Story at a glance

  • Those with unique names who grow up in fairly homogenous or English-speaking communities often have their names mispronounced.
  • Studies have found that those with names that are easier to pronounce are judged more positively and have an easier time finding a job.
  • An individual’s relationship with their name is continuously evolving throughout their life.
  • People with ethnic-sounding names are finding power in demanding their names be pronounced correctly, even if it takes a few tries.

Take a stab at pronouncing my name on this byline and chances are you’ll be minorly stumped. Why? Because it’s only partially Anglicized, and that’s okay. It’s natural to be confused by the pronunciation of a foreign word, and I myself am continually struggling to pronounce Gaelic names such as Sadhbh or Aoife.

For those with a more traditional American name like Sarah or John, this might not be an issue you think of regularly, if ever, but it’s something an increasing amount of people deal with each and every day of their lives as globalization continues to meld cultures around the world.

What may seem to some like a minor annoyance also has much deeper psychological implications, both for the name bearer and the people who come in contact with them. Affecting the name bearer are the findings that the easier a name is to pronounce the more positively it is judged, according to a study by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. This supposedly holds true for everything from name evaluation and voting preferences to occupational status, as researchers found that people with easier-to-pronounce surnames occupy higher status positions in workplaces like law firms.

Globalization means no neat boxes

My name, Austa, is actually derived from the Icelandic word Ásta — both a name and a version of the word love in the country my father grew up in and of which I am a dual citizen. My parents decided when I was born to drop the accent and add a “u” to make my name easier to pronounce, which to our dismay, does not help much. 

The first half of my name is commonly mispronounced like the “au” in “auntie” or “autonomous,” and failed attempts are oftentimes followed up with questions about my heritage, especially considering my very visible half Asian background. “What are you?” They ask. 

When I’m in Iceland people are still somewhat confused due to the slight change, so my name doesn’t neatly fit into any box. In a similar position is my colleague Chia-Yi Hou, whose parents, originally from Shanghai, used an outdated spelling system when naming her and her sisters. 

“The Chinese pronunciation for ‘chia’ should be more like ‘jia,’ so even the ‘real’ pronunciation that I tell people is not the correct one. But that is a fight that I don't want to fight just yet. Maybe I'll legally change my name to match the actual Chinese pronunciation,” she says.

Chia-Yi tells me she usually goes by a nickname now with most of her friends — Chewy. It’s a word that sounds vaguely like her real name and also conjures up images of a certain Star Wars character. 

“I play ultimate frisbee and someone on the men's team during undergraduate started calling me Chewy and it stuck...I think he might have forgotten how to say my name and decided to call me by a nickname instead,” Chia-Yi says. “I've become used to it now, and pretty much all my friends call me Chewy. I do think about if I'll ever move away from it and switch back to my real name. When at coffee shops I even say Chewy, but they mishear and say Julie or something like that sometimes.”

Chia-Yi grew up in West Harlem, New York and her parents are from Shanghai, China. During her elementary and middle school years her classmates were mainly black and latinx, and she recalls feelings of standing out from the pack. Entering high school was a different-yet-similar story, as she entered a magnet school with an Asian population of 40 percent. Her new classmates had grown up together, and Chia-Yi felt that this new representation that now surrounded her felt both “comforting and intimidating at the same time.” It took her a few years to make any close Asian friends. 

The thing is that Chia-Yi and I are not alone in these seemingly unique frustrations. Changes in society and increasing globalization mean that the lines that once divided certain cultures will continue to blur. Among many things this means that first names in the States don’t have to fit the historical norm of a certain culture, and history has shown that societal movements can even create their own dialect of name types. 

“In African-American culture, for a long time, it was hard for them to trace their origins because they were losing their people and [a connection to] their original African culture,” says Marcia Haag, a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Oklahoma. “Names like Latasha, Lamont, Deandre — they were carefully thought up by black parents and emerged during the civil rights movement, in order to give their children something that sounded beautiful and that was given to be their own unique name.”

