A few weeks ago, I’ve read Homa Sabet Tavangar’s Growing Up Global: Raising Children to Be At Home in the World and it is a book I can recommend to everybody who raises globally-minded children. And also to those who don’t. In the first chapter, Homa writes about the importance of pronouncing names correctly. It has made a huge impression on me for so many reasons.
The Dutch pronounce the “G” sound in a throaty way so it sounds like “ch”. My friend Annegien
pronounces her name using that throaty “G” sound, because, to quote her: “That’s my name”. She doesn’t change it so that it would be easier for me to say.
My parents named me Olga because it is a Slavic name that is also easy to pronounce for speakers of other languages. Another reason is that they love the opera and in “Eugene Onegin” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In that opera, there are two sisters: the melancholic Tatyana who is the heroine of this story and the cheerful, consistently happy Olga. My parents wanted me to be as happy as that Olga from the opera so that’s why they gave me that name.
But they didn’t realize that I would be moving to the Netherlands, and my name would be mispronounced in a way that I am not comfortable with. My name isn’t “Olcha”. It is not what I call myself; it is not the name my parents gave me.
But then I realized that I’ve been already changing my name when I speak English, and it almost sounds like “Oh-g-a”, instead of Olga . If you want to say how to really say my name, the Polish “o” is pronounced like in the word “cord”, and the “l” is clearly pronounced, more like in Italian or Spanish.
While I can and did get used to the English pronunciation of my name, I think it’s because I feel like a citizen of the world, and when I pronounce my name that way, it mirrors that feeling. I’ve been called many things in many languages: Olguita by my Spanish friends, Olgalein by my husband, Oleńka by my parents and Olgie by my BLUNTmoms
friends, but these were all expressions of affection. But when the Dutch tell me: “In Dutch, it’s Olcha”, I consider it very patronizing.
The same goes for my children. K’s name has a “R” sound in it. I am fine with her name pronounced the Dutch or English way because my husband pronounces it differently than I do (I roll my R’s, he doesn’t). I am however not that fine with J’s name being pronounced the English way- like the Dutch sometimes do, because it should be a “Y”- sound, not “J” and both me and my husband use the “Y” sound to say her name.
So how should we pronounce our names? I think it is a matter of choice. I know that many Polish people have changed their names because they were unpronounceable for English speakers. I believe it is OK to translate your name if you feel comfortable doing it and if it’s your decision. But let’s not do it for other people’s sake!
Instead of dismissing a name with a meaning and history with “I can’t pronounce that!” or ”But in our language that name is pronounced like that”, let’s at least try to get it right.
And to give you an idea how the “G” sound is pronounced, I’m enclosing this video: