“De chief” of name studies!

[Before reading this post, take a second to hear how I pronounce my last name via the audio player located to the right (on laptops) or at the bottom (mobiles).]

To begin, do you place yourself in the camp of people whose names are easy to say, or must you frequently correct the pronunciation of your name?

I’m in the latter camp, and my relationship with my own last name, Dechief, is probably what got me interested in studying names. Everyone I know who shares my last name (in Canada and in Belgium) pronounces it roughly the same way that I do, and that pronunciation is not how it appears phonetically in either English or French.

Name mispronunciation is a challenge that I share with my dissertation’s participants, and with many other people. In my dissertation (which is about name changes and immigration), I describe the kinds of mispronunciation challenges experienced by the people I interviewed, as well as the solutions they’ve created in the face of these ongoing challenges.

There are many smart ways that people anticipate and avoid having their names mispronounced:

  • during introductions they articulate their names very clearly—more loudly and slowly than any other words they speak

  • they spell out their names

  • they link the pronunciation of their name to a common word.

People also shift their names to avoid mispronunciation:

  • they shorten their names

  • they use their initials

  • they respell their names to be more phonetically obvious to Anglophones or Francophones.

A practical thing that I learned during the interviews is that I’ve been introducing myself incorrectly.  Here’s what I used to do: when I told a stranger my name and they had to write it down, I’d say, “It looks like ‘de’ ‘chief’.” And I pronounced it as “chief”, like the I’m the leader of something, an executive. But, we Dechiefs pronounce our name as if there is no ‘i’ in it.  We say it as if it were written “Dechef.”  So when I introduced myself in this way, I never actually told the person I was talking with how they should say my last name. If I’ve learned anything during my dissertation (And I have! Lots!) it is that I should say, “It’s ‘Dechef’: D-E-C-H-I-E-F.”

The participants’ pronunciation solutions remind me how important it is to pronounce your name loudly and clearly, as you wish it to be said, especially in places where it has never before been heard.  How else can anyone know how you want to be identified? How else can discourse change?

In On the Way to Language Heidegger wrote “It is just as much a property of language to sound and ring and vibrate, to hover and to tremble, as it is for the spoken words of language to carry a meaning.”

Saying your name as you want it to be said is much more polite than blasting your music in a public place, but it can feel just as significant. You’re sending your individual sound out into the world. You’re representing yourself!

ghetto blaster

But of course, this kind of self-representation maybe a tougher—and more necessary—thing to do if, besides your name being mispronounced, people often ask where you are from, comment on your accent, or make you feel unwelcome because of what you wear. Self-presentation in the face of these kinds of challenges is effort-filled.  It is a kind of “identity labour”.

Besides clear and effective spoken introductions, there also exist tools that allow you to communicate your name out loud, via the internet.  There are big databases of names that you can add yours to, and there are ways of embedding your name into your website and email signatures.

In ways, these tools are beneficial. Because individuals’ names can be written the same way but pronounced differently, it’s great that tools exist to allow for individualizing pronunciations. However, my critique of these solutions is that they create even more identity labour. The onus is on the person whose name is being mispronounced (frequently this is someone who has immigrated to Canada, and who is looking for a job) to purchase this technology and take the time to incorporate it into websites and email signatures.  And then, are people who see the option to hear a name spoken out loud actually going to click the play button? This may be too inconvenient or too labourious. Until we’re all using and benefitting from name pronunciation technologies, there’s no curb-cut effect.

If you’re not in the camp of those with challenging, commonly mispronounced names, lucky you! But if you are, give yourself a little high-five, a little rest, and a little kudos for your constant efforts.



Coming soon! I’m working on name-related interviews that will be posted on this blog. If the interviewees are willing, we’ll include mp3s of their names so you can hear how those names pronounced. This may help readers understand the blog post, but it’s also just to see how these tools work–maybe there will be some unanticipated curb-cut effects.

Every day, these opportunities…

Something kind of strange about writing a dissertation on names is that nearly every social interaction reveals an opportunity to discuss or observe some aspect of name use.

Frequently, I’m grateful: when people ask what my dissertation is about it’s not so hard to offer an explanation that is meaningful to them, one that they can relate to and build on as we continue our conversation.

Often, it’s really fruitful: friends share personal stories about their names that allow me to confirm or to reconsider my understandings to date. Or I observe a social interaction to the same end.

Occasionally people have shared research leads such as finding a participant for my study, or letting me know that the Provincial Gazette publishes formal name changes.

And once, just once(!), I was privy to this:

While flying from Montreal to Vancouver Island, I stopped over in Vancouver. We island-bound passengers sat in cramped quarters, maybe meant to prepare us for the tininess of the plane that would deliver us over the Straight of Georgia. Sitting too close to two women, I could hear their every word.

Passenger 1:  You know, I haven’t seen you for years. I’m so glad we had this chance to catch up.

Passenger 2:  Me, too! Definitely. I mean, I don’t think I’d even seen you since you changed your name.

Passenger 1:  Really? It’s been that long?!

Passenger 2:  Yeah, I’d heard about it, but I hadn’t seen you.

Passenger 1:  Yeah, I guess that makes sense.  But doesn’t it suit me so much better?

Passenger 2:  Yeah, for sure.  It’s just… so much more you.

Passenger 1:  I know!  Feral, well, it  just really suits me.

Passenger 2:  Agreed! You just seem so much happier now, as Feral.  I really can’t believe that your parents ever gave you that other name.

Passenger 1:  I know.  Growing up like that… it was really the worst.

Passenger 2:  It’s unbelievable that your parents ever thought you were a Diane.

[Maybe it’s spelled Ferrell.  And maybe, Dianne?]