Pronouncing “Difficult” Names (and Why It Matters)
When Joe Biden finally announced his choice of running mate last week, Sen. Kamala Harris made history on several counts, becoming both the first Black woman and the first Asian American to run on a major party ticket.
In the frenzy of media coverage that followed, one particularly hot topic of conversation quickly emerged: how do you pronounce Kamala?
Despite mastering the likes of Klobuchar and Buttigieg, some commentators still appeared to be struggling with the pronunciation of Sen. Harris’ comparatively straightforward name (FYI: it’s COMMA-la, like the pronunciation mark).
Fox News host Tucker Carlson became defensive when a guest challenged his pronunciation following the announcement of Sen. Harris’ selection. “So what?” he retorted angrily, “ku-MAH-la Harris, or KAM-el-a Harris, or whatever.”
Tucker Carlson loses it when a guest corrects his pronunciation of Kamala Harris’s name pic.twitter.com/1fHIrPGuwN
— nikki mccann ramírez (@NikkiMcR) August 12, 2020
With a casual rhetorical handwave, Carlson dismissed the name of the Democratic vice presidential nominee as not important, not worth his time, an irritation.
Unfortunately, that’s something that chimes with a lot of people with so-called “difficult” to pronounce names.
What Is It Like to Have a “Difficult” Name?
A few weeks ago, after stumbling across a Vox article about the effects of name mispronunciation in the classroom, we asked our own members to share their experiences of having a name that is frequently mispronounced.
“If people are kind, then they’ll try. But if they don’t, it’s like they’re just dismissing you and your name,” Aisha (AY-sha), told us. “I’ve had Eye-ee-sha, Asha, Ashia, Ee-sha, Eye-sha, there’s more… Even if I correct people multiple times, I still get called Asha sometimes.”
“It’s honestly very offensive, especially when they can’t even say it after I tell them how it’s said a few times,” said Ananya (uh-NUHN-ya). “Variations of their pronunciations include: Anaya (the most common), Anya, Ayana… I usually settle for the Anglicized version, but I find it pretty uncool that they can manage harder English names and don’t try on mine at all.”
And for Celes (seh-LEESE), what should have been a happy occasion was marred by an embarrassing mispronunciation.
“When I graduated high school, we had the opportunity to write down the phonetic spelling, so I wrote down, ‘rhymes with geese’,” she explained. “The teacher who called my name as I walked across the stage to accept my high school diploma literally read that part OUT LOUD for all my year mates and the hundreds and hundreds of people sitting in the audience… Unfortunately that moment is just about all I recall from that day. How embarrassing it was to take my diploma and shake my principal’s hand as that moment took place.”
Is Society Biased Toward “Easier” Names?
Research has shown that not only are people with easier to pronounce names generally perceived more positively, but they’re actually treated more favorably – in education, in the workplace, and even in public office.
A 2011 study found that people were more likely to vote for political candidates with easier to pronounce names, and lawyers with more pronounceable names occupied higher positions in their firm hierarchies. The study’s authors attribute this to the “hedonic marking hypothesis” – the theory that the easier a particular stimulus is for the brain to process, the more positively it will be evaluated.
Interestingly, these patterns held even when the names surveyed were controlled for length, uncommonness, orthographic regularity, and perceived foreignness.
The Role of Implicit Bias in Name Perception
But those other factors also play a significant role in how “difficult” a name is perceived to be in the real world.
Terms like “difficult”, “uncommon” and “foreign” imply a norm, a neutral baseline against which such concepts can be measured. But when it comes to names – which contain a wide range of social cues, such as gender, age, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status – there is really no such thing. All names, even newly invented ones, lead us to make implicit assumptions about the bearer.
A 2014 study found that the most common names of the past three decades in the US – names like Elizabeth and John, which are generally considered “typical” or “neutral” – are by default perceived to be white. Conversely, highly unusual names like Crescent or Nebula, which carry no particular cultural associations, are considered more likely to be Black. In other words, whiteness is automatically used as the norm against which concepts like “difficult”, “uncommon” and “foreign” are measured.
Laura Wattenberg of Namerology recently highlighted another case of implicit name bias, in – ironically – a viral video about systemic racism that was widely circulated in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Citing Baby-Names/25th-nujf”>data from New York City, which reports on name usage by ethnicity, Wattenberg points out that Kevin is not only much more common than Jamal in general, it’s much more common across ethnic groups. A Black man is statistically more likely to be named Kevin than Jamal, and he’s also proportionally more likely to be named Kevin than a white man.
