of course, with much glee from everyone around me. It was a distortion of my real first and last names, which made it even worse.

When I discovered later that it was possible to change my name, I did so, but I did not get my first choice due to parental veto.

Now, I do have my first choice and it brings me joy every time someone asks my name because my name drives absolutely everyone up the wall. I say it and they still don't know what it is.

:)
posted by AllieTessKipp at 9:46 AM on January 18


I am a person who has difficulty with languages. When I was in high school I remember being in a beginner Spanish class learning about rolling Rs. I was one of the only kids in the class who couldn't get it, and couldn't get anywhere near it. I've tried to learn so many languages, and mostly failed at them all. Spanish, French, German ... I was normally an A student but languages flummoxed me, and I almost flunked out of Latin when I was in elementary school. I'm not dumb -- in other contexts I will run circles around my peers -- but there was a real difference between me and my classmates, and my teachers would spend much longer with me correcting my pronunciation than with my peers, and as often as not seemed to just settle for my best approximations where they would get perfection out of other kids. I don't think I hear the same distinctions, and I think my tongue is not as agile in forming the same diversity of sounds that other people can do. I didn't give up, I kept trying language after language, earnestly. But I kind of suck, and I've tried so hard, but it's not my fault.

So. When I am introduced to someone who has sounds in their name that my ear doesn't quite grasp and my tongue doesn't know how to make, I shrivel into myself a little because I sort of know what it going to happen. I will do my best approximation, and the person will look at me with disappointment. We may go through several rounds of this, and the disappointment will probably still be there at the end. Sometimes I do get it, and our mutual relief is almost palpable. Sometimes I will mumble or swallow my best approximation of a person's name in shyness, embarrassment, and a self-serving attempt to avoid the inevitable show of disappointment on the other side.

I read this article when it was posted to the other thread; it was beautifully written and showed me the deep-seated pain that can be on the other side of my mispronunciations. It made me examine the probable white privilege that has led me to put my embarrassment above another person's feelings of acceptance and identity. So I am going to stop mumbling names, first of all, and I am going to try, very hard, to hear the sounds and syllables. I'll add a smile to let someone know I'm honestly trying, and hopefully that will help.
posted by onlyconnect at 9:52 AM on January 18 [9 favorites]


that's a lovely comment, onlyconnect. (eponyppropriate, too.)
posted by sweetkid at 10:00 AM on January 18


Chinese (I'm speaking for Mandarin here, but it's true for Cantonese and other Chinese languages) has a lot of consonant and vowel sounds that do not exist in the English language. Many of these consonant noises are very difficult for untrained English speakers to distinguish, let alone pronounce correctly.

To make matters more complicated, Mandarin is usually romanized using letters that sound nothing like the actual noise. Pinyin is more of a tool for language learners than it is a guide to approximate Mandarin pronunciation.

The icing on the cake? Mandarin has tones! And tones are just as important to mangling or not mangling a name in a tonal language as consonants and vowels. Most speakers of non-tonal languages can't differentiate tones, and even the best learners can take weeks to pronounce them properly, years at worst. I've encountered people who have been studying Chinese and living in China for years who still can't pronounce tones properly. I doubt it's from lack of effort on their part; I'm guessing some people who don't learn it as a child just never develop the ability.

Someone above mentioned that making an effort at pronouncing a name is better than not trying at all - but in the case of Chinese, something that sounds like a "best efforts" pronunciation to an English speaker is invariably going to be just as mangled as a "not trying" pronunciation. Which is why some people find it easier just to use an English name rather than spend the time to teach everyone to pronounce their Chinese name, only to hear it mangled in a different way.

As an example, I've yet to hear anyone on TV pronounce "Mao Zedong" or "Deng Xiaoping" even remotely close to the correct Mandarin pronunciation, despite having decades to learn. Even "Beijing" is usually pronounced wrong, with most English speakers opting for a french "J" as in "Jacque" when it's actually closer to "J" as in "Jack."

