What’s In a Name?

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You have probably read my name above this article. Since my parents decided upon a typical American first name, for the first time in my life, no one has problems to pronounce it. I enjoy having a name that is common while being in the US. No spelling, no explaining, no comments on how unusual my first name is.

But what is in a name? Is it just a series of letters and sounds? Or do names convey more?

It’s all about linguistics

Linguistics calls this the difference between the meaning of a word and its phonetics. There is no other reason for us to pronounce an order of letters a certain way, but the common rules of a language or an accent. Therefore, there is no right or wrong, but what your parents decided on how to pronounce your name. So, if you aren’t sure, you should ask them.

After several months in the US, I found a fairly good way to introduce myself. “Hi, my name is Lauren. (Short break to give people a chance to detect my German accent) I know, very American name for a German girl.” There are two advantages to this introduction: First, the other person knows my name and second, we have something to talk about. But in comparison to other international students, the difference in pronouncing my name is rather small.

New name, new identity

Last week, I met a Chinese girl who lives in the US for several years. She introduced herself as Willow. “Wow, that is a very American name for a Chinese girl,” I said to her. She told me that she chose this name as it is so much easier to pronounce and to remember. And she was right because her Chinese name sounded so unfamiliar to me that I already forgot about it by now.

Choosing a name for oneself in another language seems to be a huge task because you might not get the connotation and bias that go with it. So, I wondered how Willow decided for her name. “I checked and searched for popular female American names. Willow was on the last page and I simply liked the sound,” she said.

Americanizing names makes it easier

Regarding that there is so much information transferred by names, she basically chose a new identity. And many other international students wrestle with the question: Do I transform the sound of my name to a more familiar name that is easier to pronounce, or do I make people try to at least get close to the original name?

It looks like some international students decide to go with the easier way, also to be part of a community. Adapting a name is one step towards engraining oneself to a new culture, by leaving something behind that differs someone from the culture one lives in.