Patrick West

Mispronouncing names isn’t a ‘microaggression’

Actress Thandiwe Newton, who said she will reclaim the original Zulu-derived spelling of her name (Getty images)

People can make a bewildering number of offensive transgressions these days: from using the wrong pronoun when addressing people to saying that only a woman has a cervix. The latest eggshell to avoid now is mispronouncing people’s names.

#MyNameIs is a new initiative calling on people to add phonetic spellings to their email signatures. Race Equality Matters (REM), which launched the campaign, says that mispronouncing names can be ‘considered a microaggression’ and sends out a message that ‘you are minimal’. A survey conducted by REM found that 71 per cent of respondents said their names had been mispronounced, leading some to feel ‘disrespected’ or that ‘they didn’t belong’.

Of course, having a name that looks or sounds unfamiliar to Anglophone eyes and ears can be a hurdle. It can sometimes become a source of hurt feelings and more usually irritation (if you went to Catholic school, you may also remember the trouble teachers had with Irish names such as Siobhan or Ainne). Indeed, the television series Goodness Gracious Me incorporated this mispronouncing phenomenon into their most famous sketch, ‘Going Out For An English’, in which one Indian guest didn’t know how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name ‘John’.

The skit, ostensibly mocking British boorishness and ignorance, actually hinted at a fundamental, universal truth: that all cultures find foreign names, alien pronunciations or words with unfamiliar constructions strange and difficult. Sure, the British have difficulty rolling an ‘r’ in the Spanish or Italian fashion. That’s because it’s unfamiliar to us. But the French have trouble pronouncing the English ‘the-‘ sound in ‘that’ and ‘them’ because, likewise, that sound doesn’t exist in their language. As with Italians, they struggle to aspirate ‘h’ in words like ‘have’ or ‘helicopter’, because that’s alien to them. If your name is Henry or Holly, they will say your name wrong only because they can’t help it.

#MyNameIs is a new initiative calling on people to add phonetic spellings to their email signatures

Italian newspapers frequently mis-spell English words.

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