The problem with those dang ethnic people is that you can’t even pronounced their names. Regarding the difficulty some Chinese and other east Asian people have with conflicts in their own naming system and the naming system assued by, for instance, a state’s Motor Vehicle department, Texas (where else) State Representative Betty Brown says:

Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here? …

Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?

In reporting this story, Feministing has suggested that maybe it’s Betty Brown who should change her name so that it is easier for the rest of us to deal with, and asks for suggestions.

So, any suggestions?

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    April 12, 2009

    I think all those people with German last names should follow suit, too.

    I mean, come on! “Haubrich?” No one can ever get that one right!

  2. #2 D. C. Sessions
    April 12, 2009

    Getting rid of either R or L would be good for general pronunciation.

  3. #3 11100101
    April 12, 2009

    Names are obsolete.
    Especially binomials.

    Binary code, that’s the future!

    sincerely,

    11100101

  4. #4 Dan J
    April 12, 2009

    It’s just so ridiculous. These people need to make their names simpler to figure out. I mean, is it supposed to be “Laden” like “laid-en” or “lad-en” or “lahd-en”? I can’t figure out these funny foreign sounds at all!

  5. #5 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    no suggestion, but now I’m considering reverting to my maiden name, out of spite. I wanna see her pronounce Żurawińska correctly

  6. #6 NewEnglandBob
    April 12, 2009

    Oy,yoy yoy, facacta!

  7. #7 Susannah
    April 12, 2009

    …Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language …

    Oh, that old canard!

    Given that Chinese is so “difficult”, it’s strange, isn’t it, that Chinese babies learn it just as quickly as children in English-speaking homes learn English?

    Or that schoolchildren learn to read and write it, starting in first grade?

  8. #8 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    April 12, 2009

    Or that schoolchildren learn to read and write it, starting in first grade?

    Yes, but Asian kids are smarter and better at schoolwork than white kids. I thought everyone knew that.

  9. #9 Rob Jase
    April 12, 2009

    What she needs is to find the right Chinese man to mellow her out. Might I suggest either Hung Lo or Long Dong?

  10. #10 prelevent
    April 12, 2009

    I have a question about what the best way to deal with the situation would have been.

    Mr. Ko had come to the Texas legislature on behalf of the Asian-American voters he was representing, to discuss ways to address the problem of people being denied voting abilities at the polls because of discrepancies in names. They were trying to identify where the source of the problems actually was, and the difficulties in native english speakers pronouncing certain Asian names was identified as one of them, as well as the problems inherent to romanization of character based languages. For instance, when someone reads a pinyin transliteration of a chinese word, the tendency might be to pronounce it in the same way that you might read a word in english, and the results are often confusing and sometimes even comical. For instance, Quan is not pronounced “KWAHN”, it sounds more like “tchewan”. Add a regional accent to it, and it might even sound like it ended in an “R”. If you heard that name how would you assume it was to be spelled?

    That there are problems with being able to pronounce names from innumerable nations spanning the world was not the point of this meeting. Mr. Ko was representing the Asian Americans in that region of Texas. So addressing the fact that the ever widening diversity of American citizenship is bound to include more and more people from many different places who bring with them the words and names from their regions of origin would have been outside of the scope of this meeting. This is compounded by the fact that legal names of Asian Americans are often different from the names that they themselves adopt… hence the problem that was referred to about the difference between a name on a drivers license and what was on the voter registration.

    So again my question is, if you were in the place of anyone at this legislative meeting what solutions to the problem being addressed would you have offered? Standardized National I.D. cards? Training in basic pronunciation of dozens of languages (or hundreds including regional dialects) for volunteer poll workers?

    It is easy to scoff at Betty Brown for being your standard texas-ignoramus.(Texas is a textbook opening line in a mad-lib about many of the stupidities that color our nation.) But is there anyway to address this problem that could not be called racist by someone, and at the same time be feasible to implement?

