I have a weird last name. Spelled, Fecke, it’s pronounced \fek’-ē\, with a long e at the end.1 But given that it’s unusual, I’m not put off by any of the odd variants people will use when they first meet me, even if it’s my favorite weird one, \fēk\.
But while I’m very tolerant of mispronunciations of my name on first meetings, I don’t know what I would think if I corrected the pronunciation and was told, in all seriousness, “Well, \fek’-ē\ isn’t a standard English pronunciation in my book. I’m going to stick with \fek\.” I think I would probably back away slowly from the idiot, immediately convinced that this was a person I need not deal with ever again.
Enter Mark Kirkorian, who is a person we need not deal with ever again. He wondered yesterday whether Sonia Sotomayor’s last name wasn’t, well, too ethnic for us to pronounce correctly:
So, are we supposed to use the Spanish pronunciation, so-toe-my-OR, or the natural English pronunciation, SO-tuh-my-er, like Niedermeyer? The president pronounced it both ways, first in Spanish, then after several uses, lapsing into English. Though in the best “Pockiston” tradition, he also rolled his r’s in Puerto Rico.
Horrors! Barack Obama pronounced Sonia Sotomayor’s name correctly! What’s next, he goes to a Mexican restaurant and doesn’t order “Gwack-uh-mohl” on his “Fuhjeytuhs?” Why can’t he pronounce it like the good old English name Niedermeyer, which means “Name which is German?”
Not content with asking whether we shouldn’t mispronounce Sonia Sotomayor’s name deliberately, Kirkorian decided to take it to the next level:
Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English (which is why the president stopped doing it after the first time at his press conference), unlike my correspondent’s simple preference for a monophthong over a diphthong, and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.
This may seem like carping, but it’s not. Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that’s not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there’s a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.
Really? Because that’s the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard of. Unlike French, which is policed rigorously by grammarians, English (and especially American English) is a polyglot mixture of French and other Romance languages, Norse and other Germanic languages, Gaelic and other Celtic languages, and any other word that’s been hoovered into the language over its long history. Our sentence structure is ad hoc, our vocabulary voluminous. The language that we call English has assimilated words and structure from pretty much every language it’s come across over the years, and that’s the language’s great strength.
So Judge Sotomayor pronounces her name \sō-tō-mī-yor’\? So what? It’s unusual in English to stress the final syllable of a polysyllabic word, but it isn’t unheard of. There’s not a rule in English that wasn’t made to be broken. That’s one of the grand things about the language — that it simply adapts as new loan words and loan names are brought in. Oh, sure, there’s some Anglicization going on — I’m not going to attempt to roll the r on Sotomayor, because as a native American English speaker, I really can’t — but I can at least approximate the pronunciation, and get the stress on the right syllable. After all, it’s only neighborly to try to pronounce a name the way it’s pronounced. Real Americans are supposed to be neighborly — something Kirkorian evidently doesn’t understand.
(Via Steve Benen)
- Ironically, given the topic of this post, my name has been anglicized; in Germany it is spelled the same but pronounced \fek’-ə\, which itself is a corruption of the German name Feick. [↩]