Thursday, 21 October 2010

what was your name again?

Proper names are an important part of a pronunciation dictionary. Although most of them are not covered in general dictionaries, they are part of every NS’s knowledge of the language and therefore deserve to be properly documented as part of our on-going description of English. And in the case of English we have the added complication of the often opaque relationship between spelling and sound. (Think of the familiar names George, Leonard and Leo, where eo corresponds to ɔː, e and iːəʊ~iːoʊ respectively.)

Today I’m concerned not with geographical names, commercial names, or characters in fiction and mythology, but just with names of people; and among them not with surnames but with personal names (christian names, forenames, first names).

Naturally I tried to do my best to give these good coverage in LPD. But I’m conscious of a fair number of gaps: in particular, Indian names and Islamic names. Plenty of native speakers in Britain bear these names, and neither LPD nor any other pronunciation dictionary covers them adequately.

But it’s not just Indian and Islamic names. Parents today feel very few constraints on the choice of names for their children. They are free not only to create new spellings for familiar names, but also to invent entirely new names. How then is a pronunciation dictionary to keep up? It can’t.

(I am still feeling a bit embarrassed that I missed Britney in the 2008 edition of LPD. I console myself that at least I managed to add the surnames Obama and Miliband in time.)

This was brought home to me yesterday when I attended a funeral for a man of the same age as myself. The service sheet listed the names of all his immediate family. He was called Dan, and among his brothers and sisters (he came from a big family) were John, Helen, Edith, Joyce, Olivia and Ethel. No problem there. His sons and daughters included George, Dawn and Lorna, but also the unusually spelt Dannii. Then come the grandchildren. The names of one or two are unremarkable (Marcus, Karen, Shawn), but they are in a minority. Most of them have names not to be found in pronunciation dictionaries: Vonetta, Chiedza, Khaila, Shelayne, Keanna. Then his four great-grandchildren are named Stephon, Sha’Myri, Tierra and Teondray. I suppose the first may just be an unusual spelling of Stephen, but the others have every appearance of having been invented on the spot.

Not all parents choose to do their own thing in this way. Like everything else in Britain, it tends to be sensitive to social class differences. I have no grandchildren, but my great-nephews are called Jack, Joseph, and Joe, and my great-nieces are Sophie and Lucy.

20 comments:

  1. What a name WAS was known and loved, and there's no 'again' about that!

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  2. Even the word verification prompt had tinkered with Osiris.

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  3. NS is a native speaker (of English).

    The pop economics book Freakonomics (much parodied) has a whole section on unusual given names, and mentions a child born in America with the name "Shithead", to be pronounced ʃəˈtiːd.

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  4. And it must have been an urban legend but I once saw on TV that in an unspecified Latin American country there were officially registered the names "Prostituta" for a girl, and "Excremento" for a boy. Latin Americans are much more productive in this respect than Spaniards ("Wilmer" is common in Latin America but absolutely impossible in Spain, for example).

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  5. I find it interesting that every one of the inventive/unusual names you list would in the US sound markedly African-American.

    European-Americans from the name-innovating classes have their own patterns, though I can't succinctly describe them. Respelling of existing names is particularly common, as is the occasional blend (sometimes these are so well-constructed that one forgets they didn't previously exist). Evangelical Christians in particular tend to resurrect obscure biblical names, or do other other things like 'Nevaeh'. I believe you run into the occasional name formed by acronym.

    The most common source is probably the repurposed surname (such as my name, 'Kyle'), in particular the myriad 'Mac___'s. If I recall correctly, Brazilians are also quite fond of the surname-as-given-name, in particular those ending in '___son'.

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  6. OMG 'Nevaeh' is 'heaven' backwards. Apparently it's pronounced nɪˈveɪə.

