Today an article from the Washington Post appeared in my newsfeed which purported to be a correct pronunciation guide for several foreign leaders, countries, and cities that have been making headlines recently. On the surface, the article is simply an educational tool but if you’ve spent much time abroad or if you’re multilingual or even if you’ve only begun to learn a foreign language, you know that pronunciation is perhaps the most difficult part of learning a new language, and therefore demanding that those who don’t even speak the language in question to properly pronounce foreign names is a pretty high bar to set. Your ability to integrate into a foreign culture may hinge on your pronunciation; you may speak a language fluently but your accent or small pronunciation mistakes will give you away as a foreigner. Furthermore, pronunciation is not straightforward–it is not simply learning how to sound like a native speaker since native speakers themselves will pronounce words differently.
I agree generally with the author’s premise–if you can learn how to pronounce a foreign leader’s name the way that person him/herself pronounces it, that is a sign of respect. It also demonstrates a willingness to communicate across cultures even through a language barrier. Yet at the same time, it is an integral feature of language to adapt proper names of foreign places and even people to the tongues of the speakers in question. English speakers call Mexico, MEX-ee-ko, while Spanish speakers call it MEH-ee-ko. English speakers call the country of which Berlin is the capital Germany, while Germans call it Deutschland, and Spanish speakers call it Alemania and Hungarian speakers call it Németorszag. Theoretically we could eliminate all this confusion if we simply adopted the name of this country that the people of that country call it, but that still wouldn’t guarantee that all non-Germans would suddenly pronounce the word Deutschland correctly. Having spent significant time in Israel, most streets in that country have three names: the Hebrew name, the Arabic, and the English. Sometimes, the Arabic and English names are simply adapted versions of the Hebrew to make it somewhat easier for speakers of those languages to pronounce, and other times the streets are given completely different names depending upon the language.
My last name is Oberle, and it has German origins. Germans pronounce it OH-bay-lay. This very well be the “correct” German pronunciation but since my family immigrated to the US, the name has evolved into the following pronunciation: OH-bir-lee, with a long “e” at the end. This confuses most Americans, whose instinct is to pronounce it OH-BERL, assuming a silent “e” at the end. Furthermore, my first name confuses the heck out of Germans. I’ve been called Holy, Hilly, Hannah, Heidi and even Lolly. The servers at the coffee shop I regularly went to in Berlin called me Charly. I attended an event once in Hamburg that involved name tags, and although I had signed up on a website in which I had submitted my name in written form, they still got it wrong and printed “Cholli” on the name tag. Since it was a get-to-know-you-type event, I was called Cholli by strangers the rest of the night. It is annoying, yes, but why should I expect anyone to immediately know how to “correctly” pronounce my name, or how I myself pronounce it? This is why I don’t think it is a big deal if English speakers mispronounce German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s name, preferring the English “Angela” with a hard “g” rather than the German “Angela” with a long “a” and a soft “g.” (I think the pronunciation guide from the Washington Post actually misrepresents the pronunciation of Chancellor Merkel’s name, which demonstrates another pitfall: which dialect/pronunciation/accent is deemed authoritative?). But I also think that if you know better (you speak the language, you’re a news anchor who is imbued with some authority over the correct pronunciation, you’ve spent time in the country), you should do your best to pronounce the way the person him/herself would pronounce it. Especially when it comes to important world leaders, we should try to say their names correctly, but we can hardly criticize those that mispronounce it as long as they aren’t deliberately mispronouncing it to be demeaning. For the longest time, my ex-boyfriend would say Budapest as so: BOO-dah-pesht, pronouncing the “s” like an American “sh.” I always thought he was making a mistake until I myself moved to Budapest and started taking Hungarian lessons. Indeed, “s’s” in Hungarian are always pronounced with a “sh” sound, and my ex’s pronunciation of the Hungarian capital was indeed correct. It goes against any English-speaker’s instinct to say the city’s name like this, and therefore I don’t think it is out of stupidity that Americans pronounce it incorrectly. If it ever comes up in conversation, I try to gently teach my American friends how the city is supposed to be said. And still, being exposed to a foreign name regularly doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it right. I lived with my Turkmen roommate for two years, and I still have to say her last name, Abdurasulova, slowly to get it right. There if only so much we can do to force our tongues to say unfamiliar words correctly.
After having my name mispronounced by people all over the world, I can hardly demand that Americans universally learn to pronounce foreign leaders’ names exactly. I think there is also a place for Anglicized versions of cities and names, to a point. But of course, we in the English-speaking world get a little spoiled because of the tendency to Anglicize foreign names. There is no such effort to “Deutsch-ify” words to make them more friendly to the German tongue. Still, English speakers should be exposed more often to foreign languages in order to slowly get a better idea of how to properly pronounce foreign places and proper names. But I also think that language is dynamic and the pronunciation of words is in constant flux, and changing prononciation to fit a different tongue isn’t always a bad thing (like my family surely did). What is “proper” today could be different a few decades down the line. Therefore, foreigners should do their best to pronounce names correctly, but if you don’t it isn’t that you’re an uncultured untraveled stereotypical ugly American. It isn’t only Americans mispronouncing foreign names. After all, I’ve been Charly in Germany for 6 years.
What do you think? Should foreigners always try to pronounce names the way a native speaker would? Is that too much to ask? Is Anglicized words a good practice or is it inauthentic? Would you prefer that proper names from the original language become the name for that place all over the world (i.e. Germany becomes Deutschland no matter what language you speak)?