And there is yet another complicating factor - since there are many Chinese languages within China like Mandarin, Cantonese, Hakka, Min Nan, etc. that all use the same Chinese writing system, it's possible that person doesn't even go by the Mandarin pronunciation of their name among family and friends in their hometown. Yet the Mandarin Pinyin romanization of their name may be the one in their passports that gets used for immigration to the US as their legal name.
posted by pravit at 10:04 AM on January 18


Unfortunately, trying hard to hear the sounds and syllables is not guaranteed to work. I don't think this has a lot to do with "white privilege". I'm never going to get a lot of mandarin names correct with just 5 minutes of coaching, for instance.
posted by smidgen at 10:06 AM on January 18 [3 favorites]


As an example, I've yet to hear anyone on TV pronounce "Mao Zedong" or "Deng Xiaoping" even remotely close to the correct Mandarin pronunciation, despite having decades to learn.

FWIW, there are equivalently hilarious Cantonese (and probably also Mandarin) versions of "Barack Obama", et al. My father-in-law recited me a list of the ones that he hears on talk radio.

Of course, world figures exist on a different plane than we do - it often makes sense to localize their names.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:09 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


So, as any cultured and geographically aware person is sure to know, the main international airport serving Tokyo is called Narita.

I don't know if I've ever actually said Narita aloud, because I've never been to Japan and it's just never come up in my life otherwise. But in my mind, I would pronounce it pretty much exactly as it sounds in English. Nah-ree-tah.

Yesterday I was listening to NPR, and a journalist pronounced Narita with what must be the proper Japanese pronunciation, and it took me a second to realize that that is how you say Narita. I'm not sure I could properly replicate that series of syllables if I ever suddenly needed to start talking about Narita.

I also remember having trouble being understood in India when I was saying old colonial English place names, which makes me think there must be some specifically Indian way of saying them. There was one rickshaw driver who had the misfortune of needing to take me to Mayfair Road in Pune, who I still feel bad about.

So, yeah, this stuff can be really hard.
posted by Sara C. at 10:14 AM on January 18


FWIW, there are equivalently hilarious Cantonese (and probably also Mandarin) versions of "Barack Obama", et al.

For some reason I find official Chinese transliterations of foreign proper nouns (贝拉克·奥巴马 Beilake Aobama) to be completely inoffensive, while Western newspeak mangling of Chinese names (Beizhing for Beijing, Yoo-on for Yuan, etc) is extremely grating.
posted by bradf at 10:19 AM on January 18


Well, for my last name I pronounce it with a very Americanized pronunciation that I picked up from my parents using it to explain the pronunciation when I was small -it's like a first name put together with a common English word like "think Jane + stairs = Janestairs!" That's mostly how I pronounce it myself even when speaking with speakers of Indian languages. This is in large part because my primary language is American English. This stuff isn't easy for second generation immigrants either.

But the fact that people get the Janestairs type pronunciation and still can't try that even, or say "whatchamacallit" or just straight up refuse, is really rude and yes, having people refuse to engage with such a strong cultural marker over time is very wearying and saddening. It does make you feel like a burden, like your name is a burden, why aren't you making it easier on everyone by changing it to Tanner or Smith?
posted by sweetkid at 10:32 AM on January 18


For some reason I find official Chinese transliterations of foreign proper nouns (贝拉克·奥巴马 Beilake Aobama) to be completely inoffensive, while Western newspeak mangling of Chinese names (Beizhing for Beijing, Yoo-on for Yuan, etc) is extremely grating.

I don't know anyone who would be offended by the Chinese transliterations of foreign proper nouns! Someone so sensitive would probably need a hobby and a Valium and a nap and a polo mallet. My father-in-law and I just found it funny to compare the "official mispronunciations" between the two languages, going one way and the other.

As for your finding English words for Chinese places to be grating, who knows. Maybe because you put for the effort, but others don't? But, I bet there are many places in the world that you still refer to by their English names. While some foreign words for places can be improper or offensive (e.g. Bombay), there is nothing offensive about the general idea that all speakers of all languages have their own words for foreign places.

What do you think about the words "Croatia" and "Albania"? How should one pronounce "Quebec"?
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:35 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


I'll never forget the time, at a family reunion, that my grandfather and his siblings, who are all in their 80s, told me that their very easy monosyllabic Swedish surname was mocked in their Mississippi hometown when they were kids in the 30's and 40's.

That was pretty much when I decided that, on a lot of levels, refusing to try to pronounce someone's name correctly really is a privilege/xenophobia adjacent thing.

(Note that I don't think making a good faith effort and failing is, just the thing where someone tells you their name and you're like "um I'm going to call you Tess".)
posted by Sara C. at 10:39 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


Lee-SUH is very different from LEEZ-uh.

