What's in a name?
There's a thread on LinkedIn regarding white privilege, white fragility, and the crucial importance of correct pronunciation of last names. I commented and got myself into some hot water because, apparently, stumbling over someone's last name is considered a prime example of white privilege and white fragility. The original poster's premise is that "difficult" last names are reserved for disadvantaged peoples and anyone with such a last name is automatically discriminated against.
I think that's absolute bunk.
My response stated that I grew up with an ethnic last name that people butchered. I corrected their pronunciation. Some of those people continued to mispronounce it. I didn't get offended or think they discriminated against me. I did learn to ask others whose names I wasn't sure how to pronounce either how to pronounce it or to correct my attempt to pronounce it. After all, that's just good manners.
Then I added a sentence that required I don asbestos underwear: I have no sympathy for people who seek out offense, then complain mightily when they find it.
Predictably, someone took offense at that. Apparently, that was overly defensive and constituted both white fragility and white privilege. Another person took it upon himself, using sweeping generalizations, to bring me to awareness that my pallid complexion gave me a false sense of superiority and entitlement. I attempted to respond in a civil manner, but lost the debate.
It happens. One can't argue logic against emotion.
Another person with an African name commented on an exchange in which someone with whom he spoke--after he corrected her--expressed relief that his name wasn't one of those long names. He immediately assumed she spoke of African names. I, being contrary, suggest that perhaps she wasn't referring to an African name, but merely to any long surname that defies the old and inadequate advice to "sound it out."
With alternate spellings abounding, figuring out someone's name becomes even trickier. Comedian Alan King had practically an entire chapter devoted to that in his book Help! I'm a Prisoner in a Chinese Bakery! (FYI: I read the book back in the 1970s.) Comedian Mrs. Hughes has a bit in her routine that makes fun of the French inability to pronounce her last name: it comes out "huh." She doesn't get angry about it or find it offensive; it's a source of humor.
Difficult names aren't restricted to ethnic minorities. Look at the names of Welsh cities and towns. Under "Y," we find Ystalyfera, Ystradgynlais, and Ystrad Mynach. I have no idea how to pronounce those. In England, the name/town/word "Leicester" is pronounced "lester." You can't sound that out either.
When my kids started school, the principal had a Czech last name. Looking at it (about 14 letters long), there was no way I would have known it was pronounced CHEZ-nee simply by seeing the spelling. Sounding it out was not an option. Receiving the first letter with her signature, I wondered just who that person was until I put 2 and 2 together.
The smattering of foreign language instruction I received makes me even more confused about pronunciation, because I can see a name and think of half a dozen ways to pronounce it, although I know that only one way is correct for that person. Therefore, I ask either how to pronounce the name or for that person to correct me if I mispronounce it. No harm, no foul: it's simply good manners.
In fiction, savvy authors attempt to assign names to characters that suit the characters' personalities, time periods, and nationality or location. Names become especially creative when aliens get involved, because then the sky's the limit. A bit of common sense offers guidance to those names: don't make them so weird as to thwart the majority of your readers from being able to figure out a pronunciation scheme. In a book by Rowanna Green, there's a character whose first initial is R and his last name is Soul. The other characters combine them for a derogatory pronunciation of "arsehole," although I didn't catch on.
Sometimes I'm a little slow on the uptake.
People forget that life isn't fair. No one is guaranteed a life free of offense or hardship. That's why adults teach children manners and why every society subscribes to a code of polite behavior. Civility helps us navigate the sea of interpersonal communication with a modicum of grace.
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