Names in Transit

One of the nice things about living in a country of immigration is, well, living among people from all sorts of interesting places with different ideas and habits. And their children.  A nice reminder of this gift is all the foreign names we encounter.

What’s “foreign” to an American is of course a very fuzzy category. Our largest ethnic-source populations are German and British, in that order, and the pronunciation of those names is for the most part readily inferred using English spelling rules (Cholmondeley, Worcester, St. John, St. Clair not so much, OK).  But lots of other names come from places where spelling and phonetics associate differently.  (A few have sounds that are unknown in English, which is a different problem. I am especially aware of this because my own name is really hard for speakers of Latin languages, partly because of the -ayer dipthong and partly because of the sounded h.  If I say my name on the phone to an Italian, he can no more spell it than he could spell a sneeze. Combining an accent, strictly rendered, with orthography, can have a hilarious result.)

For some reason, a lot of immigrants, enabled by the rest of us, act as though their legal name, as first written in the Roman alphabet (at home, or the transliteration assigned upon immigrating), is their ‘real’ name, and get into the situation encountered by this second generation UK immigrant.  As language is a spoken medium, recorded usefully by writing, I propose that your real name is how it was pronounced in the old country, or as nearly as possible, and if you have a choice, you should render it by local rules. If you don’t want to do that, insist that people pronounce it properly, or close.  Ms. Chalabi’s parents would have done better just to name her Muna or Moona and as her family name is in any case a transliteration, Shalabi (if my Iraqi consultant guesses right about her case) would have been better than the ambiguous Chalabi.

Gomes is just Portuguese Gomez, not goamz; sports announcers have no trouble with the Spanish version; why not just say it right, and why don’t the ballplayers insist on it?  It won’t be perfect;  the final s in Gomes can be Iberian/Carioca sh or s, and the o should be short, which violates English rules. And I forgive pronouncing Spanish z as in English instead of s.  But the name has two syllables, and saying it more or less authentically enriches our culture.  Czech and Hungarian names routinely have their stress shifted away from the first syllable; there’s no reason not to say POkorny.

Eastern European names are a minor minefield, mostly because of the Polish single consonant rz and uncertainty about c, cz, and cs whose  sounds vary across Mitteleuropa.  Getting vowels right is daunting, mainly because unaccented vowels in English become schwas and we have few pure vowels in the first place, but consonants are more important and not that hard to match. The Car Talk brothers had an ongoing riff years ago about a nonprofit sending vowels to former Yugoslavia, in that case mostly because of not recognizing that in Serbian, r is a vowel. English has a perfectly serviceable rendering of the Polish rz sound, and Carl Yastrzemski’s people would have done well just to spell it Yastzhemski when they got off the boat; even sportscasters would say it right. And if Heidi Przybyla were Pzhybyla, Chris Matthews would say it instead of mumbling awkwardly to introduce her. The philanthropist Soros György quite reasonably went for George and put his family name last, but why not Shorosh; nothing hard to pronounce about the real thing.

Many of my Chinese students have “American” first names; recent Singaporean Cal graduate Jia Hui calls herself Jean here, a name chosen by her parents. The idea is to ease their integration with western contexts, but I wish they wouldn’t do that; it seems like we’re missing out on some cultural competency practice and learning, not to mention conversation starters. Indeed, when I asked her about this, I learned the following interesting stuff:

All of our Chinese names mean something, and are usually references to character traits, qualities or virtues that our parents (or whoever was involved in the naming process) wish for us to have. Since many different characters have the same pronunciation, it’s important to look at how the character is written. My “Jia” means home, loosely associated with holding the family and household in high regard; “Hui” means wisdom, associated with having intelligence.

Even though these are 2 separate characters, my parents only really got to choose the “Hui” character for my name, because the “Jia” character already runs in the family. Some larger families like to match their names, so it’s easy to identify that we are from the same family just by looking at our names. For example, my sister’s Chinese name is Jia Ming, and my cousins’ are Jia Hong and Jia Jia.

Couldn’t get any of that from Jean! There’s a standard transliteration from Chinese to Roman letters: just use it and enrich the culture! Tell us how to say it, we can handle it, even if we mangle the tones … and include the latter  so we can try (my consultant is actually Jiā Huì).  I do appreciate the habit of putting the family name in caps (if they don’t, we can’t tell if they already switched them for our benefit).

My summary recommendation, and I fully expect the world to repair to this banner immediately: immigrants should spell their names as nearly as possible–using English spelling conventions–as the name is said. For names from Arabic, Chinese, etc., transliterate/Romanize.

There is another option, which is to translate, at least when names mean something in the original.  I don’t favor this, though I wonder if Madison Bumgarner wishes great grandpa Baumgartner had just gone for Forester. Assimilating Jews have turned Schönberg and Goldberg into Belmont and Ormont, or some such things, a regrettable move.  My mother saddled me with a completely misleading moniker; she was Jewish (therefore I am by Jewish law) and as she told the story, said when I was born “if he’s going to be O’Hare, at least he should have a nice Jewish first name.”  [Which it is, meaning “who is like God?” in Hebrew; I was relieved to find out it’s a rhetorical question, not something I was expected to live up to.] She maintained until she died that it never occurred to her that stuck on O’Hare, Michael is as Irish as Paddy’s proverbial pig, and as I have no real Irish heritage or identity at all, just further misdirection.  I confess that when I worked in Massachusetts state government, I sometimes allowed people to believe what they inferred.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O’Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.