GAMES OF THE NAMES
My parents christened me Tamara, a name probably less rare now in English-speaking countries than when I was growing up in Britain in the 1960s, but still relatively unusual—and therefore subject to numerous pronunciation variations. Besides tuh-MAR-uh—my version and more or less the closest to the way it’s pronounced by Russians, who one could call the name’s originators (after the biblical Tamar)—there’s tuh-MARR-uh, with a more open A sound (like the A in “marry”), TAM-uh-ruh, sometimes even tuh-MAY-ruh. (There’s also the lame jokes, usually some variant on “tomorrow” puns. I’ve heard them all.)
I’m used to the mispronunciations (though I think it says something about the attentiveness of certain people when they persistently get my name wrong even after they’ve heard it said correctly many times). Nevertheless, our names are probably the most personal thing about us on some level, so there is a sense in which getting them wrong cannot help cutting close to the bone. And I’ve become particularly conscious of this over the last couple of decades as a watcher of sports on television, especially tennis.
I’m guessing that even tennis-haters have heard of Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova. But how many people outside Russia and Serbia know how to pronounce their names? Let’s face it, sports commentators are probably not hired for their linguistic abilities (some, one might add, don’t seem to hired for their sports-related abilities either). Even in English they can sound absurd or even illiterate; for decades now Private Eye magazine has run a column—originally titled “Colemanballs” after the famously over-the-top commentator David Coleman, though now they usually seem to call it “Commentatorballs”—with current examples of foot-in-mouthery (a recent issue quoted the former tennis champ Boris Becker on BBC1 saying “This is a very physical game, not only in the body, but also the mind.” Of course, the last couple of months have spawned “Olympicballs” as well).
But it’s also possible to be a good, even great, commentator and yet apparently unable to make a stab at pronouncing people’s names in a way that at least approximates how it’s done in their own country. And in the world of tennis, a sport now dominated by non-Anglo players—even those who’ve grown up in the Anglo world, like Milos Raonic of Canada and Bernard Tomic of Australia—there are more and more names that are Eastern European, Russian, German and, increasingly, even Chinese. I’m not really going to get into western commentators’ issues with Chinese names here—except for the fortunate female player Li Na, who is hard to pronounce really badly, most Chinese must have to resign themselves to hearing their names pretty much mangled.
I think the mispronunciation disease is a combination of a couple of things: mainly that no media organizations—with the partial exception of the BBC, which has a dedicated pronunciation unit—seem to feel it important to train their non-news commentators in this area (or many of their news readers, either; how often have you heard American news announcers refer to the former President of France as “sar-KOHZ-i” rather than the closer-to-French “sar-kuhz-EE”?). So they end up simply hoping for the best or copying everybody else; and most have no idea about various conventions of transliteration (the one exception to this may be the former-Yugoslav-country standard last-name ending -ic, pronounced “itch,” which everyone seems to have mastered). Thus, for instance, almost all American commentators pronounce the Russian tennis player Mikhail Youzhny’s last name “Yoozny,” as if it contained the letter Z, although the combination “zh” has been used to indicate the Cyrillic letter equivalent to J—which is soft; you pronounce it like the “g” in genre—since at least the early 20th century (think of Marshal Zhukov, the World War II army commander, for instance).
Get ova it
So they’re not getting it wrong because it’s harder for Anglo-Saxon speakers to say it correctly; it’s because nobody’s told them the right way to do it. Maria Sharapova—who’s only 24 years old but has been a star of the women’s tour since she stunned everyone by winning Wimbledon at the age of 17—has actually given up the struggle and officially accepted the western version of her surname (sha-ruh-POVE-uh), despite the fact that all Russians (as you’ll hear on this video—listen carefully, there’s a lot of background noise) pronounce it shuh-RAHP-ov-uh).
Russian tends to create such problems for English speakers because the most important factor in pronouncing Russian is where you place the stress in the word, and in Russian that is not always easy to guess (it’s one of the many reasons I don’t understand why names that commentators are bound to use a lot are simply collected as a list, along with their pronunciations, and dished out to everyone who will need them). So the English-language default (with women’s names), as in the case of Sharapova, tends to be “xxx-OVE-uh”—although, ironically, while the stress in her compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova’s last name is indeed on the OVE-uh part (kooz-nyets-OV-uh), American commentators tend to say “kooz-NETS-uh-vuh.” Go figure. Their fellow player Ekaterina (“yeh-kat-i-REE-nuh”) Makarova’s last name—one that westerners are even relatively familiar with, thanks to the great 20th-century Russian ballerina, Natalia Makarova—is routinely mispronounced “mack-uh-ROE-vuh,” despite the fact that the correct version, “muh-KAR-uh-vuh,” is just as easy to say. This is just plain old ignorance and laziness.
