Swiss Saturday: A Rose by Any Other Name

So, no one in Switzerland can pronounce my name. My name is Suzanne, by the way. Like Suzanne Somers. If you can get that reference you’re probably as old as I am, and your parents probably didn’t want you watching Three’s Company either, but you probably did when they weren’t home. Ahem.

The problem with my name is that the aaaa sound in Suzanne doesn’t exist in German. And the z sound is close but not the same thing. As a result, everyone calls me Susan. And by everyone, I mean Swiss and German people–even those who have better English grammar and vocabularies than most Harvard grads. The sounds just don’t exist in German, so try as they might, they can’t say my name.

This does not bother me.

My children both have traditional biblical names that are spelled the exact same way in English and German, but they are pronounced differently. By the time Offspring #2 was two years old, if you asked him “What’s your name?” he’d say his name with the American pronunciation, but if you asked him, “Wie heisst du?” he’d respond with the German pronunciation. (And before I get comments, the Swiss don’t use the ß like the Germans do, they simply use a double s. So no correcting my German grammar. Okay, you can correct my German grammar all you like. That’s what comments are for.)

In addition to people not being able to say my  name, I can’t say their names either. Sure, some names are easy enough for me to say, but some are downright impossible. There’s a darling girl in my church music class named Caroline. Except you don’t say it like you would say Caroline Ingalls. I’d tell you how to say it, but I can’t. I’ve tried for years and years and years and well, I can’t say it right. She’s a good sport, though. She doesn’t complain. (Although she does correct my German grammar, as all the kids do.)

Why am I talking about this? Well, my pal Lenore Skenazy (okay, I’ve never met her, but I have exchanged numerous emails with her and I think she’s awesome), just wrote about one school district is declaring that mispronouncing a student’s name can be damaging to them, and basically, it’s racist.

It’s not racist if your mouth doesn’t move the right way. When we learn to speak, we develop muscles in our mouths that allow us to say words. If you don’t grow up hearing certain sounds, your mouth doesn’t build the muscles necessary to say those sounds. It’s why I’ll always have an American accent when I speak German. Sure, I could go to years of therapy to help reduce my accent, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Now, if a teacher can pronounce a child’s name correctly and chooses not to, that’s a huge problem. But, an American born and raised teacher who had English speaking parents, probably won’t be able to say the names of all the Asian born kids in her class. Not because she’s racist, but because her mouth won’t go that way.

Incidentally, a few years ago, I asked a woman from China to come teach a song in Chinese to my music class. She did. The kids learned it quickly. I couldn’t even repeat the words. My ears couldn’t capture the different sounds. So, there’s a good chance, that many of the kids in your little darling’s kindergarten class will learn how to pronounce everyone’s names correctly, but the teacher won’t.

Does it stink that no one around here can say Suzanne? Not really. I made a choice to move here, and Susan isn’t a bad name. Besides, I grew up with a last name no one could pronounce either, which I find funny, because I thought it was pretty easy. (Maiden name is McConkie. I got McCorkle, McConokie, Mc just about anything except the right sounds.)

So, all in all, stop looking for reasons to be offended. If people can’t say your name correctly, it’s probably no reflection on you or on them. Does that mean I’m telling people to use whatever pronunciation they want to? Of course not. Do your best. But, if your co-workers are doing their best, it’s time to let it go.

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26 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: A Rose by Any Other Name

  1. I lived in Germany the summer I turned 17. Nobody there could pronounce my name, either, and I heard “zhim” rather than “Jim” all summer. It bothered me … enough that I work pretty hard to properly pronounce the names of people who work with and for me. The most challenging name was of a young woman from Hyderabad whose name was Mridula. After some work, I got it pretty close to right. Righter than anyone else since she moved to the US, she told me.

    Caroline is probably kah-row-LEE-nuh. When I lived in Germany I lived with a family whose mother was Irene, ee-RAY-nuh, and don’t forget to roll the R a little bit.

    1. If it were pronounced kah-row-LEE-nuh, I could say that. It’s not. I can’t write the phonetics for how it is supposed to be said BECAUSE I CAN’T SAY IT!!!!

      I can’t say this girl’s last name either, much to the whole family’s amusement. I can say her siblings’ names and her parents’ names, though!

  2. It seems like you’re deliberately misreading the article in order to further your agenda of “Nah, I don’t want to be thoughtful to other people,” which is more transparent the longer I read your blog.

    This has nothing to do with people being unable to pronounce difficult phonemes that don’t exist in their mother tongue. This has to do with the reporter who tried to tell Quvenzhané Wallis “I’m just going to call you Annie.”* It has to do with the tendency, in the US, to treat everything white as “normal” “good” and “desirable” and everything non-white as “alternative” “low-class/made-up” and “I’m not going to bother.” That’s why it’s about race.

    I understand this because my non-white friends tell me about their experiences. Do you have any non-white people in your life who trust you enough to do the same?


