Monday, January 11, 2010

You say Wang and I say Wang

Let me set the record straight. Wang Laboratories, the computer company you remember from the 80s, did us Wangs wrong.

In Chinese, Wang is pronounced similarly to song. This is a function of the Pinyin method of transliteration. Tang is pronounced the same way as are Gang and Fang, though you don't see those surnames nearly as often. Wang is after all the 2nd most common surname among Chinese after Li according to Wikipedia and other sources.

Not surprisingly, I've had to correct people all my life. And I continue to wrestle with ways to address the pronunciation issue such as during introductions. I still have to remind myself occasionally that it's worth the effort. As a librarian now whose name gets mentioned a lot as the liaison to the Sciences, I've concluded without a doubt that it is.

In library research instruction sessions for various courses, I make a bit of a joke out of it for mnemonic purposes. (Credit goes to my younger brother, Daniel.) "Just remember, Wang is wrong, but Wang is right." Hint: It's much funnier if you pronounce it incorrectly the first time then correctly the second. Depending on the crowd, I may follow that up with the reminder that only people of the same ethnicity can make fun of ethnic names. Don't be like the clueless (but forgiven) professor who responded in one class, "Every time you wing, you get the Wang number." That's an old joke that does nothing to advance the pronunciation cause and would be offensive if we Wangs chose to let it be.

Spinning off of my AU email ID, I've toyed with the idea of a library wangc moniker, but precious few would have an inkling. When I get more celebrated as a librarian, I'll surely be able to pull it off. If Mike Krzyzewski can do it, so can I.

Aside from native Chinese speakers (and sometimes not even then!), in the rare situation when a person is going to pronounce it correctly without initial input from me, that person is likely to be African-American or Latin-American. I have not yet divined why that is so, but it happens so infrequently anyway.

Perhaps for obvious reasons, I care about the native pronunciation of names. The name of a co-worker that sounded like Joli didn't make sense when her given name turned out to be Yolanda. It did when I thought about her Latin-American heritage. In some languages, y can come out so that it sounds almost like a zh. Yoli becomes Zholi which goes into American ears and comes out American lips as Joli.

I was never able to do complete justice to a high school friend's surname, Nguyen. It uses the ng from sing followed by a long u and yen. Or something like that. After some practice, my friend kindly assured me I was improving. A dentist in the practice where I go uses Winn as the closest Americanization that doesn't completely offend his Vietnamese sensibilities.

The problem is that non-native language speakers don't have the oral, lingual, glossal proficiency to create sounds that native language speakers use regularly. After the early language development period of a person's life, proficiency only comes with considerable practice--and perhaps luck. It can be done, though, as in the case of a tongue-tied college classmate who I took first-year Chinese with me who then finished the course with admirable pronunciation.

I've been working on Polish names since that same period of time. My college advisor's surname was Grzywinski. Her husband's name, she told me. She chose the American pronunciation for everyday use, Grizwinsky, but--as a non-native Polish speaker--she said it should be pronounced zhavinsky.

Working at Arcadia University years later, I met a graduate assistant who's surname was Przybylski. Her family also chose the American pronunciation of Prizbillsky. But she told me her father pronounced it--guess what--zhabillsky! I was willing to wrap my head all those years around the idea of a silent Gr in Grzywinski, but a silent Pr, also, defied logic even to my subtly enhanced American language sensibilities.

Happily, the acting director of our MBA program a few years ago was a native Polish speaker. We often crossed paths in the faculty dining room; so one day over lunch, I asked him about the silent Polish consonants. His own pronunciation immediately revealed that, though not silent, they were so neutral that to the non-native speaker the zh could easily sound dominant to the point of exclusion. So Grzywinski is better said ger-Zhavinsky. And Przybylski, ber-Zhabillsky. I now educate people at every socially appropriate opportunity.

Incidentally, then, Krzyzewski isn't so accurate as shashefky as it is ker-Zhazhevsky. Google: pronounce Krzyzewski. I'm not the only one who's trying to reason these things out.

Then came Grzimek. Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia is a classic reference work in the field. Landman Library recently updated its print copy and I've been considering Gale's new database. I had no problem speculating on the correct pronunciation. It looked Polish, it had to be ger-Zhimek. The first time I discussed the work with our conservation biology professor then though, she politely corrected me: "We call it Chimeck."

Uh, okay. The MBA director hadn't prepped me for that one.

According to Wikipedia, it turns out Bernhard Klemens Maria Grzimek was from Upper Silesia, a region of Europe that was variously under Polish and German rule in the 20th century. So to the Poles, my guess of the pronunciation is probably a good approximation. To the Germans, according to the head of our Modern Languages Department, Zeemeck is correct. To the publisher of the animal life encyclopedia, Chimek, is correct.

Let's call the whole thing off.

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