By attaching the common, cross-cultural, “everyman” name Kevin to the white figure, and the much more uncommon, ethnically specific name Jamal to the Black figure, the video’s creators have inadvertently reinforced the very bias they are trying to expose.
As Wattenberg notes: “The effect of the choice is to treat whiteness as a cultural default, the standard for anything not specifically designated as black. Or even, on some level, to suggest that the video’s comparison is between black Americans and ‘ordinary’ Americans.”
Implicit Bias and Name Pronunciation
The same implicit bias is at work when public figures like Tucker Carlson – or even President Trump himself – persistently mispronounce the name of Kamala Harris, but not of her white peers with arguably far more phonetically challenging names.
Speaking at an International Day of the Girl event in 2017, Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba shared an anecdote from her schooldays, ending with these wise words from her mother: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, then they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
And, you might argue, if they can learn to say Gyllenhaal, Schwarzenegger and Galifianakis, then they can learn to say Quvenzhané.
When nine-year-old Quvenzhané (kwuh-VEN-zhuh-nay) Wallis became the youngest ever nominee for Best Actress at the 2013 Oscars, it was her name – like Sen. Harris’ last week – that quickly became a main talking point.
Okay if E! calls Quvenzhane Wallis “Little Q” all night because they can’t pronounce her name, there will be issues. #Oscars
— Christina Henderson (@chenderson) February 24, 2013
Coverage of the event referred to her as “Little Q”, a red-carpet interviewer told her “I’m calling you Annie now”, and an anonymous Academy member dismissed her as “Alphabet Wallis”, adding “I don’t vote for anyone whose name I can’t pronounce.”
It’s worth taking a step back and looking at the power dynamic behind these interactions. A young Black girl, new to the acting world, is surrounded by famous and influential adults – mostly white, many male – who try repeatedly to impose “easier” names on her.
This isn’t happening in a neutral historical context. Rita Kohli, assistant professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, spoke to KUOW radio last year about the issue of name mispronunciation and modification.
“The changing of people’s names has a racialized history,” she explained, “It’s grounded in slavery – the renaming during slavery, [and the] renaming in Americanization schools for Latinx communities and Indigenous communities… there is a lot of history that’s tied to this practice that is directly tied to racism.”
Why Name Pronunciation Matters
In 2012, Kohli co-authored a study which looked at the effects of name mispronunciation on students from ethnic minority backgrounds. It found that these incidents can have a very real impact on students: damaging their self-confidence, harming their social and emotional wellbeing, and even hindering academic performance.
“Pronouncing someone’s name correctly can make people feel valued, honored and respected – and mispronouncing their name creates real problems,” said writer Gerardo Ochoa in his recent TED Talk on the subject.
Ochoa, who immigrated to the US from Mexico aged nine, describes how he was publicly renamed “Jerry” by a teacher on his very first day in an American school – a nickname which stuck, despite his dislike of it. “Before long, few people knew my real name. It was like an out-of-control wildfire that spread too far, too fast for me to stop it. I accepted my new name, but I knew it was not me. I felt ashamed, I felt dirty, and I felt like a fraud.”
Like the Fox News anchor’s exasperated “whatever”, the refusal of this teacher to even try to pronounce an unfamiliar name sends the message that it’s not important, it’s too “difficult”, it’s weird. Far easier to make Gerardo – the name and the person – conform to the implicit norm of white, Anglo-American culture instead.
Ochoa finishes his talk with three simple tips for navigating name pronunciations which you initially find challenging:
1. Be humble – admit you’re having difficulty with a name and be willing to ask for help;
2. Be an active bystander – politely correct mispronunciations of other people’s names;
3. Don’t ever change someone’s name to suit you – that decision is theirs to make.
Do you have a name that is frequently mispronounced? Are you the parent or teacher of a child with a “difficult” to pronounce name? We’d be interested to hear your experience of this, and how it affected you. Share your thoughts below!