    1. I’ve been reading EHRL for a long time and she has no agenda other than pointing out nonsense. This specific issue IS nonsense to those that think critically. Stop projecting the chip on your shoulder to her insights. That article you cite is nothing more than a straw man. Just because some reporter is an idiot, doesn’t detract from the issue she raises. It’s unfortunate that you are so sensitive that you can’t see past your own biases.

      1. I agree. I also think that this post is a reaction to the ridiculousness of the hundreds of comments on another work blog this week, where using the wrong pronoun and other name faux pas were discussed. some commenters firmly believed that any faux pas was intentional and based on some sort of “ism,” nothing was just a mistake or because the person doesn’t care or because they mess up everyone’s name or have a speech impediment. Suzanne’s post seems to be the counter of that.

        Personally I’m on board with her, it must be terrible to go through life paranoid that everyone is out to offend you or thinking that mispronouncing a name is a sign of deeper hate aimed at you

    2. I don’t think she was misreading the article, deliberately or not. The article in question is about a school district declaring it racist or damaging to not correctly pronounce a name. Bringing up phonemes is a valid reason why this may happen, just as bringing up someone intentionally misprouncing is another reason this could happen. One is most likely rasict, one is not. The question is what do we do about it? Should there be repercussions from an employer? Or is awareness that this could be hurtful enough? Explaining how/why this happens is important too. But bringing up a the story (or stories) about reporters not bothering to learn how to say names they aren’t familiar with is pointing at a different problem, and most likely a different solution.

    3. My real name is different enough that I’ve been subject to LOTS of mispronunciations. I also happen to be an orthodox Jew, where names that are difficult for the general American English speaking public are common – including my siblings and children. I can say with fair certainty that you are simply WRONG. Yes, there are real issues – btdt, don’t have the tee shirt, don’t want it. On the other hand, there really are times when it’s difficult, or impossible for someone to get the pronunciation of a name correct.

      The key is how they handle it. Your reaction is no more respectful or sensible than the reporter to talk about. Just as not all “non-white” or “non-Amrican” or blacks or *whatevers” are the same, and the motivations behind similar action are not going to be the same, the same is true for whites, believe it or not. (Or do you actually believe that all of your non-white friends are the same, and are the same as all other non-whites that are not the same?)

  3. Exactly. It’s why Uzoamaka Aduba’s mother pitched a fit at people who could pronounce Michelangelo and Tchaikovsky but could not say Uzoamaka (which is pronounced exactly as it is spelt and has no phonemes missing in English speakers,) and thus reduced her to Uzo. Not because it was hard (it’s not, it’s said Uzo-a-mah-ka,) but because she’s a Black woman and they don’t think it’s worth five seconds to parse out the letters in her name.

    This article is not about people who try and don’t have the phonemes, it’s about people who take a look at a Black or foreign name and immediately dismiss it. A great many of the people mentioned in this article are Americans with ethnic or unusual names, so the phonemes are NOT an issue. They were named by people whose first language is American English.

    And for the handful that are NOT, for instance, the Asian students who do actually have names that have phonemes not available in English, you can still ask them and TRY. It’s the ones who simply don’t bother.

    Oh and Miss Wallis’s name is pronounced Kweh-VON-zha-nay. Again not one phoneme not available in standard American English. Everyone in the press saw that name and instead of just asking, presumed they couldn’t say it. Mangled it even after being told, or just like the person in the story said “screw it I’m not even going to bother attempting to address a child by her proper name.”

    Used to be the press when knowing they were going to interview someone had their secretaries or fact checkers find out how to say the name. Even if the person was Suzanne Sommers (is that SOHmers or Summers, please?)

    Heck a great joke was made when David Oyelowo was nominated for Selma at the Oscars (I can’t remember who the actor was) but he made a little silly song deal explaining that you say that “Oh-yellow-oh.” Now officially that’s not how it’s said, it’s African and a little more complicated than that, but David has said that is the current acceptable pronunciation to HIM and it’s his name. But this is a man who was nominated for an OSCAR and the press couldn’t be bothered at all to make sure they knew his name, when they KNEW he had a good chance of winning.

    I agree that you missed the point about the article.

  4. So I think I can pronounce your child’s name in English, that being:


    I’d be interested in knowing how it is pronounced in German.

    And what a strange name for a child (I can see naming someone Glorious Sunset or North West or Lucky Ducky … but Offspring #2?).

  5. It’s about figuring out each individual situation. My Chinese boss had a first name that was almost all vowels and used sounds we didn’t know. So she used an Americanized first name. We were able to learn the names of almost everyone from India. The important thing is to ask how each person wants to be addressed and go with that. If someone comes to work with me with an unprounouncable 7 syllable name, it’s ok to ask if there’s a name they prefer. It’s not ok for me to say “I name you Bill.” Always go with respect and kindness.

    1. In music school, we had a Chinese student who went by AmericanFirstName Ng. Because we were vocal students, we had no excuse not to try–especially since we all sang in other languages and spent hours studying the International Phonetic alphabet!