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  7. Billy Connolly has a bit about how in Scotland surnames-as-firstnames are a mark of poshness. I think in the New World it was popularised (in both senses) by aspirational Scottish emigrants. Historically the surname was the mother's maiden name given to a son, which is still common for US middle names. But surname-firstnames are no longer exclusively male: poor Shirley Crabtree was named just before Shirley Temple became famous.

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  8. One of my colleagues at work is called "Teran", pronounced ˈterən and not teəˈrɑːn. She's from New Zealand.

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  9. Rather than invented on the spot I'd say that Tierra is Spanish for earth... but not a given name there, as far as I know. I do know several instances of girls called Lur, which is Basque for earth.

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  10. Last August there was a tragedy in Louisiana where six black teenagers drowned attempting to save the life of a seventh (read about it here).

    The names of the seven: Takeitha, JaMarcus, JaTavious, Dekendrix, Litrelle, LaDarius, and Latevin. JaMarcus and LaDarius look like familiar names with random syllables prefixed; the rest look made up out of whole cloth.

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  11. @Tonio Green: a bit of googling shows that most of these names are, if not common, at least not one-offs. Ladarius is Persian, according to one baby names site (and yes, it is a form of Darius, in the same way that Alison is a form of Alice, I presume). According to the Baby Name Voyager it was most popular in the late 90s. There are quite a few Takeithas and Latevins, some of them in the public eye. Dekendrix in that spelling is unusual, but there are variants that are more common e.g. Dakendrick. And so on.

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  12. Was that guy black by any chance?

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  13. How does LPD deal with names like Caitlin (the way Kathleen's spelled in Irish); or for that matter, Marie?

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  14. As for the title of this post, the last time I asked that question I was answered "It was [name] and it still is" or some similar way of mocking my use of the past tense.

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  15. @John A:

    In my LPD2, the possibilities for "Marie" are numbered (i) (ii) (iii), which is usual for shared proper names pronounced differently for different referents.

    Most non-English names have an English pronunciation (degree of anglicization varying by item) followed by a native-language one.

    "Caitlin" has two pronunciations listed, not as (i)-(ii) alternatives, but rather ˈkeɪt lɪn listed first as being the usual English pronunciation, and ˈkæt liːn after as a variant English pronunciation (not as an Irish-language form, which would be spelt "Caitlín" and have pronunciation transcribed differently). Not sure I agree with that.

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  16. When I had my son in a Glasgow maternity hospital in 2005 the teenager in the next bed, who came from one of the least desirable parts of Glasgow (and who took pleasure in pointing out I was older than her mother at 37!) named her newborn daughter Kaylin. I stayed in hospital 3 days and was amused (as someone with linguistic leanings) to eavesdrop the conversation that ensued...
    Later on Day one the teenager and her teenage boyfriend discussed changing the spelling to Kaylyn, to make it sound 'more exotic', they then discussed the following day if there was any scope for adding some silent 'h's to make it even more unique. The poor little baby became Kaylhin, then Khaylyn! By the time I left they were discussing whether K-lhyn would be 'cool', they were so driven by the quest for a unique name! The psychology behind it was fascinating! (I have no idea what spelling they ended up with though!) And I named my (half-French) son Léon.

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  17. @Phyl,
    I'm curious: presuming you speak English to your son and his father speaks to him in French (a lot of presumptions in there...), is he /leɔ̃/ in French, and /ˈliːɒn/ in English? Or is the French pronunciation used at all times (except, I imagine, by strangers)?

    If the dual pronunciations are used, I wonder what he thinks about his name(s)...

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  18. I was looking at my young nephew's class photo today, and spotted an array or exotic names, but the one that most amused me was a boy called British. This was a class of five-year-olds in South London.

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  19. @dirck - his father and I use the French pronunciation of his name. The rest of the family end up saying something like /leɔ̃n/. So he's used to the n being present or missing and this doesn't offend him, he accepts both variations as his name. Strangers tend to attempt to call him /ˈliːɒn/ though and he doesn't recognize that as his name. It is clear that the pronunciation of the é is what defines his name for him.

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