My strange, foreign name

At a recent conference a presenter was referring to a paper. She read three of the names and then said: “Oh, I can’t pronounce these two.”  This sentence, which I probably heard more times than any other sentence referring to my nationality, quite struck me.

Even though my surname consists (at least in its anglicised version, i.e. without the palatalisation diacritic over ‘n’) of three English words: “gala”, “sin” and “ski”, I cannot count the number of times I was told that my name simply cannot be pronounced. A person would simply declare it, as if it were a statement of an obvious fact allowing them not even to try to engage with it.

Over the years, I have simply accepted this, yet, the conference presenter made me think about it again. After all, this is more than simply saying that you cannot pronounce a foreign word, such as for example, Polish ‘chrząszcz’, which would, probably, break any Anglophone’s tongue. And so, I’ve decided to write this blog about the sentence “I can’t pronounce your name”.  In contrast to my earlier blog on given/first names, this time, I shall write mostly about our surnames (or full names).

Let us start with a basic assumption. Our names define us. It is our name through which we identify ourselves both in private, professional, institutional and public contexts. We all know our names. In fact, not knowing one’s name suggests that something has gone very wrong in your life. When I ask a student what their name is, I occasionally follow it up by a question. I ask them: “How do you know?”. Mostly, they don’t know what to say, completely taken aback by the question. Having and knowing a name is obvious, taken for granted. Well, without a name we don’t exist.

And this is precisely why I have always thought that “I can’t pronounce your name.” is aggressive. The fact that it tells me that the speaker doesn’t want to engage with me, is secondary. The crucial and most significant thing is that it deprives me of my name. It deprives me of what defines me at the very basic level. I become different from all the rest of the people – they do have names.

But that’s not all. Names have taming powers, they are a way of making distinctions of what surrounds us. A name singles out an entity and takes it across from the ‘wilderness’ of nature into the realm of cultural reality, into what the society deals with. What has not got a name is socially and culturally insignificant. Indeed, in Language and symbolic power Pierre Bourdieu wrote that naming is one of the elementary forms of political power, through which things are brought to existence.

The sentence “Oh, I can’t pronounce your name.” puts me right outside discourse, outside what is sayable. I cannot be spoken of, I cannot be referred to. I remain in the unnamed wild. And so, finally, declaring that you will not pronounce my name can be seen as a form of symbolic violence and a form of (probably mild) discrimination, most likely unintended, something not to lose sleep over.

As the conference presenter smoothly declared her inability to pronounce the two names (by the look of it, German or Dutch, nothing particularly onerous), the co-authors were moved from the foreground to the background, to the unlit behind-the-scenes where no one will ever look. I was wondering, how many times I was put ‘back there’, because someone “could not pronounce my name”. At the session I attended no one batted an eye lid, for a moment I considered telling the presenter what I thought, but it would have ruined her presentation.

Yet, there is a more serious issue here, I think. As we allow people to say “I can’t pronounce your name”, we also position our “strange”, difficult, foreign names as less important. You then find yourself in a book referred to as “Galazinski” (a true example), because no one bothered to check the spelling. But, then, who cares, we can’t pronounce his name anyway….

This was supposed to be the end of the blog. It’s not because of Trisha Greenhalgh’s tweet about her use of her married Scottish name. It  reminded me how political our names are. Of course, this is nothing new. Linguists, including myself, have written quite a lot on strategic/political/ideological use of proper names, especially, those referring to nations, nation-states, but also surnames, which, for example, align people with social groups. Names are ideological.

And so, in the new political reality where the old certainties crumble, my name doesn’t only identify me as a person, it also identifies me as a foreigner, as an Eastern European, and as a Pole. That now has a different meaning than merely a week ago. Names are not innocent, but now they cannot be innocent, they are meanignful, political, they become a statement. it carries connotations, values, ideologies way beyond my control.

I cannot change my name, but I am beginning its new chapter.  I have decided to pronounce it the ‘Polish way’, with the softening of ‘si’ and ‘ń’. And I will always appreciate it, if you try to pronounce it, no matter what comes off it. It’s the acknowledgement that matters.

Hello, my name is Darek Galasiński. Yes, with the ‘ń’.

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