      She said it was okay if we pronounced it “Ing,” which isn’t correct, but she really appreciated that we gave it a shot.

  6. Anyone who has worked in any engineering discipline runs into this on an hourly basis. Indian names, Asian, Scandinavian, my ears and brain can’t make my mouth the right shape at the right time. I learned a long time ago by asking “How do I pronounce your name?” I can get a quick language lesson and often “you can call me XXXXX” (their preferred name that I can pronounce).

    And Emily, if you were any further off base with it being racist, you’d be playing tiddlywinks while everyone else is playing baseball.

  7. I work for an urban, ethnically diverse public school district. I am very concerned about any policy that automatically declares it racist to mispronounce a name. We teach cultural responsiveness, one of the guidelines of which is to ASK students or co-workers “What do you prefer to be called?” And THAT is what you call someone. No one has the right to rename another person.

    If there is callous disregard for someone’s preferred name, that’s one thing. But to label someone “racist” for making an honest mistake? That’s insane. My full name is always pronounced wrong (which is why I go by Jill). It’s annoying, but I wouldn’t run to HR and file a complaint over it. Geez!

  8. From clicking through links, it appears that the website in question has some pretty pictures, some information, and a pledge (is the pledge in any way binding?) Different names can be hard, there is a difference between doing your best vs either making a big to do about it or giving your student a nickname of your choosing.

    1. I had no idea Skenazy was into free minds and free markets (tagline from the blog), although it shouldn’t be too surprising.

  9. You would think my name would be hard to mispronounce. (It’s pronounced KRIS-ten if you are unsure.) However, I’ve spent a good part of my life correcting people on how to say my name properly. I’m not offended they don’t get it right the first time, and I even have managers and co-workers who still mispronounce it everyday. I find it annoying sure, but offensive? No way. People need to toughen up. I know the managers and co-workers aren’t trying to be offensive, it’s just how they speak and that to me if no different than “tomato” and “tomahto”.

  10. My last name is three common English words stuck together. The emphasis is slightly different in England where it originated than it is in the US, but the words are pronounced as anyone anywhere who speaks English would say them. No alternative vowels or consonants, nothing unusual. Think Eastsidestreet (I just made that up).

    Regardless, people stumble over it ALL THE TIME. Because Sidestreet by itself is also a last name, they often don’t hear the first syllable. This means when they’re looking me up in a database, they don’t search for East–they start with Side. Then they say, “I can’t find you.”

    I then have to pronounce my name in a very exaggerated way–“It’s EAST SIDE STREET.”

    *ticka ticka ticka* “Oh, there you are!”

    Me: *sigh*

    I don’t mind if someone who speaks a different first language can’t pronounce it, or if someone has trouble at first. But after one correction, it shouldn’t be that hard!

  11. My name is mispronunced all the time. My in-laws friend says it wrong name all time. Close but no cigar ( think like….. Suzanne’s Susan example). Nicest guy in the world. Always gives me big hug when I see him. Doesn’t bother me at all.

    No one is misproucning my name with intention to do so. Americans or Foreigners. ( Actually my name is French so they would pronounce it right ! )

    For me personally, I have bigger fish to fry.

  12. Looks like the main website is just a pledge, but no surprise this comes from my neck of the woods – the bay area / silicon valley. I agree with your assessment, Evil HR Lady! Deliberately mispronouncing a name is one thing, but just having genuine difficulty in pronouncing a name (or any word) is not racist or a microaggression. We don’t make fun of immigrants who have accents or have difficulty pronouncing certain words that are different than their native tongue, so why would we criticize anyone else who has genuine difficulty correctly pronouncing a name or any word?

  13. Actually, this just reminded me of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California getting criticized by an opponent when running because he could not correctly pronounce the name of the state. If he’s not committing a microaggression against all of California, then no one else who has GENUINE difficulty pronouncing a name is, either.

  14. My last name is Maginot. Not only do I get people who mispronounce it, some on purpose, those who do know how to pronounce it seem insistent on pointing out what a failure the Maginot Line was (It was not! It was the last part of mainland France to surrender and only did so when the Vichy government ordered them to surrender). Oh, and Freedom Fries?? I wasn’t too happy about that!

    1. This reminds me of two girls I knew. They were cousins–their dads were brothers. They had the “same” last name. Dubois. Except one family pronounced it Du-boys, and the other Du-bwah.

      I’m not sure how the grandparents said it, and why their fathers differentiated, but it just proved that it’s impossible to know how to pronounce a name!

  15. Oh, man, the German name mispronunciations.

    I did a semester in Hamburg and the entire time, most of the Germans I met mispronounced my name horribly… except for the one who was a boyfriend of one of the people in my program. She pointed out that one of the people who has been there the whole year had exactly the same name, just missing the first letter, and he’d learned how to pronounce her name correctly in the first half of the year so he could damn well learn how to pronounce my name as well.

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