Why I keep using the ‘ń’

When I arrived in the United Kingdom all these years ago, I faced a problem I had not thought of.  The problem was of what name I would be using. Dariusz Galasiński, the way I pronounce and write it, very quickly appeared not to be an option….And so, I immediately started anglicising the names. Dariusz became Darius, Galasiński lost palatalisation and acquired the non-palatalised ‘s’ and ‘n’ and Bob became my uncle. Who needs palatalising anyway?!

To be completely honest, at first it wasn’t even a problem. After all, I have come to the coveted West, a young man from Eastern Europe and I was so kin to fit in. Dropping the little “’” over the “n” was completely obvious; who cares about it anyway? In my first publications in English, the little diacritic was not even an issue. I was Galasinski and that was the end of the matter.

I also very quickly decided that it’s better to introduce myself as Darek, which is similar to Derek (even though the two names have nothing to do with each other; ‘Derek’ is German, ‘Dariusz’ is Persian). This will be easier for my newly found Anglophone friends, won’t it? “Darek” is the systemic diminutive of “Dariusz”, and in Polish it suggests shortening of contact and some affinity with the interactant. So, at times, it did feel a bit strange, but I was young enough to cope with it and “Dariusz”, with the “z”, seemed an immigrant’s imposition too far. With years, the number of moments of strangeness has grown, but hey, who’s counting?

And then there was the pronunciation. For the last 30 years, I have not pronounced my first name or my surname anyway near the way it’s pronounced in Polish, but, to be honest, I have much sympathy. Just as for Poles it’s just about impossible to pronounce ‘th’ (voiceless or voiced), it is just about impossible for anglophones to pronounce ‘si’ or ‘ń’ in my surname. But I still get irritated by the laughter – it’s really not funny when you can’t pronounce my name and don’t even try.

Anyway, I was happily going along my way in the UK, trying to fit in linguistically, when I met a Dutch colleague at a conference. It was Titus Ensink (I do hope he will not mind my mentioning of his name) who asked me why I was not insisting on the little diacritic over the ‘n’. I responded that it didn’t matter, and I still remember his surprise. It did matter, he insisted, that’s your name!

Bloody hell, I thought, have I really been so blind? Have I really been such a docile Eastern European that I had to abandon my name in order to fit in? The answer was (and still is) fairly uncomfortable – yes, I have. The meeting with Titus was a turning point. Well, sort of.

Ever since that conversation, which happened in a hotel lobby, I have started using and insisting on the little thing in my surname. But don’t think it’s been a smooth ride. Obviously, for British institutions (like banks, universities or electricity boards) diacritics are not an option and, I guess, I am not really surprised. But publishing houses should be amenable, shouldn’t they? Surprisingly, they weren’t (at first).  I heard that changing ‘n’ into ‘ń’ would cost a lot money and couldn’t be done. With much trepidation, I responded that it was not a problem and I was happy to withdraw the book. It was an idle threat, I probably would have swallowed my pride like a little pelican, but my calculation was that at the stage of proofs, no publishing would withdraw the book because of one diacritic. I was right – they didn’t.

But this story, which began by being told off by a Dutch linguist, is really a story of more compromise. I have really sold my soul to the linguistic devil. I still tend to introduce myself with the diminutive or with the English rendition of my first name – I do say ‘darius’, and not the Polish way, something like, ‘daryoosh’ (incidentally, in Iran there are many Dariushes, pronounced much like the Polish ‘Dariusz’). I continue not to palatalise the ‘n’. Yes, today, it’s perhaps less for fitting in, but for expediency. I used to occasionally pronounce my full name the Polish way to the horror of those it was addressed to. It’s like they were hit by a splash of sound.

And so, the little diacritic, wherever possible, is to persuade myself that I haven’t sold out altogether. It’s the preservation of my ‘true identity’ (academically, I don’t really believe in ‘true identity’, but privately, of course I do), which turns out to be two millimetres of print suspended over a consonant. But when you’ve lost much of your national identity, haven’t acquired a new one, and your ethnic belonging is not much more than a political statement of self-Othering, the “’” becomes much more important than it would appear. It gives you semblance of continuation. And this is why I continue using the ‘ń’. I continue using it because through migration I have lost the rest of my names. This is what it feels like, at least.

But, I’m sorry to say, the end is in bitter irony. When I am in Poland, it is the anglicized versions that I need to suppress much more often than I would care to admit. It’s like suppressing muscle memory, and one I strongly dislike, especially in today’s post-referendum and pre-Brexit Britain. Today the two millimetres of print are so much more.

2 Comments
  1. Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz (Pi)

    Oh, how lucky Darius(z) is! What would you do if your first name was Bogumiła or Dąbrówka, Grażyna, Bronisław, Czesław, Lech, Mieczysław, Sławomir, Wacław, Zbigniew, to name just a few?

    1. Dariusz Galasinski

      I had a friend whose surname was Chrabąszcz. It is a proper nightmare if you want to emigrate 🙂

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