Saturday, March 28th, 2020...4:57 pm

What’s in a Name?

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Katherine Luneng

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Names have a huge significance in our society particularly, our first names. Names are connected to a large part of some individual’s identity. Has anyone ever mispronounced your name? How did you react or feel when they did that? Do you like all your nicknames? Does your name resemble another name that is in another language? The study of proper names is called onomastics and, there are a lot of unanswered questions. However, it is a large field within linguistics. Due to the size of this field, I can only discuss a small amount about it. Research needs to answer the questions above, because there is a lot of research about last names becoming anglicized but otherwise, not much else about what I want to explore further. We can, for example, observe the linguistic features occurring from French first names becoming anglicized. Anglicization is the phenomenon where one’s name that is originally from a different language, gets modified to sound more English.

I will begin by discussing a name that has strong French ties, Olivier, gets anglicized to Oliver. In French it is pronounced as /olivieˈ/ and in English is pronounced as /ˈɔlɪvəɹ/. A difference between these pronunciations is the stress patterns are changed. In French, the stress is on the second syllable and in English, the stress gets shifted to the first syllable. Another phenomenon is that, in the French language, they do not pronounce the ending <r>. The vowels take a shift as they become anglicized. They sit in a more open position in the articulatory tract. In French, the <i> sound, your mouth is fairly closed as if you are saying the word bee. In English, <i> is pronounced as /ɪ/ is similar to the sound in bit. This is an example of how the vowels get more open in the mouth when speaking the sounds. Then the <e> in French is /e/ and turns into a somewhat silent shwa.

Another name we will observe the phonology of is Françoise /fʁãnsoas/ turning into Frances /fɹansɛs/. You may notice that the <r> sound is different from French to English. The French <r> is rougher and the English <r> is softer. This is because the French <r> is a voiced uvular fricative and in English, the sound is a voiced alveolar approximant. The vowel that makes the biggest difference between the names is the nasalized <a> and the non nasalized <a>. This <a> is nasalized because the vowel is next to a <n> which nasalizes vowels that come before it in the French language. English does not follow the same nasalization rules as French. Until the <s>, the names sound similar to each other. However, the ending of the name is slightly different as the name ends with a diphthong in French. English has a soft-sounding <e> it’s an open mid-front vowel. These sounds are different because the French name has a softer ending. The stress is at the end of the name, not the beginning. Whereas, English has stress at the beginning of the name.

These names teach us different linguistic features between English and French. These features include French, which tends to have more nasalizing features in it than English. Another difference is that, in English, the vowels fall into more open categories on the IPA vowel sound chart, but the /i/ sound as in beet that sound is found both in French and English. The two languages have different stress patterns. English has phonemic stress which is unpredictable, and speakers have to memorize where the stress goes, but in a good amount of cases, the stress is at the beginning of the word. In French, the stress is prosodic which means the stress is on the last syllable unless the syllable is a /ə/- a shwa then, the stress is on the second-last syllable. By observing the linguistic differences it helps one understand how names get mispronounced from one language to the next.

Some people do not like being called their given nickname. The cultural tendency in Canada, in my experience, is to give others nicknames. For example, during roll call on the first day of school, my teachers would mispronounce my name and I would have to correct them. My name is Katherine /kætɹinæ/this is Norwegian pronunciation as I have Norwegian heritage. So, people automatically call me “Kat”, however, they do not realize that I do not like being called Kat. Not all English nicknames are appreciated or work well with the language that the name is from. An example of this began with my grade four teacher. She did not realize that I did not want my name to be shortened the same way as hers. She reasoned that because her name is Catherine, and people call her Cat I would like the same. With her good intentions, I did not want my name reduced in the same way because it took away the cultural value of my Norwegian name. This situation begun a decade of people calling me Kat. I didn’t bother asking people to stop calling me that because as a kid, I didn’t have the confidence to do so. I still have very few people call me Kat, but they are old close friends. When I started university, it was my chance to start with a clean slate and have everyone call me /kætɹinæ/. I decided to go this route as I am proud of my Norwegian heritage and I like the way my name sounds. Something that I am curious about is who’s allowed to call a person what.

Nicknames from my experience, are rule-bound in who can call you such a name. Sometimes, when someone has a very common name like Robert, they are automatically given the nickname Bob to shorten the name. In some cases, these situations are widely accepted by individuals with those kinds of names. For example, “Hi my name is Robert”, “Hi Bob, my name is James”. What occurs here is that the name is automatically simplified without the consent of the individual. Robert may not mind the name “Bob” because his family calls him that however, it is quite odd to hear that name while outside of the family context. Generally, depending on the individual they may have their own rules about who can call them a certain name. For example, Robert might prefer being called his full name at work, Rob by his close friends, and Bob by his family. This topic is difficult to research as everybody has their preferences for their name. Another name that is common to shorten is Catherine variations, i.e. Katrina, Kathleen, Katerina get reduced to “Cat or Kat”.

There is still a lot to be researched in onomastics and how it can be an interdisciplinary subject to partner with psychology, and sociology. A lot of things happens to names, they get anglicized for many reasons, some names get shortened. Some names get changed altogether. Some people hold significant cultural value and identity to their name and others do not. As a society, we encounter many instances of name situations but, what matters most is that we respect an individual’s name and be open to being corrected if we mispronounce it. A person’s name is valuable, and we should be aware that assigning nicknames to people without their consent. Doing so may not be very comfortable for them because that name could already be used by a different social group.

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