Two days ago at the office, a faculty member and I sat by the computer in the language lab to put in names of students billed to take the SOPI test next week. The SOPI is a Simulated Oral Proficiency Interview that is meant to test the proficiency of said students in a language in question, this time Spanish. All, or most, of the students were Americans. To save time, I volunteered to type in the names and generate a username and password for the students while she wrote down the passwords against the names of the students so that when the time came for them to take the test, all they’d need to do would be to log in and begin.
The problem began when she started calling the names. I – a sometimes overconfident believer in my own ability to pronounce and spell any name as long as it is pronounced correctly – stared however into the screen confused each time I wrote out what I heard of a name, and my colleague told me that I’d written a totally different thing from what is correct. First there was Shawn which I thought was “Sean”, then Tiffannie which in my mind could only have been “Tiffany”. When she called “Lindsi”, I thought she meant Lindsay, and I wrote it, only to be corrected once again that the name is written just as it pronounced, and not Lindsay. And there came the others: Kathryn, Catherine, Kathrine, Brittney, Brittany, Lindsey, Devan, Devon, Kaitlyn, Cathlyn, Caitlin, Katelynn, Elisabeth, Elizabeth, Ashlee, Ashley, Megan, Meagan, Staci, Stacy, Alexandre, Alexander, Kelli, Kelly, Halle, Haley, Jasmyne, and Jasmin. Of course, before we finished typing in all the names, I’d simply given up on trying to type them from sounds. I would listen, and then peep into the student register myself in order to see how the names are spelt.
The occasion reminded me of so many instances in which my name is misspelt by many people who one would expect to know better. I remember very many exasperating moments in school in Nigeria where an overzealous teacher or secretary would insist on putting another “n” somewhere in-between my last name just because some other variation exist with that kind of spelling. A few months ago – last year – when I returned to my home university in Ibadan to pick up my long overdue certificate, I found out that they had written my last name on it with their own spelling in mind, and they had kept it for me since 2005, waiting for me to come pick it up. Since the document itself had started to look aged from dust and poor keeping, it was very convenient for me to complain as loudly as possible that the name written on it actually doesn’t belong to me. When I was in Kenya in early 2005, I remember having a similar discussion with a friend of mine, co-traveller from Nigeria, whose last name was Olarewaju but who had almost always had to deal with people who (by their own assumption of correctness) always insisted on writing it as Olanrewaju, the most conventional spelling.
So, here I am in America – the land of the free, with liberty and a thousand name variations. It used to be hard enough to accept people’s inherent laziness to even try to pronounce one’s name as soon as they just see that it is a foreign one – even if that name is “Amory”, as my room mate from Philippines said to me a few weeks ago. All they have to know is that you are a foreigner and your name suddenly assumes a certain difficulty to pronounce that wasn’t there before. I have always attributed it to laziness and an inability to even make an effort. It’s not as if the letters of said names were brought out from the sky. I understand not being able to write down a name you hear because of ambiguities that I myself have acknowledged above, but not being able to pronounce ones already written must require a certain level of intellectual laziness.
To encounter names and variations from this new angle of spelling, for me, makes for an interesting humbling, and a realization that in the end, man’s need to confound himself with his quest for identity really transcends geographical or linguistic boundaries. This explains why, sometimes in December, the editor of a Faculty publication insisted over our email conversations that instead of writing my name as simply Kola Tubosun as I had advised, she would write it in full along with the tone marks. She was afraid that, by asking her to write my name without the marks, I was compromising the integrity of a meaningful name for the convenience of American pronunciation. We eventually settled on a compromise: “Kola Tubosun, born Kóláwọlé…” and that was how it appeared in the publication. Her insistence touched me and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Now, having been on the many sides of this naming experience, I don’t know how to conclude. Maybe there’s not even a nice summary to it, except that when next I meet someone whose name is Chris, it might be better to ask him first if his begins with a “C” or a “K”.