This default mode spills over onto, for instance, the pronunciation of Czech players’ names such as Lucie Šáfařová and (back in the day) Martina Navratilova. Czech and Slovak names are almost universally stressed on the first syllable; not only is “saff-uh-ROE-vuh,” therefore, wrongly stressed, but because westerners don’t understand the diacritic marks on various letters that tell the reader how to modify them, they don’t get some of the consonants right: the Czech pronunciation is closer to “SHAF-uh-zho-vuh.” And Martina Navratilova—now fully Americanized to “mar-TEEN-uh nav-rat-i-LOH-vuh”—is “MAR-ti-nuh nav-RAT-il-o-vuh.” Okay, it’s not such a big deal, but what’s wrong with learning to say it the right way? These are not sounds or emphases that are difficult for English speakers to reproduce. “MAR-ti-nuh” is the English pronunciation (and with the same stress) of the name Martin, feminized with the addition of the letter A.
How you say?
In some ways I’m not surprised that TV commentators are so ill informed about this subject. Serious, knowledgeable presentations of foreign name pronunciation are surprisingly lacking on the internet. There are a number of sites that purport to tell you how to pronounce names, but they are pretty much all wiki efforts that rely on reader input, and I’m here to tell you that most of them don’t cover tennis players beyond Roger Federer. This includes, for example, the Name Engine, which actually has a “women’s tennis” section, but which simply reproduces all the standard mispronunciations. Another well-known name-pronunciation site, inogolo, just doesn’t include very many sports names beyond the mega-mega famous. I did stumble over a site with a little app that lets you type in names and languages of origin to hear them supposedly spoken by natives, represented by a couple of animated men and women. But my faith in it was undermined by its Sharapov pronunciation, which was weirdly off—though it did get the stress right.
By far the most intelligent pages are the occasional How to Say postings put out by the pronunciation unit on the BBC News blog, which is misleadingly titled “Magazine Monitor.” These used to come out regularly, but sadly seem to have become much more sporadic in the last year or two, with their last tennis (Wimbledon, really)-oriented post as long ago as 2007. They’re worth following, though—a couple of months ago they put up another good one on the venues and names for the Euro 2012 UEFA football cup matches being held in Ukraine and Poland. I learned the Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation of Ronaldinho! (It’s closer to “khon-ow-JEEN-yoo.”) Sadly, perhaps, the post pointed out that “the pronunciation ‘ron-uhl-DEEN-yo’ is so well established that using a pronunciation that more closely reflects the Brazilian Portuguese would very likely cause confusion to listeners. Not only that, it would probably be deemed an affectation by many English speakers, in much the same way that pronouncing Paris as ‘parr-EE’ might raise a few eyebrows.”
Let’s start a campaign
That last point is well taken, of course. We have English words, not just pronunciations, for places like Rome and Moscow and Warsaw. Few people want to sound like some poncey, er, BBC announcer whenever they say a foreign name. But the issue here is that today, in our massively globalized and information-packed world, there is simply no reason why we shouldn’t learn the right way (or at least an approximation of it) to say a name from the get-go. Perhaps it’s too late for Sharapova and Ronaldinho, but there are new Sharapovas and Ronaldinhos appearing every day. Think of the pitying sneers of most American sports fans if they were to hear some British commentator refer to “Kohb” Bryant or “LEB-ron” James. Let’s get John McEnroe and Brad Gilbert to start saying “dul-guh-POL-uff” instead of “dol-GOP-uh-lov” when they talk about rising Ukrainian tennis star Alexandr Dolgopolov. Maybe I’ll start one of those petitions on Signon.org. Meanwhile, I leave you with a rather charming video set to Gilbert and Sullivan’s song “I am the very model of a modern major-general,” as plagiarized by an enterprising amateur in the spirit of Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.”—TAMARA GLENNY