What’s in a name again?

(This is kind of a continuation of What’s in a name?.)

When my parents were deciding what to name the precious daughter that turned out to be me, my mom told me they decided to give me a Yoruba first name so that I would always have a tie to my heritage, no matter where in the world I ended up. My two middle names are also Yoruba, and they were given to me by my paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother. My parents hadn’t planned to raise their children in North America: my father had received a scholarship from the Nigerian government to study abroad, and the deal was when he was finished his schooling, the government would bring him and his family back home. However things had changed by the time my dad had finished his degrees, and the government was no longer able to honour their part of the deal. By this time my brothers had came along and my parents realized they’d be in North America for longer than they planned.

The result then is four Yoruba children with names that are regularly mispronounced by our Canadian friends. Because my siblings and I were heavily exposed to North American culture in comparison to Yoruba culture, which we mostly got from our parents, the four of us developed our own mix of the Yoruba and Canadian accent. As a result, when we’re pronouncing each other’s names we almost get it right. Our exposure to Yoruba from our parents allowed us to develop the ability to pronounce certain letters that don’t appear in the North American alphabet (like ‘gb’ and the Yoruba ‘p’), so we pronounce each other’s names better than other Canadians would, but not quite as well as a Nigerian would, if that makes sense. There are some intonations that don’t come naturally to Canadians or to us, but as ‘Titilayo’ (Cara Harshman) has demonstrated, with practice it can be learned.

Most Yorubas my age who were born or raised here have Yoruba first names, and those are the names they go by. I noticed that there are some Jennifers or Jessicas in the much younger generation, but I don’t know if that’s their first name or their middle name. As I think of naming my future children (the ones who still need a father), my plan (provided I marry a fellow Yoruba who feels the way I do, since I can’t expect someone from another part of Nigeria or from another country entirely to agree to my plan) is to choose Yoruba names that are relatively easy to pronounce in North America. However, I don’t plan to sacrifice a great name just for pronounceability’s sake! Instead, I intend to do my part to teach others how to say the name and encourage my kids to do the same. I don’t know if I’ll use English middle names yet; right now I feel like that’s a no.

If my parents had known that I had given up correcting people regarding the proper way to pronounce my name, and that I was introducing myself to non-Nigerians using the “Canadian” pronunciation, they would have reminded me to be proud of my heritage and not allow my name to be mispronounced. However, when you tell someone how to say your name and they try several times and just can’t get it, you have to move on, and my parents get that. As long as you can tell someone is referring to you and as long as they actually do try to pronounce the name correctly when you tell them, I don’t think one should belabour the issue. BUT, there is no excuse for me pronouncing my name wrong!

In the recording of my voicemail message at work, I pronounce my name properly, but if someone calls me, I tend to say “*name of organization*, *butchered version of my name* speaking”, because I don’t know if the person on the other line is someone that I’ve introduced myself to in the past by saying my name incorrectly. I know: I have unnecessarily complicated my life! Thank God that in the grand scheme of things this is a minor issue that can be rectified, one introduction (or reintroduction!) at a time.

  • If you live abroad, how well is your name pronounced compared to the proper pronunciation?
  • Did you shorten or modify your name to adapt to your new environment?

17 thoughts on “What’s in a name again?

  1. An aunt of mine once said, that when you become newsworthy, foreigners wont have a hard time spelling or pronouncing your name! So I guess one way of getting your name pronounced right is to do something that lands you on CNN or BBC:)

  2. There's always the option of going western for the first name and then a cultural middle name. The western first name would be used for school and other non-cultural-related activities, while the cultural name would be used at home and for, say, culture school. This practice is very common in my community, which is why most Chinese Canadians have names like Katherine, Jennifer, Andrew and Michael (there are two schools in this case. One is to have a western first name and Chinese middle name and the other is to have two western names to use on official documents and an unofficial Chinese name).