Indeed.
posted by winna at 10:42 AM on January 18 [1 favorite]


While some foreign words for places can be improper or offensive (e.g. Bombay)

This is not actually entirely true. In practice it's best to say Mumbai, and Mumbai is probably in the official style guide for every Anglophone journalistic outlet. But nobody's going to burn you at the stake for ordering a martini with Bombay Sapphire gin. It's not a slur.
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 AM on January 18 [2 favorites]


When my daughter was born, we spent an awful lot of time thinking of a suitable name. Since the name had be easy to pronounce in India as well as in Mexico. No names with J, no names with unintended meanings in spanish, it really took us a while to whittle it down to a few contenders. The other twist was Indian names are generally chosen with meaning in mind, so this added an additional wrinkle.
posted by dhruva at 10:50 AM on January 18


So. When I am introduced to someone who has sounds in their name that my ear doesn't quite grasp and my tongue doesn't know how to make, I shrivel into myself a little because I sort of know what it going to happen. I will do my best approximation, and the person will look at me with disappointment. We may go through several rounds of this, and the disappointment will probably still be there at the end.

onlyconnect, I suck at languages too. I just can't SPEAK them for shit, basically. And I do my best to avoid saying someone's foreign name because well, I will inevitably get it wrong. I'm not sure if never saying the name or saying it wrong is worse, because apparently both are just awful and hurtful according to Tasbeeh. And of course I have a job where I have to be good at this.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:56 AM on January 18


I, too, suck at languages and have a job where this is important. My take on this is that I have to avoid the temptation to use my linguistic suckitude as an excuse to do less than my very best. And if I've done my very best to pronounce people's names correctly and it's still not right, then I hope at least they'll be able to tell that I've made an effort. It's not as good as getting it right, but at least it doesn't convey contempt or disregard.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:13 AM on January 18 [4 favorites]


> FWIW, there are equivalently hilarious Cantonese (and probably also Mandarin) versions of "Barack Obama", et al

I've noticed that British people, including newscasters, usually pronounce his first name BEAR-ack. In a discussion about it one English person said that putting the stress on the second syllable sounded pretentious to him.

> When in French class they had us pick French names, she revealed to me that she had been told to use the name 'Sarah' when she came to the US to fit in better

Yes, to the point that as a Sara I need a coffee name of less popularity. Not long ago I was at a bakery and there were three Sara(h)s in a row, including me.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:35 AM on January 18


A colleague and I frequently commiserate about the powerful yearning people have to stick an extraneous "n" in the middle of our surnames--his is very obviously Polish, mine is very obviously Jewish. One of the reasons I wound up publishing under my full name, not just first and last, is because my middle name is the only one I can rely on people to either write or pronounce properly (there are indeed citations to my work with my name misspelled...).
posted by thomas j wise at 11:51 AM on January 18


Yesterday I was listening to NPR, and a journalist pronounced Narita with what must be the proper Japanese pronunciation, and it took me a second to realize that that is how you say Narita. I'm not sure I could properly replicate that series of syllables if I ever suddenly needed to start talking about Narita.

As I understand it, it's the stress that drives that sort of difference between English and Japanese, rather than the sounds themselves. So it's not so much that you're hearing someone saying something other than your 'nah-ree-tah', but that those syllables are coming out with a different stress/rhythm.* However, my knowledge of Japanese is seriously limited, so someone please correct me.

*AFAIK, the notion stress in English doesn't map well to Japanese, so it's not something like English stresses syllable A and Japanese stresses syllable B.
posted by hoyland at 11:53 AM on January 18


Actually on the Bombay/Mumbai thing, the name change there was pushed for by Shiv Sena, a Marathi Nationalist party that advocated violence and discrimination against non Marathis, particularly South Indians.

Several of the name changes were pushed for by the influence of anti-Muslim, Hindu "extremists" and so not all Indians use Mumbai because of the negative associations - my family and family friends included, who are almost all from the area.

It's definitely not a slur. It's not quite on the level of Burma/Myanmar, but not a slur.

I mean some people may think it so, but in my experience it's people with no connection to the city or to India/Indian culture.
posted by sweetkid at 11:55 AM on January 18 [4 favorites]


My name has been mangled so many times over the years that I have no idea what the correct pronunciation is anymore.
posted by divabat at 11:56 AM on January 18



Anyway, one day he got all pissed off and said "It's pronounced Josh-im! What's wrong with you?!?!".


