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Pronouncing “Difficult” Names (and Why It Matters)

August 23, 2020 Emma Waterhouse
name pronunciation kamala harris

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.”

Or whatever.

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.”

“[It] makes me feel bad because everyone ignores my real name and uses something else,” Penelope (peh-neh-LAW-pee) told us. “My teachers and classmates use another name for me.”

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.

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!

About the author

Emma Waterhouse

Emma Waterhouse — better known as @katinka around these parts — joined the team in 2017, writing about everything from where to find a cool vintage boy name to why some names become popular memes. As Nameberry's head moderator, she also helps to keep our active Forums community ticking. A linguist by background, Emma speaks six languages and lives in England's smallest county with her husband and three young children. You can reach her at emma@nameberry.com.

View all of Emma Waterhouse's articles

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