This essay is part of the series “Being an alien in Germany”. You can find the introductory essay as well as other essays about the subject here.
My first name is Renata. My last name is pronounced brit-vets, with the accent on the i of the first syllable. Two syllables in my last name. Rarely have I met a German who is willing to pronounce my name correctly. And I say willing, because able they are. Two syllables, and no vowels or consonants which are unfamiliar to a German-speaking person.
I have heard a lot of variations to my name: Renate instead of Renata, Britvech, Britvek, Birtvech, Brivtek, Brivtech, Britsl, and so on. I wonder why it is so hard to accept that there are people who are simply not called Schmidt or Müller. We live in an immigration country, and you can hear names like Öztürk, Douraki, Giordano, Lopez, Kowalski and so on and so forth. Please try to pronounce these names correctly or at least as good as you can. Of course there are sounds which are hard for us to pronounce, the European r is something unusual to Americans and so they will of course use the American r when saying my name. But they still get it right and don’t just wildly switch the vowels and consonants. The Turkish soft g is another good example. It’s something I don’t get right as hard as I try. But I do try and make an effort.
Why is it that I feel so offended when people refuse to pronounce my name correctly? I must add that it is not only this that infuriates me. It’s more that a lot of people start laughing when I repeat my name so they can understand and pronounce it. They laugh. What’s funny? Nothing. They laugh so they don’t have to deal with it. They laugh so they can prove that they’re doing nothing wrong and that it is my fault. My fault because my name is not normal. And because I insist on those people to do something impossible. I don’t have the right to do that. The name is not normal, so why should people make the effort and say it. Maybe I should change my name and not give people a hard time anymore? I am obviously harassing them.
But the thing is, my name is a direct link to my identity and I want to be called by my name and by my name only. Every time I have to introduce myself officially, I am in physical pain anticipating how people will react. Millions of times did I have to explain myself, where I was from – because of my name – although it doesn’t matter, does it? If I want to open a bank account, if I am the maid of honor and tell the priest my name, if I need something from my health insurance: there is always this awkwardness, the laughter, and then eventually I will still be called the name those people invent for me and I have to surrender, because everything else will be too complicated. And I end up feeling not normal, not wanted and I also have the very strong sense that I simply do not belong.
We all crave for love and acceptance, and obviously we want to be accepted and respected for who we are. Our parents give us our names, our names are what we are given at birth. They constitute who we are in a miraculous way. They denote us, our individual personality, and beyond that they often denote our cultural heritage and personal history. Our names are the first thing we hear when we enter this world, and they (in most cases) stay with us until we die. Even if we change our names for some reason, they are what we are. Who we are. And as we develop and accept our identities by reflecting ourselves in our fellow beings, we need those fellow beings to reflect at least some of our truths with certainty, and one of these truths is our name. No matter where we come from and where we are, our name gives us stability and certainty. Attacking a person’s name is attacking their self-assurance.
So again I ask you: Make sure you at least try to pronounce foreign names correctly without making the person in question feel like an outsider and a nuisance because they insist you get it right.
I lived through this as a kid with a Lithuanian surname in schools full of kids with English and Scottish names. It wears you down to psych yourself up for questions and explanations every time you introduce yourself, never mind all the spelling-out you have to do. I have to admit I was happy to adopt my husband’s Irish name when I got married.
Dear Audrey, yes, I can imagine it is easier with an Irish name. But how weird is this: you live in a country with an immigration history and people from all over the world … It’s really something I can’t wrap my mind around. Who decides which languages and names are more accepted than the others?
I think things are opening up here in Canada, anyway. We have had immigrants from all over the world in recent decades, and the variety of names in any classroom is probably much greater than it was when I was going to school in the 60s. Cultural diversity is actually celebrated now. So maybe things are better for school kids these days.
I think things are getting better in Germany, too, but there are still so many parents who are hesitant about sending their kids to school in mixed classes. Let’s hope things will continue changing for the better!
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I know this from America too — I am an American but I have a name of Czech heritage (Dana pronounced Duh-na rather than Day-na). When I was little people just assumed I was saying my own name wrong, so my mom had to teach me to say “No it’s not Day-na, it’s Dana. It’s Czechoslovakian.” I know what you mean — there is a difference between people NOT BEING ABLE to pronounce something and simply not caring or acting annoyed by having to try.
Oh no – “they assumed I was saying my own name wrong” … This is really horrible, but I must admit I laughed when I read this!