Let’s Call the Whole Thing “Augh”

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Posted June 10, 2009 by DAN MCGRAW in News

On a trip to Ireland some years ago, my brother and I checked into a hotel in Galway. The clerk asked for our reservation, and my brother said our last name. But when the document was presented for us to sign, the last name was spelled “McGrath.”

It seems that over there, that’s how you spell the word that’s pronounced “McGraw,” because the “th” is silent. In fact, “McGraw” is the Americanized spelling of “McGrath.”

It was the same with immigrants who arrived in this country in the 1800s and early 1900s, at Ellis Island and other intake centers: Many people left with different names than they arrived with, because the clerks couldn’t understand their language or their accent and put down as close an approximation as they could. My theory is that when “McGraths” emigrated to America, the literate ones kept that spelling, and the illiterate ones walked out as “McGraws.”

I was recently reminded of that bit of family history by the controversy over the pronunciation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s last name. She was born in the Bronx, of Puerto Rican descent, (a Nuyorican, as she says), and her family name is pronounced “soh-toh-my-YOR – accent on the final syllable with a half trill on the “r.”

TV news anchors have mangled  it, most saying it as “SOH-tuh-my-er,” accented on the first syllable and with a plain “r,” which comes out sounding like maybe she’s from Germany. Some Latinos have gotten mad over the botched pronunciation, because, they figure, it shows Latinos don’t get much respect in the U S of A.

But at least one right-winger thinks that Sotomayor’s preferred pronunciation is “unnatural” to Americans. Mark Kirkorian (I don’t know which syllable he emphasizes) of the Center for Immigration Studies (a confusing name, because they don’t like immigrants much) wrote on his blog: “Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English … and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.”

A Krikorian chant, you might say. Or rant.

So it’s bad enough that some Latinos like to speak Spanish or watch Telemundo, but it’s also un-American if they pronounce their own names as their families always have.

This particular faux pas (pronounced “fo pah”) apparently isn’t limited to uppity Hispanics. Earlier this year, State Rep. Betty Brown, a Terrell Republican, pissed off the Chinese-American community with a similar suggestion.

Commenting on problems that some Asians were experiencing with voter registration, Brown said, “Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese – I understand it is a rather difficult language – do you think it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”

Whoa, Brown Betty. Maybe it would behoove you to respect the names that U.S. citizens were born with.

Locally, the name game played out on TV earlier this year. WFAA-TV was getting complaints from viewers that morning news anchor Cynthia Izaguirre was not pronouncing her name in the proper American way. “EEE-za-gee-ray” with rolled “r’s” was not what some North Texans wanted with their morning coffee and traffic reports, apparently.

Most internet conversation claimed Izaguirre was somehow foisting her Mexican-ness on Anglos. But she was born and rasied in Dallas and is of Ecuadorean heritage. In the end, Izaguirre kept the trill  but toned it down a bit.

What I don’t get is why anyone would get bothered by how other people pronounce their names. These complainers are usually big on individual civil rights, yet they want to impose some cultural group-think on others. These also tend to be the same people who emphasize the importance of “family values.” Isn’t pronouncing your name as your family did for generations a part of that?

The madness has even extended to the way President Barack Obama pronounces the word Pakistan. He says “Pock-ee-stahn.” His critics think it should be “Pack-ih-stan” – not because the second version is correct, but because it’s the way we do it here. Hey, I’m impressed by anyone who can pronounce those -stan countries.

Get a life, people. Your opinions about Judge Sotomayor should be formed by her judicial record. Your view of a TV news anchor should be based on whether she does her job well. And if you think Chinese people have too many vowels in their last names, just take it slow, and ask for help when needed. No shame in that.

This hubbub about names reveals the worst kind of closed-mindedness. We are a country of immigrants, and each ethnic group adds another flavor to the stew. At least let people keep their names.

In Ireland, nobody got upset that we’d changed the spelling of a hallowed family moniker. Our money spent just as well, and nobody asked for the pronunciation before they bought us a beer.


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