  11. #11 amphiox
    April 12, 2009

    I could sort of understand if she was complaining about Swahili names or German names, but Chinese?

    I mean, come on! Chinese names are monosyllabic. (Every character is a single syllable) And it’s not like she’s being required to learn the chinese characters, either.

    How hard is it to remember stuff like Li Su, Wong San Nan, etc?

  12. #12 Mankel
    April 12, 2009

    Castilians and other Spaniards that only speak Spanish say he same to us, other Spaniards that have other languages as a mother tongue (Catalan, Basque or Galician). “Speak christian” is a ‘friendly’ common reminder of the respect we owe them. It is a sign of a superiority complex or something like that.

    In a few years, USA’s Treasury Bonds will have to be denominated in Yuans.

  13. #13 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    prelevent, how is divergences in pronounciation and spelling an asian-specific problem? most people with non-english names are used to having to spell them at every occasion. is this a question of asian-americans who aren’t familiar enough with the latin alphabet? also, what’s with the “names they give themselves” thing? most of us have nicknames, what does that have to do with official documents?

    Obviously people need to be consistent with the names they have on their official documents, but “getting easier names” is a BS solution.

  14. #14 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    on a side-note, this isn’t just a problem in the US. when I was a kid in Germany, I’ve had several adults in authority (teachers mostly) try to talk me into adopting a German spelling/pronunciation for my name. one of them actually said to me (after I told him what my name was, after he mispronounced it): “no, that was your name when you were in Poland. Now you’re in Germany, so you have a German name now”

    idiots are everywhere, it seems.

  15. #15 Richard Simons
    April 12, 2009

    It’s not just with Asian names. Mine is often pronounced Simmons or spelled with a Y, two M’s or a D. I even once had someone spell it Phyman.

    How hard is it to remember stuff like Li Su, Wong San Nan, etc?

    It is my understanding that Wong is pronounced to rhyme closer to ‘wrung’ than to ‘wrong’ to it might not be as easy as it looks.

  16. #16 Ganf
    April 12, 2009

    I suggest she change her name to:
    Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel

  17. #17 prelevent
    April 12, 2009

    Jadehawk, the point I was making about this being an “asian american” problem come directly from where this whole brouhaha emerged. Namely at a Texas legislature where a person representing the Asian American voting community of that region of Texas had gone to make his case. The legislative session was not at the time (at least not that I am aware of) addressing the concerns of the larger voting community. If that had been the case, then I am sure that there would be complaints from every American ethnic group that has experienced this problem.

    Nicknames are one thing, but it is very common in Chinese american communities to adopt and “English” name when they come to America. And this is not the same thing as when a person named Robert prefers to be called Bob. My fiancee was given an “English” name when she took an english course in China during grade school, and she kept it. Most people that she knows casually do not know her Chinese name.

    Another friend of mine, Xiu, uses the name Gavin when he is speaking english and has since he was in High School (referring to my earlier post, when people learn of his Chinese name they almost invariably pronounce it “shoe” or even “Zee-ew”, but it is more like “Sooh”, but depending on which transliteration it can be spelled Xiu or Hsu). On his drivers license it says Yang Xiu, but on other documents it says Gavin Xiu Yang. In an official sense these names may only be “nicknames”, but they are often regarded with the same sense of identity as a name given by parents.

    Again referring back the case at hand, when Mr. Ko said that some people immigrate with one name and then take on a different name later on. This may not carry through from one official document to the next. In other cases individuals may have been confused and put the wrong name down on a registration.

    Like I said, there does not seem to be an easy solution to this. I think we can anticipate the cries of racism that would come from the federal government requiring an official transliteration standard, or even the requirement of a Voter ID card that could be obtained in the same way as a passport.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2009

    prelevent: Here in Minnesota, you show up at the polling place and tell the poll keeper who you are, and that may require pointing at your name on the ledger. Certainly, I have to point at my name on the ledger because the poll keeper is a 98 year old but very nice lady who can’t hear me and if she could she could not understand my think out of town accent.