Yeah, I worked indirectly with an Anglo-looking woman surnamed "Jimenez." But I only ever used her first name and had never heard her surname pronounced, though I assumed it was "hee-MEH-nez." One day, I heard her answering her phone, though, and she pronounced it "JIMen-ez."

I have no idea where she got that pronunciation or whether "Jimenez" was her maiden or married name (I suspect the latter). But, in either case, I figured it was some sort of assimilation mechanism somewhere along the line. Possibly prompted by negative feelings associated with Bill Dana's "My name ees José Jiménez" bit.
posted by the sobsister at 11:58 AM on January 18


I put my name in my profile at least for the time being while we're having this conversation, since I've made awkward stabs at explaining what it is similar to in this thread and the MeTa I started about ironic racism.
posted by sweetkid at 12:17 PM on January 18


One day, I heard her answering her phone, though, and she pronounced it "JIMen-ez."

That sort of thing is really not any weirder than people saying their last name as "duh boyz" instead of "dyoo bwah," "her-zog" instead of "hairt-sog," or "newmun" instead of "noy monn."

I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to some sort of intentional attempt at assimilation. It's easy to see how the pronunciation of a name could change after a couple-few generations of family members who grew up speaking only English.

And even speaking only English at home isn't necessarily some attempt at assimilation -- my ex's maternal grandparents were a German (or Austrian, I forget) immigrant and a first-generation native whose parents were Norwegian immigrants. So they spoke English at home because that was the language they had in common.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:26 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]


Regarding Mumbai/Bombay, of course "Bombay" is not a slur.

However, surely we agree that there are a significant number of contexts, especially official ones, in which people would tell you to say "Mumbai" instead of "Bombay"? That is what I had meant by "improper".

If anything, the mushiness of this example underlines my general point. In and of itself, it is not offensive that languages have words for things, including foreign things. It is relatively difficult to think of a contemporary and commonplace example of when the use of a mere name for a place would be considered offensive.

"Myanmar"/"Burma" is a better example of when the name itself is what matters.

Contrast with how "Siam"/"Thailand" would sort of count, if anybody actually called Thailand "Siam" nowadays, which they don't, Montgomery Burns' autogyro flight plans notwithstanding.

I can think of similar-ish examples, but they would necessarily bring in issues other than the names themselves, e.g. if I were to call Kosovo a part of Greater Serbia, then that would cause offense to a great many people, but there is obviously much more going on there than mere choice of nomenclature.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:53 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]


I feel very strongly about the mispronunciation of my name, but I don't have particularly bad about going by a nickname.

My given name is Bobak. I've gone by Bobby for as long as I remember. Now, my parents even call my Bobby most of the time.

My parents diverged from the more common spelling "Babak" because they thought people would pronounce it as [bæbæk]. So I have Bobak, but that spelling is even worse. I have always been called "Bo-back" on the first try. Even worse, my name isn't pronounced bob'ack, as the spelling seems to imply, but rather Bah.bak.

I get asked by people all the time what the "correct" way to pronounce my name is. I honestly don't want to hear them try.

Sure, I would love for everyone to pronounce my name right, but it makes me cringe to hear people try and fail to call me by my given name. The people like her math teacher who actually try tend to put me off even more. It feels patronizing.

I really liked this piece, though. I don't think I'll ever feel as much pride in my name as the author feels about hers, and I think that's a bit sad. Also, Tasbeeh is a way cooler name.
posted by azarbayejani at 1:19 PM on January 18


I had a coworker named Toufiq who was of Moroccan origin (he volunteered this, I didn't ask). My boss pronounced his name as "TOE-fick" and I winced but didn't correct him. That couldn't be right! Morocco is a former French colony, it's got to be "too-FEEK." I felt all superior and shit.

I'm glad I asked Toufiq to clarify because I was an idiot, it really is TOE-fick.
posted by desjardins at 2:04 PM on January 18 [1 favorite]


So it's not so much that you're hearing someone saying something other than your 'nah-ree-tah', but that those syllables are coming out with a different stress/rhythm.*

No, it's mainly what the letter "r" does in Japanese (it's sort of somewhere between R, L, and D, but not properly any of them), and also the way the last vowel in a word is sort of shortened. So, to my ear, it sounds more like "nadit" than anything else.
posted by Sara C. at 3:30 PM on January 18


My name is Aodhagán. I've become numb to that reoccurring conversation about my name, it's spelling, meaning etc..

