Everyday linguistic anthropology

The violence of naming

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About twelve years ago, a classmate asked me for help with an assignment. Dear Jennifer, his email began.

That’s not my name, I replied. Please call me Jena.

I don’t like nicknames, he said, and continued to call me Jennifer.

I didn’t help him with the assignment, at least not beyond the bare minimum. And in the intervening years, I’ve forgotten his name, except that it was a commonly shortened one. He was frustrated, I’m sure, because people wouldn’t call him Daniel or Michael or Gregory. And to cope with that frustration, he imposed upon me the exact same behavior he disliked: he chose a name for me.

My legal name is not Jennifer, and it never has been. But even if it were, his behavior would not be acceptable. Naming is about consent. Here’s what happened in this story: I said, This is what I want. And someone else said, What I want matters more.

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Key and Peele have a bit where a Black substitute teacher comes into a White classroom. He mistrusts the students from the minute he walks in the door — and he mispronounces all their names. Instead of Jacqueline /ˈdʒæk.ə.lɪn/, he says Jay-QUEL-inn /dʒejˈkwɛl.ɪn/, Blake /blejk/ turns into Be-LEH-kay /bə’lɑ.kej/, and Aaron /ˈærən/ becomes Ay-AY-ron /ˈejˈej.rɑn/.

The skit is funny because it flips our expectations. If we saw a White teacher walk into a Black classroom and act this way, it would be merely tragic. It would be business as usual.

As Nancy McGinley Myers writes: “Students of color and recent immigrants are so accustomed to their white teachers mispronouncing their names that they know to respond even if the teacher has completely mangled their name. Many times, they don’t even try to tell the teacher how it’s really pronounced. In my own ESL classes, when I have tried to practice saying names correctly, the students have told me, ‘I don’t mind how you say my name. It’s an African name. I don’t expect you to be able to say it.’ The privileged white students in Mr. Garvey’s classroom didn’t know what to do! They thought it was perfectly reasonable to tell Mr. Garvey how their name should be pronounced.”

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Who has the experience depicted in the skit? Who has had someone else insist that they are wrong about their own damn name? Whose name gets mispronounced? Who gets saddled with a nickname they didn’t choose? Who gets renamed entirely?

Many of my high school classmates were immigrants. Quite a few of them took on ‘American names’ preemptively, as a defense against mispronunciation. Some preferred those names; many others preferred the ease of using them.

Yet Seamus and Siobhan and Chloë aren’t pronounced according to English rules of pronunciation, and most of us manage to say them just fine.

Here’s another question: are you surprised that it was a man who renamed me? This is, of course, precisely the same question. Who speaks for others? And who makes unwanted compromises so that others won’t speak for them?

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In the U.S., my last name is most often pronounced um, can I call you Jena?

Every time I talk to customer service on the phone, they ask for my last name. Then they decide to call me Ms. Lichtenstein anyway. When I’m feeling salty, which is most of the time when I’m talking to customer service, I correct them.

Sometimes I pre-empt these mistakes. I used to tell my students that it was better to call me Dr. B. than to misspell or mispronounce my name — but I would offer semi-joking extra credit for getting it right. In Spanish-speaking countries, I choose to become Juanita Vargas. In French-speaking countries, I use only half of my last name, and it’s /bɑʁˈʃɑ/ and not my usual /ˈbɑr.kəs/.

I like traveling to German-speaking countries the best. They pronounce my surname better than I do.

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Jane Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism doesn’t have a chapter on proper names, but it could.

Speakers of all languages change the pronunciation borrowed words, including names: they get as close as they can, while using only sounds that appear in their first language. This process is called nativization, and in the case of English-speakers, we often talk about it as anglicization. If you’re an English speaker who’s ever used the phrase raison d’être, you know what I’m talking about.

But Hill writes, there and elsewhere, about the hyperanglicization of Spanish words — that is, moving beyond the standard English pronunciations to make them as English-sounding as possible, often for comic effect. This hyperanglicization, she argues, both expresses the extreme social distance of the speaker from Spanish, and denigrates the Spanish language — and its speakers.

And that’s just what we see with the unflinching mispronunciation of certain names, or the refusal to even attempt them. At best, it communicates, these names are weird and I don’t know what to do with them. At worst, the message is, these names aren’t worth getting right, which is to say, these people aren’t worth getting right.

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If you’ve ever wandered into a discussion about last names and marriage, you know how deeply felt names are. These discussions always seem to go the same way: first, someone critiques the systemic nature of sexism. They note that even if we accept the premise that all members of a family need to share a single last name, there’s no reason that only women should shoulder the burden and stress of taking on a new identity.

Invariably, someone else argues that their name change was an individual choice made in the absence of all social pressure, and thus there must be no patriarchy in play.

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Taboos around names are widespread:

Why is there so much avoidance around names and naming?

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Names have power.

There’s even a Latin proverb: nomen est omen. Names are destiny. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s true that names encode expectations.

Who names their children Faith and Chastity? Christian parents. Who accepts faith and chastity as virtues? Christians. So it’s hardly surprising that people with these names might be more likely to enact these values.

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I am particular about nicknames, although I had many as a child. Some family members call me Jay, and others call me Jen; if you’re not related to me, odds are I won’t let you get away with either. And call me Jenny at your peril.

Lovers nickname one another: it’s a way of staking a claim.

I have a friend who insists on calling me my Jena, as if his Jena were different than mine.

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Sticks and stones can break my bones. What comes next? I’ve heard it two ways: words can never hurt me and words can really hurt me.

For linguistic anthropologists, no question — it’s the latter. Language can, itself, be violence.

When we talk about language as violence, we don’t just mean the obvious cases of slurs. Language can reflect, reproduce, and recreate structural violence: we can talk about groups of people in ways that not only assume them to be unequal but also make it hard to imagine them as anything but.

Silence, too, can be violence. This week, the current US government decided not to collect data on gender identity or sexual orientation on the 2020 census. This decision renders some categories less visible than others. In effect, it erases them, and that lack of recognition, too, is violent.

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Whose names are difficult? Which names do we make the effort to learn?

When Uzo Aduba was young, she asked her mother if she could be called Zoe instead. And her mother replied: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Those names are difficult for English speakers to pronounce, but we’ve managed to figure it out.

At the 2013 Oscars, a reporter called nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis ‘Annie’ after the character she had just been cast as. She replied, “My name is not Annie. It’s Quvenzhané.”

Nobody seems to mangle Giada de Laurentiis or Saoirse Ronan quite so regularly. We’ve managed reasonable English approximations of Gérard Depardieu and Jean-Luc Godard for quite some time now. When John Travolta turned Idina Menzel into Adele Dazeem, it was seen as so newsworthy it practically broke the internet.

People usually apologize for getting my name wrong, or they ask permission to use my first name.

If you’re understood to be White, your name is at least worth an attempt.

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At the very beginning of the Bible, God names darkness and light, and in doing so creates them. To name a thing is to see it — to call out its very essence.

Names are inseparable from identity. I have called myself by this one for thirty-some years.

That’s why deadnaming a trans person — or refusing to learn someone’s name, or nicknaming someone without permission — is an act of violence.  Who are you, to define someone else?

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