That’s not my name: Why getting the pronunciation right matters

Whether traditional Irish or of an ethnic minority, names should be pronounced correctly

Singer Denise Chaila gained recognition for her song Chaila, about the mispronunciation of her name. The song was on Go Bravely, which was named RTÉ Choice Music Prize Irish Album of the Year 2020. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Have you answered a phonecall today? Perhaps you had a package delivered to your home or made an appointment where you were asked for your name. We may be cut off from much of the world for now, but we are still interacting with people we do not know, people who need to know what to call us.

Many people may not really think about their name; how it sounds, what it means, what others hear when we say it. But for others, it can be a frequent preoccupation, because of how it is mispronounced or how it is not given the same regard as other, more common names. Why is there sometimes a reluctance to get people’s names exactly right in terms of pronunciation and spelling? Why are certain names given more attention than others, and how important are our names and their meanings?

I have a Nigerian-Yoruba name. I was given the name Olufemi Wuraola Majekodunmi by parents and grandparents, meaning God loves me, Precious of wealth, Don’t let it hurt me: quite a striking sentiment. I love the meaning above all. Nigerian names in general tend to carry meaningful and religious connotations. However, like many Nigerians in diaspora, my name is often mispronounced.

I go by Ola Majekodunmi in my daily life and for my work, and even the pronunciation of the three-letter name Ola can be tricky. The average Irish person tends to say Oh-la instead of Ol-ah. This has happened since I was a child, and it doesn’t anger or upset me; I simply want people to listen when I explain how to pronounce it correctly. I didn’t always have the confidence to correct people on my shortened name, I even felt embarrassed of my full name.

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Even now, in adulthood, I notice when I do correct people, some continue to mispronounce it. Perhaps this has more to do with dialects and accents than mispronunciation. But when people ask “Why didn’t you correct us earlier?” it’s because it can be exhausting having to constantly explain your name over and over. I just try not to let it bother me too much. I think many of us with uncommon names in Anglophone countries would prefer if people simply asked how to pronounce them, rather than make their own remix of it.

She mispronounced my name, I corrected her again and her reply was 'Yeah whatever, you know what I mean'

Singer Denise Chaila gained recognition in 2020 for her song Chaila, about the mispronunciation of her own name. The song appears on her album Go Bravely, which last week won RTÉ Choice Music Prize Irish Album of the Year 2020. On it, she raps “It’s not Chillay, It’s not Chilala, Not a hard pill to swalla, Chailie or Chalia, Chia, Chilla, Dilla, That’s not my name, Say my name.”

This topic gained momentum on social media recently when Yewande Biala – the Dublin-Meath woman who was one of three Irish contestants on the 2019 reality UK TV show Love Island – made a statement about her interactions on the show with another contestant, Lucie Donlan.

Donlan had difficulty pronouncing the name Yewande. “I corrected her multiple times,” Biala said. “I didn’t mind . . . This was after three weeks in. She mispronounced my name, I corrected her again and her reply was ‘Yeah whatever, you know what I mean.’ I remember one of the producers putting her arms around me.”

The Irish woman, whose full name is Yewande Elizabeth Biala, said that after applying to a school in her hometown in her teens, a teacher “asked if we could just put my name] down as Elizabeth Biala, as it would be easier for everyone. In that moment, all I heard was that I didn’t matter, and I was an inconvenience. From that day I made it my mission to make sure people knew my name was important, after all, that is my identity.”

This experience is one to which many people of African, Asian and other ethnic minority backgrounds can relate. DCU assistant professor of law Bashir Otukoya spoke on the name-based racial microaggressions he received in earlier life on RTÉ’s Tommy Tiernan Show: “I’ve changed my name three times just so I can get jobs. When I was growing up . . . they know me as Oman and I was severely bullied because of that. When I got to college, I changed it to Bashir; that is on my birth certificate. My black friends didn’t like that, so they started calling me Richie, so I go by multiple names.

“In my first job I applied as Bashir Otukoya; I didn’t get it. I applied to the same place, I just changed my name to Richard Bashir, and they called me for an interview – same CV, they just missed the name. That’s knowing that you probably won’t get this job by virtue of your name alone.”

Names should not need to be familiar to be accepted

When you are from an ethnic minority, with your name identifying your origins, it then carries added weight as it is seen as “different” and is sometimes open to scrutiny.

However, in Ireland we are often guilty of also disregarding names that have their origins closer to home: Gaelach names, or traditional Irish names.

Irish names such as Eoin, Cian, Conor and Deirdre are common here and around the world, but traditional Gaelach names, such as Líadan, Aodh, Caoileann or Féilim are in the minority, even here in Ireland, with less than half a dozen registered with the CSO most years.

And while Eoin and Cian can be anglicised to Owen and Kian, many of the less common traditional names are seen as inconvenient; people are reluctant to spell or pronounce them correctly, they ask “What’s the English for that” or are resistant to using fadas – which change the name entirely. Some State services do not allow names with fadas to be used without an “error” warning. For example, in 2019, the National Transport Authority (NTA) first faced criticism when it emerged that people could not use fadas on their names on Leap travel cards. That situation remains unchanged.

In a way, I find this more disheartening; that the country in which these names originate does not give them the same respect as any other name. It should not be a privilege to have your name spelled correctly in the country it came from.

This attitude identifies a negativity that is sometimes cast towards Gaelgeoirí or Irish speakers, which led poet and presenter Ciara Ní É in 2018 to start the social media hashtag #nílsécgl (níl sé ceart go leor, or It’s not right), prompting other Irish speakers to share their stories of discrimination online when faced with difficulties over their names and the language they speak.

Names should not need to be familiar to be accepted. Whether you are called John, Seán or Femi, our names all carry meaning and deserve to be acknowledged as such with respect.