Sorry, What’s Your Name Again?

It can be a bit of a drag having a fairly uncommon name, sometimes. Not that I’ve ever wanted to change my name, or generally been unhappy with it, but it sometimes feels like it’d be nice to have a name that people understand straight away, and can’t later mispronounce. It’s ok in Ireland because even if it’s not the most common name, it’s still known by everybody. Even for English speakers from other countries, it’s not too difficult, as it’s a pretty simple sound common in English. Like smile, or while, or of course, Nile.

It’s trickier when I’m giving my name to non-English speakers. That /aɪ/ sound isn’t so common in many languages, especially in monosyllabic words. In fact, pronouncing monosyllabic words in general can be difficult for non-English speakers. They’re generally more common in English, but they can also be difficult to hear properly simply because they’re so short. When you’re listening to a word to try to understand it, you usually expect at least a second syllable, so when the word finishes after one, it’s surprising, and we don’t really take in the sound of the word. So I tend to get lots of two-syllable versions of my name, or the more common Neil. Which I also get a lot actually, understandably as it’s so much more common internationally. And that’s probably the one thing more frustrating than having an uncommon name: having a name similar to a more common one, which people will always call you by.

Which does tend to make you a bit protective of your name. We all are, really, it’s such an integral part of our identity. But working as an English teacher makes you realise what it’s like for non-English speakers having to deal with how English speakers deal with their names. Of course most of us try our best, but some names feature sounds that we don’t have in standard English, which are tricky for us to pronounce. And some names from European languages tend to be similar to English ones, or even look identical to them, so we tend to pronounce them in an English style. So non-English speakers living in an English-speaking environment tend to learn to adjust. For many Korean and Chinese speakers, this involves choosing an English name, as their original names can be so different from English names that we can struggle to pronounce them. Others might not need to go that far, but instead come up with a shorter, much easier-to-pronounce version of their name.

Which for most people is a pretty reasonable compromise, and it’s not like English doesn’t lack for shorter forms of lots of names. But of course that doesn’t really help me! Still, I’ve learned to become more relaxed if people don’t pronounce my name exactly as I do. And I’ve also learned to stop telling people it’s pronounced like the river in Egypt when I’m meeting a new class, as most languages don’t pronounce it like we do in English anyway.

How about you? Do people ever struggle with your name?

13 thoughts on “Sorry, What’s Your Name Again?

  1. Well, it depends. Most people who speak English see Nebiyat and instantly feel intimidated, until they see my second and last names (Tariku Mengesha). But then again, part of my second name’s problem is orthographically it’s spelled with ኩ /ku/ but because of how I speak Tigrinya I say /xu/; which confuses some people who see it spelt with in English. Either way, I don’t get too defensive over improper pronunciations because even family members say Neby anyways, and my name is fairly uncommon in my ethnic group so it’s more likely that someone who speaks Amharic will say my full name as opposed to someone who speaks Tigrinya.

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  2. Most people have no problem with “Fiona”, especially since the Shrek films. They are occasionally surprised that it’s pronounced pretty much as it’s spelled, because they assume it must be some ancient Irish name like Aoife or Siobhan. (It was actually invented by an 18th-century Scottish author, although it does derive from the Scots Gaelic word “fionn” meaning fair.)

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    • I didn’t realise it was so new! I’m not surprised it’s from the romantic weather though, with the big vogue for Celtic culture at the time. I can believe that it’s a relief that it’s pronounced phonetically though!

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      • I was surprised to find it was so new myself. Apparently, the key to it not being ancient Irish/Scottish is that little “a” at the end. The Celtic languages don’t use “a” as a feminine marker; that’s more a Romance language thing.

        Still, I can’t really complain. It’s a pleasant-sounding name and doesn’t get mispronounced by adults (toddlers sometimes have trouble with the “ee-oh” sound and call me “Fona”).

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  3. I can understand why you feel defensive about your name. People should have the decency to learn how to pronounce someone’s name correctly once that person becomes a part of their every day life. All it takes is a little personal interest and the will to do so. Would it be right for me to expect someone to change or shorten their name just to make matters easier for me? I don’t think so. A person’s name is their identity, the first ever gift their parents gave to them, it’s not something that should be there for other people’s convenience.

    My nation’s names can be difficult for outsiders in the beginning, but again it all depends on a person’s willingness to go out of their way and draw closer to people. I had a friend called Despina (Δέσποινα in Greek). It’s a pretty common name; it means “Lady” and, as a title, it’s attributed to Mary, the mother of Jesus. (Perhaps you’re familiar with the masculine form δεσπότης from which you get the word “despot” in English.) Anyway, it’s a name made up of just three syllables, and the accent goes on the first one. So, it’s DEspina, not DeSPIna or DespiNA. There was this British woman who didn’t seem to be able to get it right. She insisted on calling her DeSPIna, no matter how many times she was corrected, or, even worse, “Desp”. (!!!!) After a while, my friend started calling her SamanTHA. That did the trick in no time. She was miraculously able to pronounce her name correctly.

    It just shows you.

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