  3. I am yoruba,however everyone in my family have english first names and yoruba middle names. This is the case for both sides of the family and goes as far back as my grandparents and was probably the case for prior generations. I plan on giving my kids french, russian,biblical and yoruba names. It will be a mix

    • I like the idea of tradition, so I guess perhaps that's another thing to consider when deciding on names.

      A mix of names should be interesting…are your name choices based on names that you've discovered and loved, regardless of their origin?

  4. I have a western first name so i never had the problem of people mispronouncing it but more mispelling it since it is a fairly common name in western europe and all the diff countries UK, Portugal, Greece, French, etc have a different spelling variations to it. Mine is spelt the British (English) way. My two middle names are both African and trust me if you called me using them i would probably keep walking since i have never/rarely been called them and not used to hearing them sad but true. English first names are the norm where i come from i guess it was a practice left over from british colonisation and the missionaries etc it also doesnt help that traditionally the first and second daughter/son were named after the paternal grandparents and then the rest of the siblings after maternal grandparents so if your grandfather was baptised John then John you became so i guess that is how majority of the population ended up with English first names. However my generation are giving their kids african first names specifically swahili names since that is the unifying language and i think that is a great trend i plan to do the same when i have kids. My penname Pendo is Swahili for Love:)

    • Hiya Pendo!

      I enjoyed reading about your names and the history around naming conventions that you grew up with. It made me giggle that you'd keep walking if called by your African names!

      Awww, I love knowing what Pendo means!

  5. I love my Naija names. My parents never called me by my first name, since it is my grandmother's name, but I recently started using that in my workplace. Now when students see that I am going to be their teacher, they tend to ask me how to say my first name and it turns into a nice lesson on where I am from and about the joys of having "different" names.

    I don't fully understand giving kids names to fit the society they are in, unless you really like those names. There have been plenty of successful Naija-named people in the States as well as other nations. And people learn how to say their names. I understand nicknames, but think they should still be somewhat similar to the original name.

    I do get tired of correcting people, but I have grown so accustomed to it, that I can do so in a nice way and even make a joke about it with the person trying to say the name. Helps that my last name is phonetically said like a now pretty famous site.

    • A lot of parents from former European colonies, especially those educated in Catholic schools, give their kids western names because it was a requirement to have a "Bible" name for school back in the day (pre-1960s). So if the parents already have one, they're going to continue the tradition with the next generation. Besides, who says that the parents are picking a name that they don't really like, just so the kid could fit in?

    • I like the idea of using your name as an opportunity to have a discussion about different origins and names and things. In a classroom setting that's a particularly great dialogue to encourage.

      I have to admit I'm now a bit curious to know what your last name is! :)

  6. my first name is a bible name and then middle name is yoruba. i used my middle name all my life till i moved to the UK and for the sake of been consistent with what is on my passport i used my first name at work. took a while getting used too.

    Princess doesn't have an english/bible name, Baale wasn't buying it. Thankfully her yoruba name is easy to pronounce, the short form that is! lol

    • Gosh I'm very curious to know your biblical name!

      My mom is in the same situation as you: she too used her Yoruba middle name all her life until she started working and her employer made her a name badge based on her first name and people called her by her first name. It's funny because her friends who didn't know her first name was English would ask for her by her Yoruba name but her colleagues had no idea who they were looking for. Now her friends and colleagues know all her names.

  7. My case is exactly like others. I’ve got a first name which is english then a shortened Yoruba name which I’ve used all my life. When I got here they wanted to call me by my english name but I stuck to my guns to be called by my Yoruba name as I don’t really like my English name (which actually came from my grandmother too!) and im not used to it either!

    So I’ve decided to make life easier for my daughter by giving her an Yoruba-English name as my dad puts it! From a Yoruba name which I absolutely Love! So she can decide to use the shortened Yoruba version or the even shorter English version! In case your wondering her name is Anjolaifeoluwa :-). I call her Anjie but some more traditional family call her Anjola! That way everyone is happy!

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