Intersections: Enduring the proud agony of mispronunciation

When I was growing up, the most anxiety-ridden moment between halls wafting with the distinct smell of awkwardness in school wasn't being picked last for the dodge ball team, or giving a speech in front of class, it was that dreadful, terrifying moment at the start of every school year where my new teacher attempted to, then struggled with and finally slaughtered my last name so horrendously, that she never dared pronouncing it again.

It made both of us squirm — her because the pairing of letters caused a misfiring of neurons so grand, that any name she came across after mine with similar problems was reduced to only its first letter, and me because the mangling of a family name that came to my tongue so melodically was an even greater confirmation that fitting in wasn't my forte.

What happened in the various classrooms of my childhood and adolescence was a burden I have carried for most of my life — those pesky letters (all 10 of them) after my relatively Western-friendly first name — threw acquaintances, employers, co-workers and the worst telemarketers for a loop.

After a while, whether I was picking up a prescription or registering for those dangerously tempting store credit cards, I stopped pronouncing my last name altogether.

“Let me spell that out for you,” I would say before the slaughter began.

“It's so long!” I would mumble, trying to sympathize with the person tasked with jotting down all those letters.

Despite this, I'd like to think I had it easy. At least it was the latter half of my name that gave me trouble. This nerve-racking exchange between immigrants, their unfamiliar names from far away places and the fear of the unknown it tends to evoke in the people struggling to pronounce them is why Hagop becomes Jack, Kegham becomes Keegam, Samir becomes Sam or Adnan turns into Anthony.

This is why you might know current darling of the NBA Lin Shu How as Jeremy Lin instead.

This is also why Vigen Nazarian, an Iranian-Armenian immigrant from Canada, whose name had been mispronounced for 30 years, invented Antvibes, Inc., a company that creates audible name tags that can be embedded into emails, websites, digital documents and social media profiles.

For Nazarian, creating a way for others to correctly pronounce names is an indicator of just how much weight they carry despite appearing so insignificant in the bigger scheme of things.

They shape who we are, who we have and have not become. They make us unique and set us apart, except not in the ways we always hope. They ostracize us, stereotype us and as so many studies have shown, the more “ethnic” they sound on our resumes, the less likely we are to be in the running for that coveted job.

The very essence of reversing this alarming trend lies in reveling in the diversity we're so lucky to live in, instead of keeping those odd, different-sounding names — often the very first markers of identity — in the deep dark corners of society.

Looking back on those years where I quivered in fear during roll call, not one teacher managed to pronounce my last name correctly without sounding like they had swallowed their tongue.

I never blamed them, but it would have been so much easier if they had taken the time and asked me how to pronounce it — a simple request that would have cut a few of those silly social barriers that grow like weeds if we don't tend to them in a timely manner.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic.

Editor’s note: Gary Huerta’s column, “Unclassified Info,” has moved to Fridays.

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