Word Nerd: What ‘unpronounceable’ names can teach us

6 Jun

If you don’t know French, the name Champs-Élysées can be quite a head-scratcher (correct pronunciation here). Thing is, if you plan to study abroad, you’ll find yourself dealing with ‘unpronounceable’ names on a daily basis. Botching the name of a place or thing is less likely to give offense, but what about people’s names?

Hand holding Starbucks coffee cup with "Stephine" written on it

There’s a simple solution. When possible, just ask people politely what they prefer to be called, and whether you’re pronouncing it correctly. When you stop and think about it, most names are not actually unpronounceable, when someone tells us how to say them.

If it’s your name that’s being butchered, don’t get mad – respond patiently, and keep your sense of humor handy. One of my friends in the US had the surname Ramasubramanian. Imagine that you are European or American or Australian, and have no idea which vowel sounds to use when you see this spelling, or which syllable to emphasize. It’s like being at sea without a compass. I made this rebus for my friend to print and post on her office door – RAM, a sub, rum, onion:

Collage of images of RAM, a submarine sandwich, a bottle of rum, and an onion

As a class instructor at a US university, I came across Chinese, Korean and East European names all the time. On one occasion, I confused a Chinese student’s name and surname. I asked him after class whether I had said his name correctly, and he politely pointed out my error. The thing is, if I hadn’t asked him, he might never have corrected me, and I’d have continued to say his name wrong.  Lesson learned: take the initiative to get it right.

After that, I did a little research on Chinese names, and found that patterns vary, as they do in India. Some people include their father’s name in their name, some have two-word names while others have three-word names, some people use the standardized Pinyin transliteration while others don’t, and some simply use an English name. So for example, if your birth name is Chan Kong-sang, you might go by the name Jackie Chan.

In academia, one meets people from around the world. Figuring out how to pronounce people’s names is an ongoing challenge, not a temporary phase. It’s not a tiresome chore if you look on the brighter side. ‘Unpronounceable’ names can be great ice-breakers at gatherings. They can teach us to put a brake on our cultural assumptions about others, and help open our eyes to the world.

Got a funny story to share about an ‘unpronounceable’ name? Leave a comment below, or write to us at editor@braingainmag.com!


By: Uma Asher

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