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.



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.

34 thoughts on “Names in transit”

  1. I get all the English towns except St. Clair. A hint, please?

    My last name, Beaty (pronounced in my family as Bait-ee), is spoken in Italian as Beati: Bay-ah-tea, meaning blessed in the plural. I can live with it, and often use it myself when in Italy, as it makes reservations easier!

    1. Sinclair, like Sinjun
      Try "bay-ah-tea, ma con ipsilon" with the Italians.
      Oppure, just spell it…that's what I do "bee, ay, ah, tea, ipsilon"

      1. Being relatively fluent in Italian, I can certainly do that. But it far easier to accept the "mispronunciation" than correct it! But I wish I were fluent in the "King's English"!

  2. I like my anonymity so I'm not going to reveal my last name, but I'll just say that I wish my (probably-illiterate) ancestors had managed to keep the German spelling, because the Anglicization leads to it being mispronounced by people who aren't familiar with it the majority of the time. It's interesting, because the only different is an i->y substitution, but for some reason that gets me a rounded vowel, whereas I suspect the German spelling would not.

  3. the final s in Gomes can be Iberian s or Brazilian sh

    I'm afraid you've got that the wrong way round.

  4. Pronouncing Polish names would be easier if the Finns hadn't stolen all of their vowels.

  5. Sorry, Mike–your suggestions won't always work. Nobody knows what Sabl means, or used to mean, so I can't translate. One nice idea is that the name is a Czech-land shortening of "Säbel," German for saber or sword–but it's not likely that a family of dirt-poor Jews banned from carrying weapons would have been dubbed "saber" by a Habsburg bureaucrat a couple of centuries ago. It's possible, of course, that said bureaucrat, in a suitably nasty mood, derived the name from the verb "sabbern." That means, alas, "to drool."

    As for transliterating so the sound is obvious to English-speakers: darned if I'm going to change my name to "Sawbull."

    I fall back on telling people that the name rhymes (more or less) with "bauble," which works fine. And just as people can learn a bit of Chinese culture from your student's name, they can learn a bit of Austrian/Czech spelling ("Czechs of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your vowels") from mine. I point out to the curious the similar cases of Ivan Lendl, and of the Mandl pastry shop in that silly Wes Anderson movie.

    By the way, I find the following from your post one of the funniest lines ever written: "If Heidi Przybyla were Pzhybyla, Chris Matthews would say it instead of mumbling awkwardly to introduce her." Seriously?? 😉

    The truth is that a lot of Americans–many of whom do not, in fact, come from immigrant-rich areas–will stumble over most names that don't sound like they might have come from the Hardy Boys. One gets used to it.

    1. No reason l can't be a vowel, like the Serbian r.
      German names are fun to dig into–and some are really perplexing; how could the Schleichers let that go on generation after generation? I asked my colleague Max Auffhammer why the two f's, and learned that the family coat of arms is an owl and a hammer, and Auff is Old Bavarian for owl.

    2. Some of them seem to stumble on purpose, even when the name is spelled in a manner completely consistent with English phonetics and orthography that ought to be trivial to pronounce.

  6. This seems to be an English-language thing.

    I noted this when studying French, and looking at maps of Europe; in general, the French spelling sounds the same, and the English spelling looks the same.

    Warsawa/Varsovie/Warsaw, Czecko, Tchequie/Czech

  7. Delaware. Wilkes-Barre. The more names change…

    When my father emigrated, he chose a pronunciation that fit neither the original german (that "ch" sound doesn't exist in english, nevermind the W) nor the obvious english rendering. (Appropriately enough, the original meaning of the word is apparently something like "immigrant furriner".)

  8. I wonder who's Kissinger now.

    This post reminds of the joke about the fellow who called himself Moise LaFontaine, having adapted his shtetl nickname – "moishe pisher."

  9. With all due respect, I rather think the choice isn't yours. People have the right to spell and pronounce their names any way they see fit. Names are highly entangled with the ego and the id. I read a little psychological study many years back saying that the single best ice-breaker when you meet someone new is to ask them about their name. "Oh that's an interesting name, do you like it?", "Sue, eh? — Do you prefer being called that to Susan?", "Oh that has a lovely old-fashioned ring to it, is it a family name?" "How is that spelled, and can you pronounce it for me one more time?" It establishes immediate psychological intimacy without seeming pushy or intrusive. Why? Because we don't even recognize at a conscious level how intertwined our name is with our perception of self.

    Nobody pronounces my name correctly down here, especially the Cubans, but I don't mind them calling me AH-bay DOY-lay. Although my father used to be quite insistent that it was a one-syllable last name, rhyming with Coil, not Royal.

    The habit I don't care for is among many of my Irish brethren in the states who use Gaelic spellings but give them English pronunciations. If you want to call your daughter Kate-Lynn, knock yourself out. But Caitlin is pronounced Kathleen. It would be like naming her Siobhain, but pronouncing it SY-o-bane. There are several other examples — but as an O'Hare, you doubtless know plenty of "professional Irishmen" who've made these all-too-Cromwellian decisions.

    1. I'm not saying you're wrong… but I'd be careful. I could easily imagine an insecure person of a different culture being completely offended at a name-based interrogation. YMMV. Asking most questions is tricky, imo.

      1. "Whoa, are you tryin' to hock a loogie, or pronounce your name? And say, ever tried bacon-infused vodka?"

