Monday, 12 January 2009

What's in a name?

A morning of correspondence has raised an interesting point.

Further to my mention of Ruth Padel on Desert Island Discs, I’ve been asked if her name was mispronounced throughout the show. The show’s presenter, Kirsty Young, pronounced Ruth’s surname as “Paddle” which I must confess did strike me as odd at the time but I was so enjoying the programme I forced myself to ignore it. I’ve always put the stress on the second syllable, Pad-EL rather than PAD-el and assume that I do so having once asked Ruth how she herself pronounces her name.

When I was interviewing authors on a daily basis, the issue of names and how to say them was a near constant concern. We have all suppressed that mild irritation when someone gets our own wrong, I’m sure, and I’ve always found it embarrassing to find out after the event that I’ve been causing someone else to inwardly cringe. Rather simplistically I took the view that if in doubt then asking was the simplest solution. It paid dividends when having read “Half of a Yellow Sun” I wanted to record a show with the author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who was kind enough to repeat her name a couple of times until I got it right. I’m convinced that a number of publishing publicists only ever took my calls because I could say their names correctly, the fantastic Sue Amaradivakara not least among them. 

Following this tried and tested method I’ve emailed Ruth for the definitive answer and will report back.




Palash Davé said...

Kirsty's "Paddle" is purely and simply a Scottish thing. (I write as an honorary Scot, see: I spent the first three years of my life in Galashiels, and I've Super8 footage to prove that Borders Scottish was my first accent.)

Think through any Scottish proper names you know – Gaelic and other first names, surnames, even most place names – and you'll find that there's a strong aversion to putting a "schwa" at the beginning of a name. (The "schwa" is a term in phonetics denoting the unstressed toneless neutral vowel sound - the "a" in "about", for example, or the "a" in our Standard English pronunciation of "Pa-DEL").

N.B. When doing this exercise of thinking through Scottish names, don't count the "Mac" bit, as this is just the patronymic prefix. So, "MacDougall" is pronounced "M'cDOUG'l" but what we're interested in is the "DOUG'l" bit, and there we find that the stress is - lo and behold - on the first syllable, the "DOU". The only other exceptions you'll find are, similarly, when there's a prefix to the main name, for example "Gil" (denoting "servant of"), as in the surname "GilLESpie", or "Kin" (modern form of the Gaelic "ceann", meaning "head"), as in the place-name "KinROSS", or Dun (Gaelic for "fort") as in "DunDEE".

It's for this reason (the rarely having a schwa at the start of a proper name) that a Scot would instinctively reach for "PADdle" over "PaDEL". For the same reason Gordon Brown, in a speech to a Scottish Labour audience during the Chancellorship of Norman LaMONT, insisted on referring to him several times, Scottishly, as "Mr LAM'nt", getting laughs from an audience who appreciated his nativist/class jibe at the hapless Anglicised Tory.

Palash Davé said...

As for Sue's wonderful surname (it literally means "immortal sun" in Sanskrit), I wouldn't have a clue how to pronounce it - I being of North Indian (and, of course, Scottish) origin, while I assume from Sue's surname, her physiognomy and her beautiful dark-chocolate complexion (I think I'm allowed to say that?) that she's a Southerner.

For a start, Northerners tend to exclude the "a" at the end of a name, hence the ancient King "Ashoka" being pronounced "aSHOWk" in the North and "aSHOWkaa" in the South.

Care to attempt to give us phonetic spellings of Chimamanda's and Sue's names?