The Corner

It Sticks in My Craw

Most e-mailers were with me on the post on the pronunciation of Judge Sotomayor’s name (and a couple griped about the whole Latina/Latino thing — English dropped gender in nouns, what, 1,000 years ago?). But a couple said we should just pronounce it the way the bearer of the name prefers, including one who pronounces her name “freed” even though it’s spelled “fried,” like fried rice. (I think Cathy Seipp of blessed memory did the reverse — “sipe” instead of “seep.”) 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.

For instance, in Armenian, the emphasis is on the second syllable in my surname, just as in English, but it has three syllables, not four (the “ian” is one syllable) — but that’s not how you’d say it in English (the “ian” means the same thing as in English — think Washingtonian or Jeffersonian). Likewise in Russian, you put the emphasis in my name on the final syllable and turn the “o” into a schwa, and they’re free to do so because that’s the way it works in their language. And should we put Asian surnames first in English just because that’s the way they do it in Asia? When speaking of people in Asia, okay, but not people of Asian origin here, where Mao Tse-tung would properly have been changed to Tse-tung Mao. Likewise with the Mexican practice of including your mother’s maiden name as your last name, after your father’s surname.

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.

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