What’s in a Name?

“Could I have your last name?”

“Cheng. C-H-E-N-G.”



I’m one of those people who have been conditioned to spell their name every single time it is asked for. And I consider myself lucky that it’s only my last name that gets misspelled, not my first or both.

The confusion stems from the pronunciations of Cheng and Chang in American English. I would transcribe them both as [tʃʰeɪŋ] (or [tʃʰaɪŋ] if you don’t have pre-velar raising like I do) — rhymes with sang.

But the silly thing is that neither name actually sounds like this in its original language. My last name is written in Mandarin as  and pronounced [ʈʂəŋ] with a falling tone contour — rhymes with sung, and actually sounds closest to the jung in jungle, but with the jaw less lowered. The other name, Chang, usually comes from 常 or 張, which in Mandarin are [ʈ͡ʂʰaŋ] and [ʈ͡ʂaŋ], respectively — rhymes with song — and the Korean versions of the same name use the same vowel.

When my parents and thousands of other East Asian immigrants arrived in the United States, they had to decide how to officially write their names using the Latin alphabet instead of characters. My dad told me that he and his friends just looked up their names in the standard Chinese-English dictionary at the time, which used the Wade-Giles romanization system1. According to Mr. Wade, the best English approximation for the voiced unaspirated retroflex affricate was the digraph “ch” — never mind that this is almost always aspirated in English (see: Church’s Chicken) — and the vowel portion, which is almost a perfect schwa, should be written with an “e”.

One hundred years after his dictionary was published, Americans saw the surname Cheng and thought, “But of course, it rhymes with sang.”

To be fair to Wade-Giles, it’s hard to devise a written form of a language using a system that neither evolved with it nor was developed for it. But the consequence of this is that people have been calling my father “Dr. Ch-ay-ng” for his entire career and he doesn’t even care. I don’t think it ever crossed his mind to correct anyone… but was this out of instinctive capitulation or indifference?

“Why wouldn’t you have corrected them?” I protested over lunch yesterday. “It’s not like jung is that much harder for Americans2 to pronounce.”

“So you think I should have written it with a ‘J’?” my dad responded, “or with ‘Zh’?”

“Well, it’s not like English spelling makes any sense anyway.” Even English names mess around with their “ch” clusters, thanks to long histories and convoluted etymologies: Christopher, Charles, Charlotte, Channah. At this point, we may as well tell folks that they just have to remember pronunciations by sight, because the rhyme and reason behind them are a beast to comprehend. And I say this as a former ESL teacher.

I had a proposal. “Dad, I want to change my name. Not the spelling of the name; whatever’s on my birth certificate is fine. But I can tell people how ‘Cheng’ should actually be pronounced and teach them something. So I’ll introduce myself as ‘Andrew Cheng’, but pronounce it jung [ʈʂəŋ]3.” And, I thought, if some smartass asks me why I don’t just spell it with a ‘J’, the way it’s pronounced, I’ll more than likely be able to point to their own name and ask the very same thing.

This is an interesting issue I have been mulling over for a while now. I know lots of Asians and Asian Americans whose names reflect a heritage that is not Western European, and yes, the spellings of these names in English are rarely transparent as to their true pronunciation. But they’ll settle for an “Americanized” version of the name, with American English’s twangy diphthongs and loud aspirated plosives and stress as a substitute for tone.

My new language partner has the charming Korean name Taehyun [tʰɛ.hʲʌn], which I used to greet him when we first met. But he had sent me a text saying, <Hi, this is Ted!> so I asked him which name I should actually call him. He asked, “Oh, well, which one is easier for you?”

“Eh, screw that!” I replied. “Don’t ask me which one is easier for me. What do you want to be called?”

The answer, unsurprisingly, was Taehyun.

Why settle? Why not just teach folks what to say and how to say it right? Then, one’s name becomes an opportunity to practice patience while they learn (win-win!), rather than another facet in which foreignness is forced to conform; rather than another way in which languages with different phonologies from English are devalued.

Assimilationist tendencies in the United States have resulted in a long history of erasing immigrants’ linguistic identities by forcing name changes, whether literally by declaring an Eastern European refugee’s name as too “un-American” to be used or more subliminally by giving constant negative attention to presumed foreignness. Though Anglicizing name changes are no longer the norm, I would still argue that names that are not clearly English or at least Western European attract a certain kind of valence that can serve to diminish the owner’s claim to American identity. And we who hold these names and are aware of this fact are surely not to be blamed for wanting to avoid this.

Yet the onus should be on the outmoded monolingual and monocultural majority to expand its horizons. They should accept that the Kims and the Kwans are every bit as American as the Kardashians (who are of Armenian descent, by the way), and that their names — our names — are worth the effort to pronounce accurately, even if it is difficult. Doing so will improve everyone’s linguistic knowledge and, more importantly, everyone’s self-esteem.

– – –
1 If you’re curious to learn a bit more about the way romanization has jumbled up Chinese last names over the past few centuries, you can watch this cool video.
2 Yes, we do that immigrant family thing where “American” refers to White English-speaking USAmericans, even though we are citizens so we technically share that label.
3 And as long as the consonants and vowels are somewhere-in-the-ballpark correct, I won’t care about tone, or lack thereof!


Word of the Day: onomastics (from the Greek ὄνομα ‘name’ via French onomastique)  is the study of proper names. The Wikipedia page on onomastics is a bit of a stub but to my great delight had a link to a treasure trove of words that end in -onym.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in life, musings, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What’s in a Name?

  1. Alice says:

    Wow. You duh besssssst.


  2. Sonneteer says:

    My family is all mixed up when it comes to surnames. My dad came in as a PhD student to USC spelling his surname “Li,” the standard pinyin for 李, but he was bemused when a lot of his non-Asian colleagues pronounced it like the word “Lie”. He got so tired of correcting them that when I was born, he put down “Lee” as my surname on my birth certificate so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the mispronunciations. Well, I certainly don’t deal with that kind of misunderstanding, but when I’m with other Asians, my surname disguises my mainland Chinese heritage, so people looking at my name ask me if I’m from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, or even Korea—places where Lee is the predominant spelling.

    On top of that, my mom didn’t change her surname after getting married (as is common for mainland Chinese, from what I’ve seen), so when we get introduced as a family or get mail it’s always kinda weird. Are we the Lis? Lees? Is my mom a Lee, a Li, or a Guo?


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