    This thing going on in Texas is not about pronunciation or custom. It is about denying the little brown people from the scary mystical foreign land their vote. This is standard fare in the southern tier states, from Florida to Texas and in between.

    There is not a valid discussion to be had regarding any problem in naming or pronunciation.

  19. #19 Stephanie Z
    April 12, 2009

    I walk into my polling place, tell them my name, and tell them I’m the last person on their list. No one ever knows how to spell it (except for a few people who remember an old local weather forecaster whose name sounded the same, and they’re wrong).

    It seems to me that the only problem is poll workers who don’t want to deal with these particular complexities, because there are always problems with names. If Brown really wanted to be helpful in a way that still required some action from the Chinese community, perhaps she should have suggested that they send some people from the community to be trained and work at the polls.

  20. #20 Greg Laden
    April 12, 2009

    I know someone who moved from Michigan to Louisana (via Georgia) in the late 50s or early 60s (I don’t remember when exactly) and volunteered to do poll work for the local election officials. (She was the spouse of a professor at Tulane.)

    She discovered right away that the method to be used for this was to provide only blacks with a particular literacy test that the average Louisiana citizen would not pass (considering that the literacy rate in Louisiana at the time was very very low). Since the test was only given to blacks and not to whites, many/most blacks were simply not allowed to vote, disproportionately.

    This person stood for this for all of about five minutes and then complained to the local DA. Who did do something about it.

    The DA was Jim Garrison.

  21. #21 Andrew
    April 12, 2009

    Funny that they have no trouble with Schwarzenegger but can’t handle Wu.

  22. #22 lylebot
    April 12, 2009

    Nicknames are one thing, but it is very common in Chinese american communities to adopt and “English” name when they come to America.

    The prevalence of this probably varies substantially by subculture. There are many Chinese people in my field (computer science), and I know that many of them have such “English” names, but very few of them actually use them. 99% of my Chinese colleagues go by their Chinese name in all situations I’ve interacted with them.

  23. #23 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    On his drivers license it says Yang Xiu, but on other documents it says Gavin Xiu Yang.

    this makes no sense. I mean, I believe it, it just seems to make no sense. every official document i’ve ever possessed required either my birth-certificate or my drivers license, so they could verify that I’m me. How does one manage to get a name onto any of them that isn’t on one’s license? or conversely, how does one get a drivers license to have a different name than all other identifying documents?

    keep in mind I’m not American, so I don’t even know what kind of stuff counts as “official document” for voting.

    also, when I said nicknames, I didn’t mean a diminutive of your own name. for example, a large group of my friends calls me “Jade” even though this has shit-all to do with my real first name. I suspect some of them don’t even know what my real first name is, either. but I wouldn’t put that on any official document, it’s just what people call me.

    is there maybe some confusion either with the poll workers or the Asian communities in question about what an “official” name is…?

  24. #24 Jadehawk
    April 12, 2009

    ah, hit post and then remembered one more group with whom there might be confusion: those people who made those various official documents.

  25. #25 Lassi Hippeläinen
    April 13, 2009

    At first I couldn’t understand the problem. In order to vote, you must have some paper trail that shows your identity, and the name should appear there. It is up to the voter to remember what spelling is used in them. But that racist aspect explains it…

    About pronunciation: English speakers are the problem. The worst are medical terms, which are spelled like Latin words, but pronounced in incompherensible ways. It is the English speakers who are challenged by the Latin alphabet.

    Names should be pronounced as they are written, just like mine. Ms. Brown should change her name to Braun, to match her own pronunciation. As an additional benefit, it would remind people about Braunau.

  26. #26 David Marjanović
    April 13, 2009

    Or that schoolchildren learn to read and write it, starting in first grade?

    Keyword “starting”. However, that’s a comment about the writing system, not about the language.

    how is divergences in pronounciation and spelling an asian-specific problem? most people with non-english names are used to having to spell them at every occasion. is this a question of asian-americans who aren’t familiar enough with the latin alphabet?

