The Names We Take

Our world is a gorgeous place. It has beautiful mountains and skylines. Trees that sway and people who sing. This world has so much more than just the small town of Audubon. In most cultures, there are defining features, like their delectable food, or a specific landmark. There are, of course, things that unite cultures as a human race and as a people, as well. Yet, none of those compare to the impact of a name.

In our society, it seems we don’t really think much of names. We use them mostly to identify a person and to have something to call them.

What if I told you, that your name isn’t just air and that it actually has mass? You wouldn’t believe me.

Yet in actuality, a name is the most important part of a person’s identity. Yes, it’s what we call someone when we want their attention, but it is also the connection point in our minds where we can relate a face, traits, and other things.

Faces, yes they can be used to identify a person. Yet have you ever seen someone when their face is covered? How would you know them? By the name that was given to them at birth. Let’s take a look, for a moment, to think outside of our immediate surrounding and take a mental field trip across the world to visit a poor family in Swahili Africa, who spends days before the birth of their son trying to find the perfect name. When they finally find it, they raise their son knowing that name. The son then grows up and is able to move to America to pursue higher education. How would you think his family would feel if they knew that he changed his name to Americanize it, to make it “easier” for them to pronounce?

I think this highlights a uniquely American issue that has flown under the radar for most of our history; one rarely experienced on such a scale abroad as it is here. Americans, living in such a homogenized environment as we do, do not place nearly as much value or respect in names as many other cultures do. We’ve been working with a small pool of sounds in American/English names that they tend to be recycled across a majority of the names we know. As such, when we meet new people and experience new cultures, whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to Americanize their names to make it easier to “digest” (think Ellis Island), or simply we don’t make an attempt at correct pronunciation. We butcher names, feeling confident that everyone else does too, and so there’s nothing wrong with it.

We can find one such example of this right here at AHS. “I’m Mrs. Karageorgis,” the teacher says. The students, without asking, begin to call her Mrs. K or Mrs. Kara. They think nothing of it. But she gently reminds them that this is her identity and she wants to be called as such. “Ka-ra-yor-geese,” she sounds it out for them, patiently, again and again, until they are able to say it. Some laugh, feeling self-conscious. It’s so rare that people insist on their names being pronounced correctly that when it happens, awkwardness ensues, but needlessly. Everyone should stick up for their identities in this way.

But why is that such an issue? A name is just a name, right? They’re in America, so shouldn’t their name be pronounced in the way Americans pronounce things? That train of thought that many Americans share is where the issue lies, I believe. While to try and fail at pronouncing a new name is no crime, many Americans make a half hearted attempt or outright refuse to attempt it, and that’s blatant disrespect. This combination of a lack of respect for pronunciation and lack of knowledge between what’s behind a name contributes to an unhealthy culture of appropriation that damages our interpersonal relationships with those who come from abroad.

We interviewed a few students from AHS who have run into these problems, but who are less inclined to correct people’s ignorance. One student confessed, “It’s just easier not to correct them. Let them say it however they will because no matter what I say, they won’t get it right.” Another student not only agreed, but says he left the step of correcting people out of the picture altogether. He himself Americanized his name, not only because it was easier for others, but less of a headache for him as well. The larger question, then, is why is this a debacle-producing issue? If we made it commonplace to respect people in this way, there’s no drama involved. Just patience.

So, if you’re reading a book with long ans (Seemingly) complicated names, don’t skip over them or replace them with Joes and Matts and Sallys. Likewise, if you meet someone who has a hard to say name, try your best to say the name, and to say it aloud. Acknowledge them as they are, not the identity we wish to project on them. Once you make that change to put in the effort to know that person’s true name and not the “Americanized version” that others call them, it could lead to an amazing friendship of understanding one another.

Try and try again. Know that they will have patience as you learn, just as you need to have patience with yourself. It will produce laughs and sometimes some good-natured teasing, to be sure, but in the end, cultures have been connected and there’s nothing more valuable than that.