How Do You Say That?

I have recently become intrigued by the concept of name pronunciation.  Different cultures and different regions pronounce words differently.  We’ve accepted that people in the South pronounce pen and pin the same and that a lot of words sound very different if someone from, say, Boston says them.

When it comes to names, though, are those differences acceptable?  Or are you required to pronounce the name as the person it belongs to pronounces it?

There is a boy on my son’s basketball team named Dashawn.  I’m not sure of the spelling but after my son told me his name, I pronounced it “duh-shawn” with an emphasis, if any, on the second syllable.  At a recent game, I sat near his mother, who called out his name “DAY-shawn” (with an emphasis on the first syllable).

I found myself in a delimma.  I can’t seem to pronounce it that way.  Try as I might, I can’t seem to use the long A in the first syllable and put the emphasis on that syllable.  At least, not without sounding like I’m trying to adopt a fake accent.  But am I even expected to?  Or is it just her accent?  If I try to pronounce it that way, will she think I’m making fun of her rather than trying to honor the proper pronunciation of her son’s name?

I didn’t worry about such things until recently.  I thought dialect issues were just that.  I say “law-yer”, you say “loy-yer” and we both know what we are saying and it doesn’t matter.  Such dialect issues didn’t translate to names very often.  At least, not that I ever noticed.

But then my son started correcting me on another friend’s name.  This other boy’s name is Sawyer.  Just like lawyer, I pronounce it ‘saw-yer’.  Every time, my son would correct me, saying it in a way that I couldn’t immediately detect the difference.  I finally asked in exasperation, “How is what I’m saying different from what you are saying?!”

And that’s when I heard the difference.  He was pronouncing it “soy-yer”.  That sounded weird to me, but my son was insistent.  It didn’t feel right on my tongue but I kept trying.  Eventually, I commented on it to Sawyer’s mother.

I was surprised by the strong reaction.  Both she and her son were extremely bothered by people “mispronouncing” his name.  She said she had worked so hard to pick names that couldn’t be mispronounced and she was distressed that his was so regularly pronounced wrong.

I started laughing when she told me Sawyer would tell people, “It’s not hard.  It rhymes with lawyer.”

“But,” I said, “that’s a terrible example because the way I was pronouncing his name rhymes with how I pronounce lawyer.  You are in the South.  We don’t say ‘loy-yer’!”

She sighed and said she knew.  She’s a Yankee stuck in the South, surrounded by people who pronounce her son’s name wrong.  All this time, I thought she was saying “Soy-yer” simply because of her accent and that I was not expected to mangle my pronunciation of that name to match.  But I am.  And now that I know, I do it.

But what abount Dashawn?  I have no idea.  I guess I’ll have to ask his mom too.  I suspect that either Dashawn doesn’t care or he’s too shy to say something, because if he had ever spoken up about it, my son would have immediately enforced the “proper” pronunciation.  Interestingly, there are two common pronunciations of my own name, each more common in different regions of the world.  I don’t particularly like the “other” one but I’ve grown used to it.  Every once in awhile, people ask me my preference and I usually tell them that I don’t bother correcting people unless they butcher it beyond those two pronunciations.

It’s an interesting dichotomy to me.  On the one hand, it’s a bit like spelling.  People can spell and pronounce their names however they want and other people can and will misspell and mispronounce them.  However, spelling is black and white.  No matter how strangly people spell it, there is one “acceptable” spelling for that person.  Pronunciation, on the other hand, depends on accent and on how much people expect you to match theirs when you say their name.

This might seem trivial to many of you.  But sometimes, it’s the little things in life that capture my attention and hold it long enough for me to analyze at great length and then blather on about to whomever will listen.

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5 thoughts on “How Do You Say That?

  1. One of the girlfriends I visited this weekend is from India. Everyone, including herself, pronounced her name one way, so I assumed that was the correct way.

    I then heard her parents call her by name. They pronounced it totally different, so I started saying it as they did. They knew best, after all!

    Occasionally I’ll call her by name and she’ll go, “That IS my name, huh?” I can understand not fighting it, because that’d be an enduring fight. But still, for myself, I feel compelled to go with the weird-for-herd pronunciation. I was thinking about that some today, so this is a well timed post for me.

    • I guess the timing was meant to be since I actually wrote this a month or two ago and it got lost in the shuffle. Every once in awhile, something in a post gives me pause and I hesitate to publish it. Then, I have in my mind that something needs work in it and then it sits while everything else gets published. I have several others like that that will probably roll out in the coming days.

