I saw a meme on Facebook recently that said something along the lines of, “If you can pronounce Daenerys Targaryen, you can pronounce anyone’s name correctly.” It was clever, and I can see the point that the poster was trying to make, but it’s not entirely true.
Language is one of the most complex endeavors to which human beings have set themselves. There are thousands of languages in the world, yet all of them employ a limited number of the 800 phonemes that the human vocal apparatus — the larynx, the pharynx, the tongue, the teeth, the lips, and the nasal cavity — can create. A phoneme is defined as “any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech sounds (such as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language.” The English languages employs 42–44 phonemes, about 5% of that total. The phonemes spoken in a child’s native language start becoming imprinted around six months of age, and they’re pretty much solidified by about 12 months, a sensitive period for language development.
The thing is, once a child learns which phonemes are going to be useful in their native language, and which sounds typically follow other sounds in that language, it is very difficult for them, with that wiring already in place, to make sounds that are outside of their expected repertoire of vocalizations. This is why it becomes increasing difficult to learn new languages as we get older, especially after age seven. This is also why, even if someone does a creditable job of learning a new language, they will always have an accent that is typical of speakers of their native language. It is simply because the phonemes of the newly-acquired language have been pruned out of our brains, and we simply do the best we can to approximate the phonemes used in the new language with the ones we do possess.
Some years ago, I went to France for the first time, and I fell in love with the language. So much so that when I came back, I started taking weekly lessons at the St. Louis branch of Alliance Francaise. One thing I found was that I have a gift for pronunciation. I am lucky enough to be in that small group of people who have not had all non-extraneous phonemes trimmed away. Perhaps it was all those years of watching Pepe le Pew cartoons. At any rate, while I have never become fluent in French, I did learn it well enough that once, when I was in Paris I was able to construct a question about directions I needed in perfectly-accented Parisian French. It took about five minutes for me to figure it out what I wanted to say, but when I spoke into a passerby, he assumed that I was French and rattled off a lot of complex directions in French that were way beyond my capacity and comprehension. I had to ask him to stop, slow down, and try it again. Nevertheless, one of the things that I noticed at the Alliance Francaise in Saint Louis when I was in discussion groups with Saint Louisans who are much more fluent in the language than I will ever be and who had spoken the language for decades, was how many of them sounded like they were from, well, Saint Louis, Missouri, United States of America. I had some idea of what it was like to “hear” a Midwestern American accent in French.
This brings us to the innovation of written language. While spoken language has probably existed for anywhere from 50,000 to 150,000 years, written language is a relatively recent development, likely having first been used about 5500 years ago. Certainly, finding a way to pass on knowledge without having to depend on one person speaking to another was a major milestone in human development. Still, it helps to recall that written language is essentially an analog representation of spoken language. And while written language certainly has rules, they can be maddeningly imprecise, especially in English.
To return to Daenerys Targaryen, while the spelling, especially of the first name, seems exotic, the phonemes that comprise it, which can be phonetically rendered as, Dih-NAIR-iss Tar-GAIR-ee-in, comprise a pretty standard set of sounds spoken in the English language. Further, I doubt that many viewers of “Game of Thrones” read the name Daenerys Targaryen without having heard it first uttered by numerous characters on the show. Therefore, the pronunciation had already been embedded when the name first appeared in print for most viewers. (Of course, this character did appear in the “Song of Ice and Fire” books by George R.R. Martin before the TV series, and one wonders how people might have pronounced her name without first hearing it. I do recall reading that a couple of films into the “Harry Potter” franchise, the producers made a point of pronouncing Hermione Granger’s first name correctly on screen because a lot of people who knew her only from the books were mispronouncing it HER-mee-OH-nee rather than the correct Her-MY-oh-nee.)
Complicating this even more for English speakers, I tend to think of English as the Borg collective of languages. It assimilates everything, and resistance is futile. Perhaps that is why, although other languages may be spoken by more people, English is spoken most widely around the world. And as such, English eagerly incorporates words from many other languages and traditions, often importing their spelling (at least when the 26-letter Latin alphabet is used) while anglicizing the pronunciation to fit the 40-ish phonemes that we use on a regular basis.
And when it comes to names, this can be frustratingly inconsistent. I have what I think is a fairly simple surname: HALLER. People who read my name without having heard it, though, most frequently pronounce it HAULER, as if it rhymes with CALLER. I also frequently have people pronounce it HAILER, as if it rhymes with SAILOR. In my family, however, it is pronounced to rhyme with PALLOR, perhaps we are a family of pale white people.
It’s been important for me to recognize that, when people do not pronounce names the way they are intended, it is rarely out of malice or disrespect but rather because the speaker is physically and linguistically no longer capable of making those sounds. And this brings up a real dilemma for people who are trying their best to pronounce names the way people want them, while also dealing with their own brain which was “anglicized” by their first birthday: Do I say that name the way it makes sense to sound to me, or do I try a pronunciation I know I’ll screw up, and risk being accused of making fun of this person’s name or accent?
I think that, for the most part, people do want to pronounce the names of those they encounter correctly. This can be a challenge if the name includes phonemes that are not part of the group of sounds that a person has made their entire life. Further, if the spelling involves collections of letters and/or punctuation marks that are unique or unfamiliar, people are bound to be hesitant. For over 40 years now, I have had parents bring children to my practice whose names are unfamiliar and even exotic to me. I make it a practice always to ask a parent how they pronounce their child’s name, even if it seems straightforward like John or Judy. (I have, in fact, sometimes been surprised by pronunciations, even when I was encountering what I might considere “standard” names.) After the parent says the name, I will repeat it back and ask if I pronounced it correctly. If I did not, I will try again. If that pronunciation does not seem to be reflected in the name as written, I will make a note in the chart using my own phonetic system so as not to mispronounce it the next time I see the child.
For myself, I will correct people about my preferred pronunciation of HALLER, yet there are still people who near-miss-pronounce my name even after I’ve pointed out my preference a couple of times. I choose to let it go. I realize how difficult and subtle language — written and spoken — can be. If people have made the effort and they are not quite there, I will give them a pass, just as I hope they will forgive me my own imperfections.