In contrast to questions like “What’s your best language?” or “Where are you from?”, a question like “What’s your name?” is not particularly baffling to multilinguals.
Image © InverseHypercube (Wikimedia Commons)
We may, of course, answer it differently, depending on who’s asking and on which language they’re using. If that language is an official “home” of our official name(s), the answer is straightforward. But for non-speakers of the languages of our official names, there are a few options.
We may choose to answer with a cognate name in the language of the asker, whereby I would be Madeleine in French, for example. This would count as a translation, and I’ll come back to translations, including of proper names, some other day. Meanwhile, if you’re curious about the (il)legitimacy of rendering proper names in different languages, have a look at this Ask-a-Linguist query, ‘Not translating names’.
We can also answer with an approximation of our name to a name in another language: some of my Mandarin-speaking friends call me Mei Ling, for example. Or we can pronounce our name in Foreign-Speak, as if the name were a word of another language. This works both for those of us named Pär and Štěpánka, or surnamed Gråbøl and Garção, and for those of us with ASCII names like mine: I follow suit on my English-speaking friends pronunciation of my name, calling myself something which sounds like Mad Lina, for their benefit.
“Benefit” is the key word, here. In all cases, we accommodate accents in deference towards the asker. Towards ourselves, too, actually: in practical terms, whether perceptual or articulatory, it doesn’t favour the flow of speech to use the pronunciation of a word in a language when we’re speaking another. We want to speak in tune, just like we do with any other words that we borrow (or lend). Children seem to be well aware of this, by the way: my children, for example, made the different versions of their names as different as they were able to, as soon as they started using them, when addressing speakers of their different languages.
Besides featuring appropriate accents across languages, our names thus remain “proper” in that they match the social environments we happen to find ourselves in. We call ourselves, and are called, by many different labels, as I’ve noted before, whether we’re monolingual or multilingual. In some communities, we may be on first name terms, including parents and children, teachers and students, or bosses and employees. In other communities, appropriate forms of address and of response to them may fill pages and pages of academic and etiquette literature. It’s our job to adapt, so that we integrate into the communities where each different label makes sense. The ability to fit in is not a sign of “rootlessness”: rather, it shows that roots are flexible things.
And speaking of flexibility, my next question is whether we make our thoughts as multilingually friendly as we make our names.
© MCF 2013
Next post: Thinking in tongues. Saturday 1st June 2013.