Saturday 18 May 2013

Multilingual names

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.


  1. I for one don't change my name (neither by translation nor by accent), as it's easy to pronounce, but my partner has to say it with a different accent in order for others to be able to say it.

  2. I have an English first name and a German middle name. In the UK/US I use my English name, in Germany my German name. It's a bit strange but over the years I have got used to it.

  3. Thank you for your comments, Alina and Ray! Great to know the different strategies that multilinguals have in stock to name themselves...


  4. For our son we chose a name (David) that worked well in both home languages (English and Spanish)and my husband and I always pronounce it as in our mother tongue, whatever language we are using. However David himself pronounces his name in consonance with the language of the question so 3 different pronunciations from him (English, Spanish & Catalan, and German)
    Funnily enough with the Spanish wider family and at school it is the English pronunciation that has been adopted for some reason. Interestingly I also have 3 names from him (mum, mamá, mama) depending on language context. Of course the Spanish double surname with dad's first surname + mum's (first)surname throws people in the UK and Germany. I rather like the fact that he is known informally largely by my surname at uni in Germany (where the computer system doesn't seem to be able to cope with double surnames) and he seems to like the Britsih half being acknowledged, in line with his mother tongue being English.

  5. So true, Lyn!
    We also gave a lot of thought to our children’s names, so they would sound (and look!) OK across our family languages. We actually had to scrap a few favourite names, which sounded delightful in one language but funny or really, really awkward in another. Like you, all of us in the family ended up with three names, including for ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, depending on language.

    And no, don’t get me started on names, surnames, plus their spellings, and national computer systems :(( Three first names? “Fine!” from one side, “Hmm...” from another. Four surnames, Latino-style, including hyphenated and non-ASCII ones? Electronic shock horror all around, even and especially when “the system” demands your full name, as in passports and other official ID documentation. *Sigh!*

    You may have seen these other posts of mine?
    Braving monolingual worlds

    Mobile multilingualism, this one with comments about German printed characters.

    Thank you for letting us know about David’s wonderful multi-name adventures!


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