The Name Game
Read my name. Go ahead, let your eyes move up to the spot between this sentence and the column title in which resides my name. Say it out loud; I’m sure the people around you won’t mind. Both names: first and last. Take your time, I’m in no hurry. Done? Alright. Now how many people think they pronounced my name correctly? Come on, I want to see hands people, don’t be shy.
Hands down. Relax. Name pronouncing is tricky business, a skill that takes many years of practice to master. As you can see, the majority of you had absolutely no idea what to do. It amuses me to hear the variations on my name, not because I find merriment in the other person’s confusion, but because I too understand the torture it is to come across a name that you just can’t wrap your tongue around.
If you’ve got a strange (“unique” for the politically minded) name you learn little rules to conveying your name. First of all, you pretty much stop pronouncing your name correctly. Why confuse someone? I’d rather have them quickly learn a close approximation then spend five minutes making them feel bad as they say my repeatedly say my name with an expression on their face imploring “PLEASE tell me I got it right that time. I’ll probably never meet you again in my life, and if I do, I’ll just say ‘Hey! What’s up?’” In order to facilitate the name learning process, you also tend to stop saying things like “I’m Akshay.” This inevitably leads to the question “Imakshay?” That’s when you know you’re in trouble. (“No, I am Akshay.” “Iemakshay?” “No, no, my name is ... .”)
Don’t feel bad about it. The truth be told, I break out into a cold sweat every time I’m confronted with a name of Indian origin. The problem lies in the fact that I’m a monoglot (I learned that word on Jeopardy); I can only speak English. Thus, when faced with an Indian name, not only do I not know how to pronounce the name, but I also feel extremely extremely guilty about my lingual incompetence.
But let’s not be naÏve and think that the process ends once you quasi-master an element of another culture. Once you pass this hurdle to cultural enlightenment, there is still the matter of using it properly. I’ve been told by countless Chinese friends that Chow Mein is pronounced “Tsiao Mi-ehn,” but when am I supposed to use this fact? If I’m in a restaurant, conversing with a waitperson in English, am I supposed to suddenly bust out a “Tsiao Mi-ehn” instead of “Chow Maine”? “Hello, I’m an Indian college student who obviously can’t speak a lick of Mandarin, Cantonese, or any other dialect that is considered ‘Chinese.’ I would like to order the orange chicken, shrimp fried rice, and <gives the waitperson a knowing look> tsiao mi-ehn.” Maybe if I’m feeling especially cultured, I can try and throw in a shieh shieh and hope they don’t think I need to go to the bathroom.
Not to say that the lingual confusion is always Asian. What we have on our hands is a truly international affair. After years of training (pronounced “high school”), I have become relatively competent at pronouncing names from the Orient, but heaven help me when I come up against an Eastern European name. That’s when the eyes glaze over and brain shuts off. Which consonants are silent? What vowels are understood to be there? Is European Wheel of Fortune any fun? The questions are endless.
This is why MIT needs a new General Institute Requirement. Writing proficiency be damned, how is the student body supposed to bond if we can’t even pronounce each other’s names (or order Chinese food)? We can no longer afford to remain silent (ha! a pun!) on this issue, our concerns must be vocalized (again!). Let’s put an end to this cultural confusion together: you, me, and shu-ma-ra-xia. That guy.