18 April 2009

How do you say your name?

How many times have you had to say your name if it is the slightest bit unusual?

There was a TV advertisement - can't remember what it was for - in which a very enthusiastic jobseeker gets an interview with the boss, whose nameplate reads Dumass (Doo-mahs or Doo-mah, depending on origin), but the jobseeker mispronounces it every time as Duhm-ass.

My butcher in Encino, California used to call me Mrs. Dardashkowitz - I gave up after a few correction attempts. And, when I spell it - multiple times - over the phone, I'm always glad they confirm the spelling.

I've gotten really good at saying D as in David, A as in Apple, R as in Robert, D as in David, A as in Apple, S as in Sam, H as in Harry, T as in Tommy and I as in ice cream and then break it into syllables DAR-DASH-TI. How hard is that?

When the voice on the other end says he or she could never figure it out, I know they've gotten it wrong and left out the second A and/or the S.

I know I'm not the only one with this problem because the techies are getting into the act now with websites specifically targeted to helping the world pronounce unusual names.

HowToSayThatName.com and PronounceNames.com were spotlighted in this Wall Street Journal story.

Elizabeth Bojang wants to say your name right for posterity.

She always leaves her McLean, Va., home with a tape recorder. She asks people on the street, her dry cleaner and her colleagues at the insurance company where she
works to record their first and last names for her Web site, howtosaythatname.com. So far in her quest, she has amassed more than 11,000
pronunciations ranging from "Aabha" to "Zwai."

Elizabeth Bojang, pronounced Bo-johng, created a Web site for unusual name pronunciations. The idea came about after Ms. Bojang stopped using her maiden name, Godfrey, when she married Bala Musa Bojang, her Gambian husband. "I used to dread hearing it," because it was so often mispronounced, says Ms. Bojang.(The correct pronunciation is Bo-johng.)

The Internet has been a blessing for amateur and professional genealogists. But even when surname roots can be traced online, how last names are pronounced still causes confusion, especially in the cross-cultural mix of globalization. In fact, researchers say it is likely that many of our ancestors would be appalled at how their last names are pronounced today.

Suzanne Russo Adams, a genealogist for Ancestry.com, studied the last names of Italian immigrants and found that most who came to the U.S. in the early 1900s changed the pronunciation of their names after learning English and living in the country for a while. Some genealogists find that even parents and children pronounce their shared last name differently.

The story goes on to quote University of Florida linguistics professor Ben Hebblethwaite (the "th" isn't silent) who noticed some of his students have dual pronunciations of their last names -- an anglicized pronunciation for school and a more traditional pronunciation at home.

I can understand that.

English speakers (New Yorkers in this example and even the children of the 1980s Persian immigrant generation) will usually say Dardashti as: Dar (as in car) Dash (as in ash), followed by tee. It's nothing like that in Farsi, believe me.

Even the very phonetic (and simple) Talalay is a tongue-twister. Are all the a's pronounced the same? Is the final syllable "lai" or "lie" ? I get introduced sometimes as Tah-LAI-lee, which rhymes with ukelele and sounds awfully Irish to me as in shillelegh.

The WSJ story recounts the experience of technology student Vathanyu Chaipattanawanich at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, whose 25-letter Thai surname has always been an ice-breaker - everyone calls him Tab. He's one of the more than 600 members of the Facebook group, "Nobody Can Pronounce My Last Name."

But I digress.

Prof. Hebblethwaite says in general, pronunciations get simpler over time: Consonants cluster, spellings are shortened, vowel pitches altered. Even with these historical signposts, there are few hard-and-fast rules about name pronunciation in English.
"It's a mess," Prof. Hebblethewaite says.

Through research, Prof. Hebblethwaite has traced his own surname to Norwegians who invaded what is now Northern Britain as Vikings. "Heaven only knows how they pronounced it," he says.

PronounceNames.com was started by Mumbai native and engineer Pinky Thakkar (silent "h") who started the site after she moved to San Jose, California and thought that Jose rhymed with hose, not knowing about the Spanish "hoe-zay." She and her friends found it almost impossible to pronounce the names of people and places.

Her site launched in 2006 and there are now more than 75,000 entries and 38,000 audio files. You can add your own name, phonetic pronounciation and audio file if your computer has a microphone.
Ms. Thakkar is now working on an algorithm that would allow site users to record a name as they heard it and then have the site churn out a proper spelling based on the audio submission. She also is looking to expand the site's ability to provide audio pronunciations based on a user's typed-in guess. For example, if a user heard the Indian surname "Sridharan," but had no idea how to pronounce it, he or she could enter a guess such as "shree the run" and the accurate spelling would appear.
Here's some more on the sites listd above.

HowToSayThatName.com can help those who need to know how to say a name (such as a nurse or customer service representative and even the media. Search its database by entering a specific name or browse ethnic categories by given name, surname or letter. Categories today include Armenian, Chinese, English, Filipino and Taglog, Finnish, French, Fula, German, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mandinka, Polish, Romanian, Spanish and Vietnamese.

Pronouncenames.com wants to make your name easy to pronounce and unlike the one above, you don't have to depend on the name being in the database. For this site, you can participate by sharing the pronounciation of your first name, family name, city and country where you live.

Try them both, and add your names to PronounceNames.com's database.

1 comment:

  1. Paul Hosse7:03 PM

    LOL!! Boy, I know the feeling. How hard would you think "Hosse" owuld be? I get house, hose, horse, hoos, hussey, hoss, haas, and even Jose. I think telemarketers must take special courses in how to butcher names. In English, it's Hoss-ee. In Europe it's Hoss-uh. Simple huh? It's simply a Yiddish variation of the name "Hoshea". Great article!