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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Naming Names

Today, while procrastinating over doing a stressful task, I pondered a connection between two seemingly unrelated items.

The first was an FB post by Anil Menon about one of the kerfuffles that endemically erupt in SFF. Some of it had to do with so-called “hard” SF, of which I wrote in “To the Hard Members of the Truthy SF Club” (though I had equally hard words for those who have zero familiarity with scientific concepts and the scientific mindset, yet demand that their work be considered SF); but some had to do with the fact that names get often mispronounced by people from other cultures, especially if they’re monolingual.

The second was a brief review of Kingsolver’s recent novel, Unsheltered, by Kelly Jennings. It apparently features two characters with Greek ancestry. My curiosity aroused, I read the Amazon sample to discover that one of them is called (by the author in 3rd person POV and, worse yet, by his wife of thirty years) “Iano”. Which annoyed me no end, because the English phonetic rendering that comes closest to this diminutive of “Ioánnis” or “Yiánnis” (puristic and demotic forms of John respectively) is “Yiánnos” for the nominative, “Yiánno” for the genitive, accusative and vocative.

Both my names get constantly — often grotesquely — mispronounced, even by the “wokest” people who go on endlessly about oppressions while remaining firmly embedded in parochial mindsets. I consider name mispronunciation lazy at best, but more often a not-so-subtle undermining maneuver; it makes me like and trust a person less when they do so more than once. But there’s no question that each language hard-codes default pronunciation settings in its speakers’ brains. I suspect I’d get a name from a tonal language seriously wrong the first time I uttered it, and I used to mispronounce tons of English words I had encountered solely in books. So I’m willing to give people the benefit of a first-order doubt. But those who fancy themselves wordsmiths and/or imagination pioneers should know — and do — better.

Long postscript:

After catching annoying glimpses of Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (as described above), I borrowed it from the local library. To give you the kernel first, spare your time and gray matter, and read Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures instead.
 
Kingsolver’s tendency to preachiness shows at its worst in Unsheltered, obscuring the very real issue at the center of the book: namely, the relentless and dangerous erosion of the US middle class. The 19th century intercalation was clumsily executed, its dialogue incredibly stilted, and it was barely linked to its contemporary bookend. Unsheltered desperately needed a fearless, learned editor equipped with a set of carving knives and chisels.
 
On a more specific matter, the perfunctory Greek “decoration” in Unsheltered is appalling: the incorrect use of “Iano” instead of “Yiannos”; Iano’s (barf) one-note use of “moro” as an endearment, (which is always accompanied by a possessive when rarely used in such a context, otherwise it means “stupid”); the use of Greek exclusively for raw obscenities; the wholesale loathsomeness of the grandfather — not that Unsheltered brims with nice folks. IMO, Tig is the only character who becomes borderline likeable in Unsheltered (and Mary Treat could have become interesting, had she been drawn with less generic strokes).

2 Responses to “Naming Names”

  1. intrigued_scribe says:

    Kingsolver’s leaning toward heavy preachiness, just as much as her poor approach to naming, is why I don’t read her work. On the other hand Remarkable Creatures seems highly interesting, all the more for how Chevalier’s deft touch — what I liked about Girl With a Pearl Earring— gives her writing absorbing, evocative dimensions.

  2. Athena says:

    Girl with a Pearl Earring is a tour de force, but I also very much like two other Chevalier works. Remarkable Creatures is one; the other is The Lady and the Unicorn, centered around the creation of the great Bayeux tapestries. Chevalier knows how to create worlds distant from ours — and she has range: each of these three works is in a different era and place within Europe.

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