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Updated: Feb 17


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When Ncuti Gatwa became the new Doctor Who, they had laid the foundations to dull the shock. They knew having a black Doctor Who would be controversial (for reasons), so they prepared viewers with first having an old white guy Doctor Who, then a woman Doctor Who, and when finally both of those were kind of accepted among the community, they laid the bombshell of a black Doctor Who.


But they didn’t account for one thing. People wouldn’t be able to pronounce his name. Ncuti. Say it with me.



The meme here implies, and millions of other memes and complaints imply, that white people can pronounce ALL white people names, no matter how complex or innovative of spellings, but because they’re racist they can’t say black people names. “Tchaikovsky” looks hard doesn’t it?


(I'm also STILL unsure of how to say GAT-wah. Does that "GAT" rhyme with "CAT" or should it be more "GAHT" like "HAWT"?)


The problem being, is that Tchaikovsky is something of a household name for Europeans and Americans. He’s been famous for a few hundred years. Ncuti has not. But when he has, people will know how to pronounce his name.


And of course, the irony of the meme is that people DO mispronounce “Schwarzeneggar” all the time. So much that there has become an acceptable American pronunciation for it and people THINK they’re pronouncing it the proper Austrian way.


Pronunciations and racism

I first recall this connection when black people started having more creative spelling to common names, and then started inventing more and more oddly spelled names. I don’t really know why that started happening, I can only imagine that it was connected with the whole “back to Africa” thing people were yammering about in the 80s and early 90s when I was growing up.


But as there were more creative spellings, the mispronunciations became more common and blacks believed that the only names that were being mispronounced were the creatively spelled names, ie black names, and so, racism.


But it simply has more to do with familiarity than anything, and everyone can get anyone’s name wrong in that regard.


Incident at the airport

We’re waiting in line at Colorado Springs Airport. Having just left the icy chill of the aftermath of the winter storm outside, we’re now approaching the security checkpoint. The guy checking the tickets is a black American. Those two details are normally not really that important, except for this subject.


He picks up my (white) son’s passport. One glance at it and a smile, “I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce that name.”


I chuckle and pronounce it for him. “Vakhtang,” putting some extra phlegm on the “kh”. I think it’s funny. I partly chose the name because I knew Americans wouldn’t be able to pronounce it the first go-round. Clearing their throat isn’t what they’re used to doing in idle conversation. Whites, blacks, reds, yellows, whoever. It’s not a common name in the United States, after all.


But it was funny, the irony. A black guy not able to pronounce a white kid’s name. It’s not racism, it’s just that Vakhtang is not a common effing name.


Roll call

I can imagine the difficulty little Vakhtang would have in American schools, where calling out names for roll call is a standard practice (at least when I was growing up). And I remember my name always getting mispronounced. There are of course, only two ways to pronounce “Basey”. “Base-ee” (how it’s pronounced) and “Bass-ee”, bass like a seabass. And of course, it is always pronounced the latter way. Why? No clue. There are even two famous people with the same last name: Shirley Bassey and Count Basie (ironically both blacks), both pronounced the same as mine (though not spelled the same, obviously).


So, if people can’t pronounce my bi-syllabic name, I can’t imagine how someone named Cuauhtemoc might feel during elementary school roll call. Or, for that matter, white kids named Andrzej, Dzintra, Jevenija, Krisjanis, X Æ A-12, or Vakhtang.


And speaking of Vakhtang, all the creative spellings and pronunciations the Bruxelois at his school have come up with to handle the foreign name. I've seen Vapkhtang, Vartang, Vapkhto, and so on (keep in mind the French pronunciation for "r" there). 4-year-old Vakhang manages to spell his name better than his teachers do!


Handling names and other pronunciations

It’s perfectly reasonable for someone to mispronounce a name in another language, and it has nothing to do with race. If you don’t speak French, then I’m betting you mispronounce French names ALL THE TIME, but you just don’t realize it because you don’t speak it. I recently came to the realization how difficult French names were when I made this audio tour of Brussels (click on the big pic below). Oof, but at least I put in the explanation that I’m an idiot American.




 

But really, here’s the thing. If you’re a teacher in class, or candidate making a campaign speech, you should perhaps check on the pronunciation beforehand. You can cause both the subject and yourself a lot of embarrassment. Frankly, I think it’s more embarrassing for the speaker, but of course, for those who get their names mispronounced all the time it can be tiresome.


Easy fix though. Read your roll call sheet or speech ahead of time, and check with someone who knows.


Ncuti

Now that Ncuti is officially the Doctor and his season will begin soon, Doctor Who fans will definitely know how to pronounce this Rwandan-born Scottish actor’s name. Because it will be a familiar and common name to say. But for non-Doctor Who fans, at the moment it might still be a struggle. Whatever the case, the specials he was in so far were entertaining enough, and he’s got down some of Tennant’s traits, so I’m looking forward to the season. Though I’m not sure the Doctor has any business dancing that well.

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