The use of distinctively black names traces much farther beyond the civil rights movement though, as studies have shown that the share of black Americans with black names increased over the antebellum era, while the share of white Americans with these same names declined, from more than 3 percent at the time of the American Revolution to less than 1 percent by 1860 — yet another manifestation of the deep racial divides at the time. 

To Anglicize or not, that is the question

In 2018, outrage was sparked by an installation of Jeanne Phillips’ widely-syndicated “Dear Abby” column, which had been doling out everyday advice since 1956. An American reader wrote in to ask about the naming of his future child. His wife, who was born in India, wanted an Indian name, while the husband expressed his concerns over using a more “unusual” name. 

“Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully. Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English,” wrote Phillips in response. 

Deeply offended, many journalists took to their respective platforms to voice concerns over the troubling advice, which they viewed as racist. These heated responses helped spark a nationwide conversation over the themes of identity, acceptance and inclusion. “I Don't Need A New Name — I Need People To Learn How To Pronounce It,” a headline by Refinery29 writer Ludmila Leiva read. 

Linguist Marcia Haag sees things a little differently, citing the relationship between an individual and their name as ongoing and evolving. “I’d say that while individuals want to own their names, people also badly want to fit in. Children will often change their names and Anglicize them, then perhaps go back later in life and change their name back.” An example she gave was President Barack Obama who used to go exclusively by the nickname “Barry” before taking on his formal African name during college.

“His was a typical immigrant transition. Just as a Dutch woman named Hanneke might become Johanna, or a German named Matthias becomes Matt, the elder Barack wanted to fit in,” writes Newsweek of Barack’s father. “America was a melting pot, and it was expected then that you melt — or at least smooth some of your more foreign edges.”

Chia-Yi had a similar story to tell, of a friend who had been going by a wrong pronunciation of her Indian name her whole life. As an adult, her friend decided to send out a mass email to everyone she knew informing them that she was now switching to the correct pronunciation, as well as sending out a recorded audio clip of the correct pronunciation. 

“I thought that was awesome and more people should do that. It's similar to how Hasan Minhaj started pronouncing his name the way it should be for [his show] ‘Patriot Act.’”

Correcting mistakes

As Marcia pointed out, your relationship with a first name can evolve over time — not just when it comes to choosing a nickname or deciding to fully Anglicize it, but also when it comes to choosing when to settle for mispronunciation. 

Growing up I was embarrassed to correct the pronunciation of my name, or I’d do it once and if the person continued to say it the wrong way I’d just accept my fate. There were times when a new acquaintance who grew into a close friend or a professor I stayed in touch with after a full semester would continue to pronounce it wrong — but this was partially my fault for not taking ownership of my own name. 

“I'm a pretty patient person, but it sucks to have to correct people,” Chia-Yi agrees. “I feel awkward and more reluctant if I've missed that window of time where it's socially acceptable to correct someone and not feel icky about it. If I don't think I'll see someone ever again, I may give up and not correct them. It's not worth the energy sometimes.”

Everyone’s relationship with their name is unique, and as mine has continued to evolve I’ve stopped giving up on correcting people, even if I know I may never see them again. As a third culture kid it can be easy to get confused and overwhelmed by a multi-ethnic background, but now as I learn more about the richness of my cultures I grow increasingly proud of them, and my name. Or maybe I just care less about taking up space now. 

Just as globalization has bled cultural lines, so has it begun to provide once homogenous communities with more “unusual name” tribes of multicultural folk to relate to and feel emboldened by. Amina Akhtar for example, a friend of mine and a producer at The Aspen Institute, attests to this.

“I've noticed that it's almost exclusively Caucasians who get my name wrong repeatedly. It doesn't make me feel great, and my friends will call me ‘Ameena’ if they really want to irritate me,” she says. “Now I've taken ownership [of my name] and I correct people like it's my second job. If they don't remember how to say it, I just want them to be honest. I'll appreciate that you asked instead of guessing wrong.”

“I do like it when people don't automatically cling onto a pronounceable nickname instead of my real name,” adds Chia-Yi. “It shows that they care.”

Published on Feb 20, 2020