Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's In A Name? Part I

In a recent post I touched briefly on the difficult pronunciation of the name of Mike Krzyzewski. It made me realize that the NBA is full of a wonderful wealth of prolix names that don’t get enough appreciation. Sadly, these names are too often mangled by those who are paid to speak about them.

For several years, ESPN/ABC's Mike Breen has sent me into excruciating pain every time he mispronounces the surname of Fabricio Oberto. (Those are all Youtube links) Note to Mike: The second syllable of the guy’s name rhymes with English "bear", not the third U.S. Vice President. Why can't he get it right? Spanish vowels are easy. Has nobody bothered to correct him?

Then there’s Kobe Bryant, who got his name from a steakhouse in Pennsylvania, which is named after a particular style of beef, which is named after a city in western Japan. Rightly, the name should be pronounced “KOH-beh” (rhymes with “OK”), not “Ko-bee” (rhymes with “holy”). Given that he’s used the latter all his life, I wouldn’t try to change it now, but it certainly takes a lot of chutzpah to walk around with somebody else’s city attached to you and give it a new sound. Granted, we don’t pronounce “Paris” or “Montreal” or any number of place names as the locals do, but that’s because those names employ silent letters or weird sounds that don’t fit in English. It’s not hard to simply get a vowel right. (Then again, before I lived in Manhattan, I thought there was only one way to say “Houston”…)

My co-bloggers once mocked me at a restaurant for correcting a waitress who pronounced “karaoke” the American way, rather than the simple and phonetic “ka-ra-o-keh”. Fine, I'm a pedantic dweeb. But why would anyone deliberately mangle a word that is patent and clear?

Slavic names have long posed a problem for NBA commentators. Stojakovic, Divac, Petrovic, Vujacic: is the final sound “-itz”, “-ik”, or “-ich” ? My understanding is that the latter is most right, but I remain open to additional education. Charles Barkley, who seems like a smart guy but often remains gleefully and obstinately ignorant of basic facts on the ground, prefers the “-ik” ending.

Then you have Walter Herrmann, whose parents came from Germany, who grew up in Argentina, and now plays in the States. Shall we pronounce his name the German way (“HEHR-mahn”), the Spanish way (“ehr-mahn”), or the American way (like the surname of Pee-Wee)? I actually don’t know how he chooses to say it. Perhaps the example of Walter brings to absurdity my fealty to ethnic essentialism. My hunch is that he identifies as being more Latin than German, just as when I travel abroad I feel more American than … (well, in the interest of remaining Everyblogger, I won’t discuss my own origins here). Carlos Slim, the richest guy in Mexico, had a Lebanese father named Salem, so when I meet him in America, shall I say his name the Spanish way (“sleem”), American (“slim”), or in the Arabic fashion? He might punch me in the face if I tried to be all Orientalist “I know your people” on him.

To be sure, NBA-ites have done a good job of learning the right way to say many tangy names. Mostly everyone (save Charles Barkley) says “Nowitzki” correctly. Deng, Dalembert, Turkoglu, Bargnani: None are phonetic in an English scheme (and, while the latter three of those come from languages that use Roman alphabet, for Luol's name I question a transliteration scheme that results in an English spelling that makes no sense) but everyone knows roughly how to say those guys’ names. Even many TV pundits have learned to roll “Ahmadinejad” off their tongue. I don’t question the good faith of NBA personalities who talk about these players, but I do wonder, sincerely, why some names get Americanized and some don’t. Oh, and returning to my most recent post, did you know Mark Cuban’s original family name was Chabenisky?

In further posts, I will attempt to examine the wondrous diversity in nomenclature of American-born players.

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