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We’re all partial to names. The study of names is called onomastics and, for those of us in the field, it’s a branch of sociolinguistics of great interest, geeky though it may be. Historically speaking, the giving of surnames typically originated from one of four sources: place-names, “descriptive”, trade-names, and names indicating family relationships. Many of these surnames have survived through the centuries and passed the test of time. Place-names which crossed the Atlantic along with their English owners include Lincoln, Brooks, Churchill, and Atwood (“at” means near in Old English). Some common, old-age “descriptive” names are Goodman, Armstrong, White, and Small. Familial names, called patronymics, are found on nearly every corner in most major American cities: Johnson (son of John), Fitspatrick (fitz means “son” in Norman), and MacDonald (mac is “son” in Gaelic).

Trade-names are at the top of my personal ‘surname favorites’ list. This is probably because so many of them are carryovers from now obsolete medieval occupations: Archer, Bowman, Shepherd, and Forrester to name a few. Smith, by the way, is not only the most common surname in America and England, but is also the most common surname in nearly every other European language: Schmidt (German), Ferrier (French), Ferraro (Italian), Herrero (Spanish), Kovacs (Hungarian), and Kusnetzov (Russian).*

Names are important. They’re a central part of our heritage and unique cultural identity. That’s why, as part of our corporate diversity and training program, we teach people how to pronounce the names of clients and colleagues for whom English is a second language. Making the effort to say someone’s name correctly speaks volumes (no pun intended)! It says, “I appreciate you, and your culture.”

Here’s some advice on how to accurately pronounce non-English names:

  • Pronounce the letter “a” like “ah” (As in cop)
  • Pronounce the letter “e” like “ay” (As in cape)
  • Pronounce the letter “i” like “eee” (As in keep)
  • Pronounce the letter “o” like “oh” (As in cope)
  • Pronounce the letter “u” like “uw” (As in coop)
  • Pronounce the letter “s” like “s” (not z) (As in so)
  • Pronounce the letters “Zh” like “si” (As in the word illusion)
  • Pronounce the letters “Xi” like “sh” (As in the word shoe)

Now using the key above, try pronouncing the following names. Pay particular attention to the underlined letters, substituting the more authentic pronunciation (as above) for its American accent equivalent: Oscar, Susanna, Alex, Zhang, Xin, Isabella, and Shrinivas. Isn’t that so much easier?

If you have a good “name” anecdote to share…maybe you’ve also driven through Hell, MI or Wahoo, West Virginia, please let us know. We’d love to hear your stories!

*Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue