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Getting Names Right Can Often Be a Confusing Task

Column by Eva Moy
Staff Reporter

Benjamin Netanyahu '75 was elected prime minister of Israel last week by a mere one percent of the vote. Because his campaign promises were much different from those of Shimon Peres, Israel's neighbors are worried about the future peace in the Middle East.

Politically ignorant MIT student and worrywart that I am, I was more distracted by the fact that the world's news reporters could not decide on the proper pronunciation of the prime minister-elect's name.

Most of my news came by way of a combination of National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Company on the WBUR radio station. The British said "ne-tan-YA-hu" while most Americans said something like "ne-un-YA-hoo."

For days, I didn't see Netanyahu's name spelled in print. I kept wondering what strange combination of foreign letters and accents would create a name that was so difficult to pronounce. When I finally happened to buy the Sunday paper, lo and behold, I found that his name is pronounced just like it's spelled.

Well, it's really not that much of a mystery. The name happens to follow the disappearing consonant trick, like when "CAWT-on" becomes "caw-n," "SIT-ing" becomes "sit-n," or "did you eat?" becomes "djeet?"

Sometimes there are regional or dialect differences, but I always assumed that in the news business, all of the reporters would have learned the large-metropolitan-region dialect.

Personal habits aside, a name is a more than just another word pronounced at somebody else's whim. Is the Netanyahu discrepancy as offensive as Andrew "CAR-ni-gee" instead of "car-NEY-ghee?" or maybe the town of "WOR-ches-ter" instead of "WOOS-ter?"

I generally think that it is okay to speak English in this lazy kind of way - after all it's the meaning that matters - but there is a certain refinement in the British accent. Certainly, correct pronunciation would make grade school spelling lessons a lot easier.

My own name has only six letters, three in the first name and three in the last name. It is very convenient for filling in standardized test forms. I am lucky to have a name that is easy to both pronounce and to spell.

Even so, there have always been a few confusions. The electric company insisted that my name was "Moi," even after I called and wrote several times to change it. My address labels showed "May," even though I tried to reduce confusion between the "O" and "A" by writing in all capital letters.

My first name is pronounced "EE-va" which often gets confused with "eff-a" or "A-va." Even 13 weeks into the spring semester, neither the students nor the professors of the class for which I was a teaching assistant really knew how to say my name.

I must admit, however, that those instances didn't really phase me. After all, I didn't make a strong effort to correct other people, and I myself don't follow the strict rules of pronunciation either.

But I was bothered once. It was the day of my graduation, in June 1995. A few weeks previously, I had filled out the little pronunciation card so that President Charles M. Vest could practice ahead of time. "EE-va," I wrote. He must have called out a thousand names that day. To his credit, he said most of them with a straight face and only corrected himself once or twice. But I noticed one mistake, the only "eff-a" that has ever really bothered me.

There is something sacrosanct about one's name. It is allowed to bend the rules of language. And whether that name is broadcast repeatedly during the day, or announced just once on commencement day, close enough just isn't good enough.