    Most of that problem lies with the zany English orthography. I mean, I’m not even talking about Featherstonehaugh. Look at the words though and through, and then listen to them.

    Another is that several different transcriptions exist for Mandarin alone (let alone Cantonese). Pinyin was only invented in the late 1950s and only became official in the 1970s, and then only in the PRC… if someone spells their surname, say, Koh, all you can do is guess. It might be Guó for instance. And whether “Koh” is supposed to be the same as “Ko” is likewise everyone’s guess.

    It is my understanding that Wong is pronounced to rhyme closer to ‘wrung’ than to ‘wrong’ to it might not be as easy as it looks.

    It is interesting that nasal vowels sound to Americans like there were a “r” somewhere in the vicinity…

    Anyway, Wong is the Cantonese version; Mandarin is Wáng. (The accent is an inbuilt question mark. That’s a tonal language for you.)

  27. #27 AK
    April 13, 2009

    If we remove the parochialism, the problem seems to me to be easily solved: whatever the name is in some other language, it needs to be modified so it can be pronounced using American English phonemes, then spelled phonetically. There is no reason to transliterate the Latin (or Greek) letters of German or Slavic speakers, and no need to require pronunciations that use non-American English phonemes.

    This is hardly a new problem. You don’t think the way the Romans pronounced Vercingetorix’ name was the same as the way his countrymen did, do you? Nor, I suspect, was the Latin spelling a transliteration of whatever spelling the Gauls used for his name.

    It’s not a problem of immigrants learning to speak English, its simply a problem of translation, or perhaps recognizing the need for translation. A name in one language needs to be adapted (translated) for another, after which the name used will simply depend on what language is used.

    Regarding the Chinese languages, when somebody comes to this country they should have the option of choosing how their name will be Anglified (Americanized?), but for English documents a name in English should be required.

  28. #28 Vang
    April 13, 2009

    AK: The vast majority of what you might call “English” names used in the US are not originally from English, and they are not modified to the degree you demand for the Chinese or other East Asians.

  29. #29 davem
    April 13, 2009

    Zany English orthography? Blame it on those Normans. What with coming over here, and enforcing their limited latin aphabet on us Anglo-Saxons, who had a perfectly good 32 letter alphabet. Making all those different ‘th’, ‘gh’, ‘ch’ and ‘sh’ sounds spelled the same way, because they couldn’t pronounce them? Bloody immigrants! After a thousand years, they still can’t speak proper English!

  30. #30 badrescher
    April 13, 2009

    During a radio show I heard a few years ago the hosts were discussing ethnic-sounding names (not traditional names of any ethnicity, but those that people make up). A caller was particularly angry at her sister, who had just named her baby girl – pronounced “Shi-teed”, spelled:
    S * H * I * T * H * E * A * D

  31. #31 AK
    April 13, 2009

    @Vang:

    AK: The vast majority of what you might call “English” names used in the US are not originally from English, and they are not modified to the degree you demand for the Chinese or other East Asians.

    This may be, but whatever the spelling, AFAIK most such names are pronounced (by strangers, etc.) using the phonemes of modern American English. And, AFAIK, many, many immigrants rationalized the spelling of their names when they arrived. As for those who didn’t (and keep non-English letters, accent marks, or whatever in the spelling of their names), AFAIK they often have trouble with documents and databases which don’t support foreign lettering.

    If people want to keep the spelling of their names non-phonetic, that’s their prerogative, but they (and their descendants) will have to suffer from mispronunciations. In the case of east Asians, since their names are generally written in a non-English script in their own language, I don’t see what the problem is with picking a phonetic English spelling. Still, if they see a problem, they can spell their name(s) any way they want. They’ll just have to live with the consequences.

