Updated: May 8, 2020
Someone you have just met tells you, politely, that you've mispronounced their name. What do you do? The most welcome response is, “thanks for telling me, can you say it again so I can get it right.”
Too often, many of us with names that are not considered "real" American names hear something quite different.
“Wong? It should be pronounced Wang, look at the spelling it’s W-A-N-G.”
Joe Wang well knows the spelling of his last name, and he also knows that his family pronounces it Wong. Take his cue and say it as he does. I think we can all agree that it’s just as easy to say Wong as it is to say Wang. So if Joe tells you it’s Wong, that’s how you say it.
It can be confusing; I get that. Take the last name Levine. Some folks pronounce it Lah-veen, others say Lah-vine. Is one wrong and the other right? No, they are just different versions of the same name. You say tomato, I say tomatoh, let’s call the whole thing off.
Ever seen Saoirse on someone’s name badge? I wouldn’t know where to start on that beautiful Irish name.
“In the words of the very notable actress Saoirse Ronan, who spent her childhood in Dublin and Co. Carlow, her name is pronounced ‘Sur-sha’, like ‘inertia’.” But this article (click here to read) explains that there are multiple pronunciations of this name in Ireland. “In Galway, however, you will likely hear ‘Sair-sha’, while in Northern Ireland, ‘Seer-sha’ is much more common. In another corner of Ireland, ‘Sor-sha’ might be the norm. It really is a matter of dialect.”
My friend Paven who is of South Asian ancestry, and as American as apple pie, has heard many attempts at his name: PAY-van, Pave-in, Pah-VON.
“It’s like oven with a P in front, it’s pronounced Poven.”
Not hard, just need to remember and practice. If you can say oven, you can say Paven.
When we are learning to read, we are taught to break a word down into syllables and to sound them out. So it’s natural that native speakers of English will give a word the sounds associated with the letters they are seeing. Our frame of reference for written language is rooted in our native tongue and the sound system associated with that language. We all have experience pronouncing a word in more than one way. take R-E-A-D, for example. I'm going to read a book this evening. Oh yes, I read the Murmur of Bees, last week and loved it. OK, let me get out of the weeds here . . .
Getting a name wrong when you first meet someone gives you a pass. You can’t know until someone tells you. You will not be judged as a “bad person” for having said it the "wrong" way.
A simple, “OK, thanks for telling me, can you help me say it correctly,” is all that's needed.
But once someone tells you how they pronounce their name, it's on you to do your best to say it right. Ask if they have any tips that might be helpful (like oven with a P in front). And it's OK to ask someone to repeat their name and to say it more slowly.
Here, however, are a few things, that you best stay away from. And you might be surprised how often people say these.
Don’t you have a nickname?
Your name is too hard, I just can’t say it.
Can I call you something else?
Don’t you have an English name?
You should change your name to something people can say.
Why are you so sensitive about people getting your name right?
If you enjoyed Episode 2 of my Stairwell Theater Series or this blog, please share it with a friend. I plan to post two videos weekly.
And remember during the Covid-19 pandemic, stay home, quedense en casa, and wash your hands often. If you must go out for essential errands, wear a mask and gloves. Stay safe, stay healthy. Your family and our whole world depend on each of us doing our part.