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.