  32. #32 Greg Laden
    April 13, 2009

    As for those who didn’t (and keep non-English letters, accent marks, or whatever in the spelling of their names), AFAIK they often have trouble with documents and databases which don’t support foreign lettering.

    But that is not what is at issue here.

    What is absurd here, as has been pointed out already, is that a name like “Wu” or “Vang” is not any where near as problematic in translation or pronunciation as a name like Schnerrenbergerdorph. Or a name like Sean. Mrs. Brown is down on the East Asians for her own reason, and the rest of this stuff is merely crap flying out of one orifice or another.

  33. #33 Jadehawk
    April 13, 2009

    Most of that problem lies with the zany English orthography. I mean, I’m not even talking about Featherstonehaugh. Look at the words though and through, and then listen to them.

    Another is that several different transcriptions exist for Mandarin alone (let alone Cantonese). Pinyin was only invented in the late 1950s and only became official in the 1970s, and then only in the PRC… if someone spells their surname, say, Koh, all you can do is guess. It might be Guó for instance. And whether “Koh” is supposed to be the same as “Ko” is likewise everyone’s guess.

    yes, but how does this affect the spelling of an individual person’s name? are you saying that sometime in the 50’s – 70’s, all already existing names had to go through a “Rechtschreibreform” (a mandatory change in spelling), and this somehow only had effect on some documents, but not others?
    WHY would an already established transcription of a person’s name change just because a new transcription system came along? Once a spelling has been established once, on whatever legal document the person gets first, shouldn’t that then become the “official” name, and if you wanted a different spelling sometime down the line, you’d have to change your name just like everybody else.

    This still makes no sense to me at all

  34. #34 Jadehawk
    April 13, 2009

    blockquote fail, plus I for got something, so one more:

    Most of that problem lies with the zany English orthography. I mean, I’m not even talking about Featherstonehaugh. Look at the words though and through, and then listen to them.

    Another is that several different transcriptions exist for Mandarin alone (let alone Cantonese). Pinyin was only invented in the late 1950s and only became official in the 1970s, and then only in the PRC… if someone spells their surname, say, Koh, all you can do is guess. It might be Guó for instance. And whether “Koh” is supposed to be the same as “Ko” is likewise everyone’s guess.

    yes, but how does this affect the spelling of an individual person’s name? are you saying that sometime in the 50’s – 70’s, all already existing names had to go through a “Rechtschreibreform” (a mandatory change in spelling), and this somehow only had effect on some documents, but not others?
    WHY would an already established transcription of a person’s name change just because a new transcription system came along? Once a spelling has been established once, on whatever legal document the person gets first, shouldn’t that then become the “official” name, and if you wanted a different spelling sometime down the line, you’d have to change your name just like everybody else.

    This still makes no sense to me at all.

    also, the problem of inconsistent documents is completely separate from the problem of how to pronounce names, especially since the pronunciation-game in the U.S. is all sorts of interesting. for example, there’s two groups of people in this area with the last name Gagnon. The Detroit-Gagnons pronounce it “gag-nin”, the ND-Gagnons pronounce it “gan-ja”. Both of course are attempts at rendering a French name, which have become established at some point as the “right” pronunciation of that name. However, when they go vote, the relation of spelling to pronunciation is irrelevant, whereas consistency in papers is.

    lastly, this has nothing to do with the idiocy of Ms. Brown, who claims that somehow Asian names are much more problematic that the plethora of weird European names. though I’d be greatly interested how the American bureaucracy deals with the names of recent immigrants from Iceland, for example…

  35. #35 Jadehawk
    April 13, 2009

    *headdesk*

    I give up. I fail at quotes. everything until “And whether “Koh” is supposed to be the same as “Ko” is likewise everyone’s guess.” is quoted, the rest is mine

  36. #36 Al
    April 13, 2009

    Another friend of mine, Xiu, uses the name Gavin when he is speaking english and has since he was in High School (referring to my earlier post, when people learn of his Chinese name they almost invariably pronounce it “shoe” or even “Zee-ew”, but it is more like “Sooh”, but depending on which transliteration it can be spelled Xiu or Hsu).

