How Not To Butcher African Names

British-Nigerian actor whose name is rarely pronounced correctly. Photo credit: Flickr.
British-Nigerian actor whose name is rarely pronounced correctly. Photo credit: Flickr.

The African gods are aggrieved! They are angry with Europeans, Americans and many other foreigners who consistently mangle African names beyond recognition.

As I have found out, West Africans suffer from this distortion of names the most but people from other regions are not spared.

But firstly, what does the name mean to an African? I would say everything.

In the Western world, only few socio-cultural factors influence the dynamics of name-giving. They are interchangeable and mostly unrevealing. But in West Africa, names often have unique stories behind them, many factors are at work in the process and it is much more than an identity.

For example, circumstances of a child’s birth can determine the name he/she would be called.

My ethnic name is Amaechi (or Onyemaechi in full). It is a Delta Ibo name from South-South Nigeria meaning ‘’who knows tomorrow?’’

Me 4 years old
Me at age 4.

I was given that name because my family was going through a rough patch when I was birthed.

My brother’s name is Chiazor meaning ‘’God saves.’’ He was so named because few weeks before his delivery, our mum tripped in the market but surprisingly there was no harm to both of them.

My brother after being named.
My brother after being named.

With so much significance attached to African names, you see why most of us like to be called the right way? It is true that there’s something about the stresses and tones of African names that makes them unique. If you aren’t careful, an anglicised pronunciation can entirely change the meaning. Take the word ‘’akwa’’ for example. In my dialect, it can mean cloth, crying/tears, bed or egg, depending on the tone.

Due to all these complexities, it’s forgivable if African names are butchered sometimes, but we just want our Asian, Australian, South American and Western friends to make effort like some of us do with our adopted foreign names.

My first name ‘’Joseph’’ originates from Hebrew and was given to me at baptism. For many years, I mispronounced that name. I used to call myself ‘’Josef’’ instead of Jozef – yes the s is pronounced as a z! I learnt.

For weeks I struggled with the pronunciation of the Irish name Blathnaid. I bit my tongue a few times but I learnt. That name is pronounced ‘’Blaw-nid.’’ Similarly, I struggled with the name Caiomhe which is pronounced Kwee-vah or Kee-va (depending on what part of Ireland you’re from) and the German name Schwäbe is pronounced ‘’Sh-fay-buh.’’

This one doesn’t make sense to me but the English name Phoebe is not pronounced ‘’Foee-be’’ but ‘’Phi – bi.’’ It makes me wonder why letters p, h and o would be so useless. It’s just there to confuse when life can be made way easier if the name was spelt with letters f and i or p, h and i to get the “phi” sound. But who am I to question?

As I continue to meet people from different countries, I’ve had to learn how to pronounce names like Phoebe.
I think this is important because even though most people don’t express it, they may still find it offensive when their names are butchered repeatedly especially having  made the correction several times. It can give them the impression you don’t really care about them.

Pronunciations  doesn’t always have to make sense to you. Calling French DJ/songwriter David ‘’Getta’’ instead of the way it’s spelt – “Gu-er-tta” never made sense to me initially but I got used to it.

 

Football commentators never do well with African names

I’m a football fan with a bias for the English Premier League. That’s because I support the best club in the world, Arsenal!

Listening to English commentators mangle African names week in week out always makes me cringe.

They have no problem pronouncing Wojciech Szczęsny, Sokratis Papastathopoulos or Jakub Błaszczykowski but would struggle with the four-syllable surname of Peter Odemwingie, who once played for Cardiff City, Stoke and West Bromwich Albion. Now Odion Ighalo is back to the league, I’m considering buying an ear plug to save me from listening to the usual slaughtering of his name when Man United is playing.

Peter Odemwingie featured in 63 games for Nigeria and played in the English Premier League before retirement. Photo credit: Flickr
Peter Odemwingie featured in 63 games for Nigeria and played in the English Premier League before retirement. Photo credit: Flickr

Just so we’re clear, it just takes only a little effort. With African names, you must follow the diacritical marks, use the stresses and tone. If unsure, ask.  Here are a few examples:

  • The Gambian name Kakuta which means ‘’a new husband’’ is pronounced Kekuta.
  • Another Gambian name, Manglafi which is given to a child whose mum found it difficult to conceive is pronounced ‘’Man-lafi.’’
  • Liverpool star and Senegalese player Sadio Mané’s first name is not pronounced “sah-dee-oh”, but “sah-jaw.”
  • The Nigerian name Chioma which means ‘’God is good’’ is not pronounced Keeyoma but Chi-or-ma.
  • The first name of England’s Dele Alli is shortened from the Nigerian name “Bamidele” – and therefore does not rhyme with “telly, belly or smelly”, but with “daylay.”

Check out this video where I made a German and Nepalese pronounce Nigerian names:

 

When I started taking courses in broadcast journalism I was taught to take names seriously. Imagine presenting a christian programme and you pronounce the Spanish name Jesús (Hay-soos) as Jesus. That would be seen as hardcore blasphemy by christian viewers.

Seasoned broadcasters would tell you mangling names on-air is a cardinal sin because it can ruin an otherwise good report. Imagine hearing your name mispronounced in a commercial you paid huge sums of money for.

As more African celebrities appear on the international stage, Western media should familiarise and educate themselves on how to pronounce African names correctly.

Are you one whose name is often mispronounced, don’t get used to it, always correct people politely till they learn.

 

Popular Kenyan actor, Lupita Nyong'o's name is still pronounced wrongly by many. Photo credit; Flickr.
Popular Kenyan actor, Lupita Nyong’o’s name is still being pronounced wrongly in the media. Photo credit: Flickr

Little Exercise

If you are a not African, try pronouncing these names let’s see how good you are. If you find yourself fumbling, do ask for help in the comments section:

  • Chiwetel Ejiofor (Nigerian)
  • Osaro Aigbovbiosa (Nigerian)
  • Tusajigwe Nikusubila (Tanzanian)
  • Tsotetsi Pipinyana Pampoen (South African)
  • Mtshakazi Shiriinorira (Zimbabwean).
About Joseph Okoh 9 Articles
Nigerian born, London and Dublin trained journalist on a mission to impact the world through his pen and voice. A storyteller who writes about any and everything as it pops up in his head. Skilled content creator, ever hungry for knowledge and lover of travel.

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