      Regarding your situation with your friend: in the same boat, I think I would have asked her her preference once I heard her parents say it differently. Simply because of the possibility that she might actually prefer the way everyone else says it more. Even if it’s not right. Sounds like that’s not the case with her, but it’s why I probably would have asked. Then again, I never got around to asking Dashawn’s mother about his name, so… *shrug*

  2. Personally, I always go with how the individual themselves pronounces the name. Lots of people butcher both my first and last name, but I try to head that off by introducing myself with the full name before they have a chance to mistake it. And I am convinced that I once landed a job with a very strict interviewer simply by looking at her nameplate on her desk and asking her how to pronounce her surname. She asked me how I thought it would be pronounced, I guessed (and happened to be correct), and she smiled and said, “no one ever asks me, but yes, you’re right.” It was a long and difficult-looking Eastern European name. Turns out she was Polish, immigrated as a teenager, spoke Russian as her second language, and was raising her daughter to be trilingual. I guess she appreciated the courtesy.
    Something I’ve run across, though usually with surnames, is that different parts of a family will often change the pronunciation and/or spelling of the name to distinguish who is who. In cemeteries (remember, I’m a dorky historian in New England, so these are families with long local traditions going on 400 years), a surname’s spelling often is indicative of the family branch and which religious denomination they sided with, or even which political sympathies they held. The “Kearney” family is different from the “Carney” family, but the pronunciation may be similar. I have a friend whose surname is Levesque. Depending on the family member speaking it, they pronounce it “LEHV-esk,” “Leh-VAKE,” or “Lehv-EEK.” He pronounces it the first way, so I go by that. Being a common surname in the region, if I meet someone with the name I ask which way and say all three. (For the record, the professional wrestler Triple-H, whose real name is Paul Levesque, used to be a client of mine at a store I mangaged. The first time i met him, I asked. Thereafter, when he or his mother would come in, I made sure to pronounce it “their” way, which was different from my friend’s way. It seemed to be the business-like thing to do.

    Blah blah blah, I’m babbling as usual, but one last thought:
    The author Nathaniel Hawthorne changed the spelling and pronunciation of his surname because he was ashamed of his ancestor, Judge Hathorne, known as the “hanging judge of Salem.” Hathorne had condemned to death many of the accused “witches” during the Salem Witch crisis of 1692, and his descendant, who was born in Salem town and spent his entire writing career feeling haunted by the legacy of his family, wanted to disassociate from the wretched ancestor who convicted and sentenced so many innocent people. So, to me, it would seem that the cultural significance of a name is more of a personal and deliberate choice than, say, how we decide to pronounce “law-yer” vs. “loy-yer.”

    • I once had a coworker with an Eastern European surname. Everyone said his name differently, so I asked him one time what was right. He said it didn’t matter. I said it did and asked him to tell me. He did and it was significantly different from what anyone else said. It took a little bit of work, but I started pronouncing it correctly and I think he appreciated it. (He was fairly surly so it was hard to tell).

      I also had a doctor with an Eastern European surname. Everyone just called her “Dr. K”. I took the time with her as well to ask and then pronounce it correctly.

      I’m not sure why I had these particular issues with first names. I guess because in both cases I discussed, I assumed the pronunciation difference was just accent/dialect. Why I treated them differently from the last names, I don’t know!

      • It is funny how issues like this can be taken so many ways! I’ve definitely run into people who respond with the “whatever” attitude about their own names. In school we had teachers and kids with very Hellenic names (often 5 or 6 syllables and over 13 letters) so there was a music teacher who went by “Mrs T” and a biology teacher who went by “Mr G” but others would tell us students that we needed to get used to it and learn to spell it. I had a Mrs. Bhattacharya who would use her last name as a bonus on tests! I always chuckled because some kids were so lazy they’d get it wrong even though it was posted next to the door. 🙂
        Maybe I’m just super sensitive because I’ve always hated when people I’ve never met before instantly give me a nickname…always the same one, always despised then sound of it…without asking first. I have had doctors, bank tellers, and even customer service reps in a phone call to a company do this and it is fantastically irritating to me. “Melanie” is a pretty easy name and I’ve never understood why random strangers feel the need to shorten it. It’s one thing for friends and family to have nicknamed each other, but for a person you met ten seconds ago it feels rude and disrespectful.
        *Steps down from soapbox*

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