I won't fall out with you if you get it wrong.
Didn't feel that way when I was younger though. I just wanted a "normal" name and not be burdened all them vowels. I don't know, I guess this article reminds me of the things I usually suppress in the name of maintaining polite social balance.
posted by we are the music makers at 4:42 AM on January 19


I specifically go by Olya, instead of Olga (which is legally my name), because I prefer how Non-Eastern Europeans mispronounce Olya to Olga. (people mispronounce both - the name is "soft" in Russian, but sounds "hard" in English/Germanic/Latin languages). So even though very, very few people will ever say Olya correctly, I prefer the "type" of mispronunciation of Olya more than Olga.

There are ways of dealing with being an immigrant. There is a happy middle.
posted by olya at 8:49 AM on January 19 [2 favorites]


My married name was Arabic and contained two consonants that I couldn't pronounce without my husband doubling over in laughter. He was sympathetic, though, and we agreed on a pronunciation that might be more approachable for USians who weren't familiar with Arabic. That was not gonna happen, though, as the name contained two leading letters that were more-or-less unpronounced, a hyphen, and a Q not followed by a U.

I don't understand why in this millennium, computer systems cannot handle a name that LEGALLY is spelled with a hyphen. My new post-marriage last name is also hyphenated [I added my mom's maiden name to my own maiden name], and people can never find me in their system. Is it under Smith? Or Jones? Or Smith-Jones? In addition, both names are uncommon, and the hyphenated last name unique to me. A lot of places give up and use my birth-date or phone number to find me. My ex now often spells his name wrong [except on legal documents], changing the Q to a K and removing the first two letters and hyphen, and most people can sort of get close.
posted by QuakerMel at 1:34 PM on January 19


"Myanmar"/"Burma" is a better example of when the name itself is what matters.

Except that even there it gets complicated, since last I heard, human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi referred to the country as "Burma", saying that "Myanmar" was the name chosen by the SLORC, who represent no one but themselves.

I've heard similar things said about "Mumbai" as the creation of the right-wing parties in India, though I'm less clear whether that's actually true. So by choosing what you think is the "correct" name you can easily find yourself on the side of the conservatives (or worse) in a culture war.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:57 AM on January 20 [1 favorite]


Thank you, sweetkid, first for the MeTa that I first saw this link in, and now for this FPP. I grew up in India but now live in the US, and the name thing is still a struggle almost half a century later. I'm actually doubly-blessed -- I have an unusual Arabic name so even as a kid in India I had to put up with shit. Why would you want to insult me immediately upon meeting me? If you find my name hard to pronounce, just ask me for help -- I will be ecstatic that you want to get it right.

I used to [try to] grin and bear it -- why make waves? But now that I'm old and curmudgeonly I no longer care about offending assholes. "Your name is so hard -- can I just call you Joe?" "Your name is hard too -- can I just call you Asshole?" (Ok, I've never actually said that, I usually just go with some flavour of "No, my name is X".)

FWIW, I went to college in Bombay, and to me it will never be Mumbai.
posted by phliar at 1:38 PM on January 20


And at sandwich shops etc. where they ask for your name, I make something up -- usually slavic, "Zvonko" is my favourite.
posted by phliar at 1:51 PM on January 20


There's a lovely woman where I'm working now whose name is Wambui. And yes, I did stumble over her name a couple times at first and ask her to repeat it. But she appreciates that I worked on getting it right (she actually advised me to just call her "Bam-bam," like everyone else, but I persisted).

Also, I actually came up with a mispronunciation she hadn't heard before, and that amused her too much - early on I confessed that even though I knew it was wrong, I had the impulse to call her "Zamboni". She nearly fell down laughing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:56 PM on January 20 [1 favorite]


I never understood why teachers never ask the students their names. Just walk around the classroom, "Hi, I'm Professor Fred Rogers, or just Professor, and you are? struh kee lee us eks top ah lah tah ket ell, did I get that right? And I should call you struh kee lee us, yes? Okay, very nice to meet you!" Sure, it takes a few extra minutes, but it's far more respectful.
posted by disconnect at 7:12 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


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