    2. In the plant I worked in Ireland a few years ago, this call came over the PA;

      "Will Tom Oggerman pick up the phone? Call for Tom Oggerman"

      I am not sure how long it took for the penny to drop that someone in the US was calling Tom O'Gorman, but had not encountered the Gaelic O-apostrophe before.

  10. Oh I'm also reminded of an excellent ad during the NCAA tournament several years back, probably for a beer. Several college-aged young men emerge from the baggage carousel and see a limo driver with a sign saying "Coach Krzyzewski". One of the young men raises his hands and says: "why yes, I'm Coach Kerzizzeezoowesky". There were probably Bud Lights in the back of the limo.

  11. This post is hi-larious, and I laughed a lot even though I am mostly lost. Though learning a bit of Gaelic is on my To Do list. Besides the Irish, I think Turks have the weirdest spellings, but then I am mostly only familiar with "Western" names so who even knows. Finns would almost count except it seems like they just squeeze a bunch of words together, which I don't think should count and certainly shouldn't be encouraged… wait, or maybe it should? Maybe it would make me smarter, like chopstick use? Or is that a myth?

  12. And here's the thing: Gomes has been pronounced "Goamz" in Rhode Island, where there are many people of Portuguese descent, and BY people of Portuguese descent, for at least 75 years. So what do you do with that? try to turn back the clock?

  13. I confess that when I worked in Massachusetts state government, I sometimes allowed people to believe what they inferred.

    I once heard David Cone make a similar remark about his days as a pitcher in New York.

  14. First day of the semester, I call the names from the cards they fill out. One year, I had "Renate Kaeten." I prounced it as Renata Cay-ten. "Oh my god," she said, "you're the first teacher who's every said it correctly." Most of the Italians have adopted the Anglicized phonetic version (Falcone, etc.). I asked Mike Citarella, "Is it SIT-arella or CHIT-arella.?" He said, "Chitarella? I never heard that one." What I'm curious about is the selection of Anglo first names. Why are so many of the Asian boys named Kevin and Brian? Why so many Hispanic girls named Stephanie?

    1. I don't know about the selection of Anglo first names by Asians, but I do know that, years ago, many Jewish immigrants gave their children, especially sons, very Anglo-sounding first names. This was so common that some of these, like Seymour or Howard, came to be identified as typical Jewish first names.

      1. I guess this is the time to note the legend about the Eastern European Jew anxiously arriving at Ellis Island with no English. When immigration agent O'Malley asked his name, he forgot what he had been told to answer to what question, blurted out "schön vergessen!" in Yiddish (I completely forgot!) and became Shane Ferguson. This was said to have happened more than once…

        1. It's a great story. I wonder if there is any documentation of it ever happening.

  15. My adoptive father's last name was "Chiara", pronounced Key-ara. Or depending on the person, Chi-era, Chira, or memorably, Chicatura.

  16. "Gomes is just Portuguese Gomez, not goamz". The way to solve such problems is this: Gomez in American-Latino is pronounced /ˈɡoʊmɛz/. The code is the International Phonetic Alphabet. IPA. This is the least complex tool capable of of describing the phonology of the world's languages, which means it can't be simple. Wikipedia on the Khwe language of the Khoisan family of Africa, which you and I would be quite incapable of pronouncing, even approximately:

    Khwe has 70 phonemic consonants, including 35 clicks, as well as 25 vowel phonemes, including diphthongs and nasalized vowels. Khwe's tone system has been analyzed as containing 9 syllabic tones (3 register and 6 contour), although more recent proposed analyses identify only 3 lexical tones, high, mid and low, with the mora as the basic unit of phonological structure. Tone sandhi processes are common in Khwe and related languages.
    Khoe click inventories generally combine four anterior constrictions types with nine to eleven anterior constrictions. The exact size of the click inventory in Khwe is unclear. Köhler established an inventory of 36 click phonemes, from combinations of four influxes and nine effluxes, as well as a borrowed voiced alveolar click, ⟨ǃ̬⟩…

    In a Khwe sample word ǁámÌ€, 'taste, smell, touch', the bars are a lateral click. [Update: it should be a double vertical as per IPA; WordPress showed it in the draft but not in the published text.]

    Without the IPA we are all just messing around. I think its rudiments should be taught in schools, along with the NATO/ICAO alphabet (Alpha, Bravo, Charlie..)

      1. I just copied and pasted the entry in an online dictionary claiming it was the American pronunciation. I'm sure you're right about Californian usage – the large number of Hispanics will no doubt have pushed it in an Iberian direction. Wiktionary gives Portuguese Gomes as /ˈɡo.mɨʃ/. We are now having a discussion using a vocabulary that admits of resolution.

        My problem with the display of the click symbol Unicode 449 is odd (Firefox and Chrome under Windows 10). I copied and pasted from Wikipedia. The symbol shows up on the IPA web page, so it's not an html problem. The symbol displays correctly in Chrome under Android.

    1. "Gomes is just Portuguese Gomez, not goamz;"

      This is interesting.

      I'm no expert, but I am Portuguese-American on my Father's side and grew up near heavily Portuguese New Bedford, MA, and all my life I have heard "Gomes" pronounced "Gomsh" by people with Continental Portuguese (not Brasilian) backgrounds.

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