Meet Miss Mariam Esseghaier

Mariam and I met one-and-a-half years ago when we presented on the same panel in the Race and Media stream of the Canadian Communication Association’s annual conference. Mariam is in the fourth year of her Ph.D. program at Concordia University, and she is studying Muslim women’s tactical approaches to dress in Montreal; her research blog is here.

Diane: Thanks for being willing to take part in this interview, Mariam! To begin, what does your last name mean or translate to? How differently is it said in Canada compared to its original pronunciation?

Mariam: So, my last name translates roughly to “small” or “little”. It’s from my father’s side of the family and he was born and raised in Tunisia. When I write the pronunciation, I write it as: Es-ri-yer. The “gh” makes a certain “ra” sound, sort of rolled in your throat.  I rarely hear people who are not Arabs pronounce it correctly.  It’s often pronounced as “Es-ga-high-er” or “Es-chi-er.” In fact, the latter was often how I heard it pronounced growing up. I always thought pronouncing it with a “g” sound made more sense than “ch” since it was spelled with a “g”, but often people put a “ch” in there. (Hear Mariam pronounce Esseghaier by playing the audiofile located at the right on laptops, and at the bottom on mobile devices.)

Diane: I’m also curious about what you think of your full name, and the different readings of your first and last name. Do you ever purposefully use just your first name, and if so, in what circumstances?

Mariam: I love my full name. I’m the only member of my immediate family who doesn’t have a middle name and I always felt that my name was compact. I feel that it really expresses who I am.  

When people hear me say my first name they often think that I’m saying “Marian” or “Mary-Anne” or “Mary” and I try to emphasize how it’s said. I usually immediately spell the name before saying it, if it’s being written down. Same for my last name.  

I tend to use my full name when introducing myself. I don’t have any context that I can think of where I just use my first name.  Actually, now that I think about it, I tend to just use “Mariam” when I make dinner reservations.  The reason is if they write “Marian” or “Mary-Anne” or whatever, if my friends and I are arriving separately, then it will be easier to find me because I can’t guarantee that even if I spell “Esseghaier” it will be written down correctly or will even remotely resemble my actual last name.  And that can be more of a hassle than it’s worth.  

I don’t really feel like that is giving in to conformity when making a dinner reservation, but maybe it is! I don’t know! But that’s the only occasion I can think of.  

Diane: Sometimes I think the whole thing about names and name misunderstandings is because of the limited perspectives of a dominant mainstream majority, if such a group exists. I wonder how you position yourself and what your perspective is. Do you feel part of a mainstream culture, or partly outside of it? Does your name figure into that positioning?

Mariam: I’ve always liked my last name; I’ve always felt that it was unique. I’ve never met anyone in-person, outside of my family, who has this name. That’s not to say that no one has it… Lots and lots of people do—it’s actually a very common name—but I grew up in Prince Edward Island and it wasn’t common there.

The question of whether or not I feel outside of mainstream culture is kind of a complex one: I was always “different” from my classmates and friends because I’m a Muslim, and I felt like my name was an identifier of this difference.

Everywhere I went (for example, the bank, the doctor, etc.) I would say my name, spell it, explain the ethnicity, explain where my dad’s from, etc., because people always stumbled over it. Which is all fine, but it definitely let me know from an early age that I am outside of the norm and my last name is an indicator of this.  

I think it’s probably problematic to say that there is one mainstream culture, but when I grew up in PEI (it’s a more diverse place now) most people had a Scottish or Irish background  (not all, of course) so it was rare to have students with other backgrounds in your class.

In PEI there are a lot of common names: MacDonald, MacLeod, MacMillan… And the funny thing is that my mother’s maiden name is MacDonald, so with all the discussion about how different my last name “Esseghaier” is, it’s super common in Tunisia, and I’m actually part of one of the most common last names in PEI, “MacDonald”, but you wouldn’t know that unless you knew me. Because “MacDonald” is incredibly common and easy to pronounce for islanders, there was always that funny contrast in my mind. 

Diane: I wonder how you’d position the significance of your name, or names in general, as cultural identifiers, or signifiers of difference. I know that you have an academic interest in clothing/style, and I wonder, how do you contrast or differently understand names and clothes as indicators of ethnicity or culture?

Mariam: This is such an interesting question!! I think they’re are some similarities and some differences.  

As for similarities, for my research with Muslim women, it doesn’t matter what kind of style of clothing a Muslim woman wears—if she has a headscarf on, she is identified as culturally other. Even if there’s a certain style of the headscarf that’s different or she wears bright colours. The same with having a “different” name. It automatically constructs you as culturally/ethnically different.

However, the interesting difference between names and clothes is that there are a lot of occasions where your name is the only thing that’s known about you before you’re ever seen: job applications, your email address, etc.

Those are cases where someone can create ideas about you without ever seeing, hearing, meeting you, whereas your appearance/clothing is something that always occurs in person/picture. The documentary based on Freakanomics discusses how people with names that are identified as stereotypically African-American take five weeks longer to find a job.  So, that person may not even be African-American, but the name indicates their Otherness and that inhibits their ability to get a job!  

But then there are other cases where just seeing women dressed as the stereotypical Muslim makes things more difficult for the women, without even knowing their names. I guess it depends on the way you’re encountering someone, whether it’s going to be the clothing or the name that serve as the indicator of difference.

Diane: It’s great to hear how you make sense of that question. Last question: I’ve always liked and also been curious about your use of “Miss” before your full name in your email signature.  Why have you chosen to use it? 

Mariam: I think it’s unique, I like how it sounds with my name. I am a big Jane Austen fan, and they always used that language in the books, like Miss Elizabeth Bennett, so maybe that influenced me.  I think it’s spunky.

Diane: Thanks for sharing these experiences and insights, Mariam! Please check out Mariam’s blog here.


“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.