    You appear to have confused Xiu and Xu in Pinyin. “Xu” = Wade-Giles “Hsu”. Sh + Ü is the pronunciation, roughly. It’s firmly a front vowel. “Xiu”, on the other hand, is like “She” + the “oe” in “toe”. I think Xu is a more common surname, but I could be wrong.

    Anyway, when I lived in Taiwan I saw some pretty wacky Anglicised names. One guy who worked in a 7/11 was named “Suffocates”. Bubble and Nemo worked in Starbucks. Why not go with that? Choose the most rapperesque name possible, the most ghetto name in the history of English, or go with something offensive. Hitler Kong?

  37. #37 zayzayem
    April 15, 2009

    Forcing people to change their names was a nasty trick pulled by the Imperial Japanese when they were busy taking over Korea and Manchuria.

    In order to register with the Japanese administration (for merchant licences, marriages, births etc.) indigenous populations would be forced to Japanes-ify their name.

    This is still, to some level in place, for people wishing to naturalise as Japanese. But I think they are (at least outwardly) more accomodating to non-standard alphabet usage with katakana.
    (That said I think I had at least three different spellings of my surname while I was over there – one at work, one at the Alien registration, and one for my bank account and bills)

    A person’s name is their identity, their self, and probably the most important thing about who they are. Forcing people to change it against their will is a very serious breach of basic human rights.

    ====
    In consideration of Ms Brown’s objection to Chinese names – which Chinese would she be refering to. Not only are there the major languages of cantonese and Mandarin – but China encompases at least 150 ethnicities with more than likely more dialects amongst them.

    ====

    Names are special words, and even in English need not be pronounced the way they are spelt (Mrs Buckett, anyone?).

    For people in governmental administration who will often be encountering name pronouncfiationa nd meeting – training in handling these circumstances and acting sensitively to ethnic concerns is just a simple must.

    Advice is to give it your best shot (or failing that ask), and always take heed that the other person probably knows how to correctly pronounce their own name.

  38. #38 zayzayem
    April 15, 2009

    @AK:

    This may be, but whatever the spelling, AFAIK most such names are pronounced (by strangers, etc.) using the phonemes of modern American English.

    Why would a Asian administrator suddenly switch to modern American English phonemes just because they are dealing with a Westerner.

    Do American ex-pats and tourists have a magical aura that imbue Asians with ability and desire to pronounce American phonemes in perfect pitch?

  39. #39 AK
    April 16, 2009

    Do American ex-pats and tourists have a magical aura that imbue Asians with ability and desire to pronounce American phonemes in perfect pitch?

    Of course not. I was speaking of here in the US, where the language is (American) English. If Americans decide to live (or work) in another country, they should expect their names to be pronounced using the phonemes of the language of the land. This is certainly true of those living in Mexico, where the short “i” in American names is usually pronounced “ee”. It would be up to the ex-pat to learn to recognize their name pronounced in the local language.

  40. #40 AK
    April 18, 2009

    This article may be relevant: Cognitive gains in 7-month-old bilingual infants by Ágnes Melinda Kovács, and Jacques Mehler.

    Children exposed to bilingual input typically learn 2 languages without obvious difficulties. However, it is unclear how preverbal infants cope with the inconsistent input and how bilingualism affects early development. In 3 eye-tracking studies we show that 7-month-old infants, raised with 2 languages from birth, display improved cognitive control abilities compared with matched monolinguals. Whereas both monolinguals and bilinguals learned to respond to a speech or visual cue to anticipate a reward on one side of a screen, only bilinguals succeeded in redirecting their anticipatory looks when the cue began signaling the reward on the opposite side. Bilingual infants rapidly suppressed their looks to the first location and learned the new response. These findings show that processing representations from 2 languages leads to a domain-general enhancement of the cognitive control system well before the onset of speech.