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on August 23rd, 2020 at 7:47 am
Such an interesting thought provoking article that is very much needed. Names are important and we should take the time to learn how to pronounce everyone’s names correctly.
on August 23rd, 2020 at 11:03 am
What a wonderful article! As a teacher I often have students with difficult to pronounce (or spell) names. I work hard to say and spell them correctly, and it makes me so sad when a staff member doesn’t. Sometimes it’s a student from another country or ethnic background, and sometimes it’s just a kid with parents who wanted to be different. But it’s still their name, their identity, THEM as a person. I think it’s important to make sure you say/spell names correctly.
on August 23rd, 2020 at 11:23 am
I’m a teacher and I encounter several names every year that I have never seen or heard before. It may take me a couple of tries and asking the student for the proper pronunciation, but I always make sure to get the student’s names right. I have a very easy first name and my maiden name was constantly mispronounced…so in a way I know how it feels. A name is so important to a person’s identity. I would never want my students to feel like I don’t value them. However, when naming my own son I chose something relatively common and impossible to mispronounce.
on August 23rd, 2020 at 7:02 pm
I actually changed my easy to say name to one which is fairly difficult to promounce, unless you are a fan of Abba. I have programmed my laptop to greet me by name when I switch on and her pronunciation is hilarious!
on August 23rd, 2020 at 7:58 pm
People are terrible at pronouncing names. My name, Kristen, NEVER gets said correctly. I have to correct. I used to work with a woman who continued to call me Christine. It’s very insulting and frustrating. As a teacher now I’m always around different names and I always make sure to say them right and call them what they want to be called.
on August 24th, 2020 at 8:26 am
Great article, Emma.
on August 24th, 2020 at 2:02 pm
My name is Chrys – pronounced the same as Kris. I never thought there would ever be a problem with it but believe it or not I’m often called — Cyrus — huh? Really? or how about . I don’t know. Ridiculous.
on August 24th, 2020 at 2:15 pm
People of all races have difficult names to pronounce.
on August 25th, 2020 at 10:27 am
My name is an Arabic one that people gave a hurtful nickname to. I also had a teacher refuse to even try and pronounce it right bc she had dyslexia which was really, really uncomfortable for me bc I felt like I then couldn’t complain about it. I have had a lovely teacher who couldn’t pronounce it on our first day together and then went ahead and researched it and used the correct pronounciation.
on August 25th, 2020 at 10:09 pm
My name is Janae, and I consistently get the same comments, questions, and jokes every time I meet someone new. “Do you ever get called Janay-nay?” “I luhhhv yew, Jennay” “Wow, that’s such a black name” (I’m extremely white).
The last one is very hard for me to respond to… like, obviously being black is not a bad thing, but since I’m very clearly white, I never know how to answer, or if the person is insinuating that they’re relieved I’m not black, or if they have a more positive/negative view of me based on my name.
Also, when opening new financial accounts or going about regular legal transactions, I constantly have to correct spelling and pronunciation. I’ve gone on dates with guys, thinking it was going well, then realizing they completely forgot my name and have no idea what to call me after three dates.
Alternatively, it can also make me very easy to track down on social media. Just this weekend, some weirdo followed me around the dog park after telling me about his arrest record and I left without saying another word to him but he found me on facebook.
I’m a very no-nonsense person, and my name invites a lot of nonsense. I end up having to explain very personal details about my family history and my relationship with my extremely religious mother (my name is from Jesus’ lineage) very early on in personal relationships, and regularly my name leads to twenty minute group discussions.
I might feel different if I had a rich ethnicity/cultural background to tie my name to, but there’s really no reason to wield my name with pride. I feel like the female equivalent of Jedediah the Sconnie Dairy Farmer who is a simple man consistently voting Republican because he loves ‘Murica.
I’m anything but a country bible-thumping bumpkin and I feel my name gets in the way of more important aspects of who I am as a person. It’s annoying to have to constantly correct, sometimes three times or more, or be forgotten, or be stalked.
I’m in the process of legally changing it, but I expect a huge fight with my mom about it. I feel bad, because she really cares about the meaning of it, but when I end up having to explain that meaning to practical strangers because of all the questions and assumptions that come with my name, it doesn’t feel as special.
I’m not going to discourage anyone from naming their child something special to them, but please take their everyday life into consideration. Imagine them at the doctor, or showing ID at a bar (I always get asked if it’s fake), or being tracked down by guys with dogs and DUIs. Imagine roll call at their elementary school or being mistaken for someone else in college. Imagine them being consistently questioned about issues of race (I try my best to be anti-racist, but I’m not prepared to jump into that conversation when I order a latte at Starbucks, ok?). At least provide them the opportunity for a nickname. (Jay? Jayjay? Jan? I’ve used these and been accused of lying/giving a fake name)
It’s ok to be different, but just consider your child.
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