Immigration and mangled names

I was planning to reflect on the French elections but distracted myself by the following peripheral issue (substance to follow in another post):

We need to figure out how to say the new president’s name. In the US media, it’s been accented on the second and third syllables or pronounced with no particular stress, and with an initial s as in soup. But the same reports repeatedly note his embrace of his Hungarian parentage, which indicates that his real name (language is what’s spoken; writing is a notation for it) would be written in English as Sharkozy, and with the accent firmly on the first syllable; “Charkozy” in French. (What we say as Sarkozy would be written as Szarkozy in Magyar; this hissifying of Hungarian names with s is a common occurrence, as is the displacement of the accent. (A little Googling indicates that the Sarkozy’s also lost a couple of accents in the train from Budapest, acute over the a and an umlaut over the o, which are phonemic in Magyar, but they indicate vowel sounds that don’t exist in French, so this is understandable.)

It’s a wry comment on the power of bureaucracy that the spelling of his name on his parents’ passports, in a language with its own conventions, should change his name to the point of causing it to be mispronounced; if Magyar were written in Cyrillic or Arabic characters, it would have been notated and said correctly (or close) in French (and English). French spelling is much more phonetic than English, but not perfectly. If we can say Worcester, Cholmondeley, and St. John correctly, the French can certainly learn to call their president by his right name, and I think he should start using it and suggesting others do the same. Surely the moral and intellectual authority of the RBC will effect this change, even across the ocean…and while I’m at it, as a reader reminds me, George Shorosh and Tom Lantosh, please take note and get with the program.

UPDATE: One reader points out correctly that Charkeuzy is quite manageable for a francophone and renders the ö pretty well. He also points out that hissification afflicts lots of German names (those with st and sp beginning a syllable). A blogger notes(implicitly) that in Hungary, le président élu would be Sarkozy Nicolas but more interestingly, and I’m sure along with many others, says “Sarkozy’s real name is whatever he calls himself.”

This perfectly reasonable claim raises an interesting question, actually related to the philosophical puzzle of Theseus’ ship, because names (even first names) are usually shared by many people and carry a cloud of history and associations, sometimes literal meanings (Baker, Miller, etc.), and exist beyond the personality of any particular user. This is one reason why you normally need to go before a judge to change yours. While I may have the authority to declare that my personal name is Oueir, perhaps on relocation to Italy for the benefit of my Italian friends, I haven’t changed the reality of the name O’Hare, and while Charkeuzy may correct the spoken rendering, on paper it makes the ethnic origin of the name, and therefore of the person, invisible.

There’s no good solution in practice to the challenge facing an immigrant who knows the ‘real’ spelling of his name will indicate a mispronunciation in his new home (or worse, unpronounceability: it’s really hard for people to enounce or even hear sounds that are not present or phonemic in their native language), and who also knows that the written version in paper records, computer files, and on official documents may be more real for many purposes than his physical person. I can’t borrow a nickel from a bank on the basis of my physical self, but my virtual self, especially including my written name, can get stuff sent to it from people I never meet just by being typed in internet order forms.

As my name contains two dipthongs that are never rendered by one letter in Latin languages, and whose only real consonant is silent in Spanish and Italian (its sound doesn’t even exist in the latter), I have to spell it constantly as no Frenchman, Spaniard, or Italian can make even a close guess at what letters might denote such a collection of sounds. I also have to listen for really imaginative guesses in airport gate announcements. With tonal languages, pitch is phonemic, as though the see‘s in “See?” and “I see!” were completely different words. Heaven only knows what Chinese and Vietnamese names pronounced in countries of immigration sound like to their owners…

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.