Why I Have a Chinese Name But I Don’t Want to be Called “Sean”

Photo credits to freshofftheboatdaily, since this isn’t mine.

One of my friends on Facebook shared the photo in this post recently, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Names are of enormous importance to many people of different cultures around the world, and sometimes the nuances of naming can vary between communities by the language they speak.

In the Indian subculture that I come from, newborns are given their names by the rite of nāmkarna, a Hindu ritual that uses astrology and natal charts to pick names. We believe that the names that we give our children is somehow determinant of their futures, and often, parents will choose a name (within the rules of the process, of course) that includes a kind of wish for who their child will grow to be, something that almost everyone can understand.

Other times, our names are one of the epithets of a Hindu deity. This can puzzle some people in the West, who might view naming your child after a god as a kind of arrogance or self-importance, but the idea in Indian cultures is completely different. By naming your child after a particular version of god (each epithet references a particular aspect of the god), it is both a hope that the child will live up to the name and also fulfills the idea that God is everywhere and in everyone. Calling the different names of a god is also considered auspicious, so naming people after a god is a part of that sentiment.

The cultural backgrounds behind choosing names can be complex and confusing, but also incredibly fascinating, in my opinion. The generational poems of Chinese naming customs allow for an entire generation of children to be named with something in common. I won’t get into the specifics, but you can read a little bit about generational poems here.

That brings me to the title of this post. As you may know, I have a Chinese name that I use exclusively for speaking in Chinese: 羅常羲 (Pinyin: luó cháng xī, Jyutping: lo4 soeng4 hei1). I got this name after multiple Chinese friends of mine asking me if I wanted one, so when I went to a Taiwanese cultural exhibition in Grand Central Station, my friends had a calligrapher make a name for me.

My real name is kind of clunky to say in Chinese (or rather the Sinicized version of my name), especially given the way people call each other in Chinese. Very often, since people can have similar-sounding or even identical first names, Chinese speakers will address each other using their full names. My name is apparently somewhat obscure, so I might be able to get away with just 常羲, but it would be more appropriate to use the full name. I’m OK with using this name partly due to convenience as well as because I didn’t mind having the name, since I kind of like it.

Now, this may contrast with the sentiment of the photo in this post, since you might expect me to tell my Chinese friends to say my name correctly. The thing is, the issue wasn’t that my friends couldn’t pronounce my name, but rather for the purposes of learning the Chinese language, it wasn’t especially suited to being pronounced the way it really is. And that, I’m willing to concede, and like I said: I don’t mind.

The thing is that when I was in elementary school, many students and teachers found my name (Shashank) difficult to pronounce, and many people wanted to call me “Sean”. Maybe because I was impetuous and defensive, I didn’t like that name. I wanted people to call me the name I chose to be called, and they had to pronounce it the way I wanted them to. Today, people trying to nickname me “Sean” still makes me a little uneasy, so I usually politely request that they use my real name. Even now, I still wonder why it was so difficult for them to say, considering my name is only two syllables.

The point is that I refuse to be called anything except Shashank and nicknames that I actually approve of. This goes for anyone, anywhere. You all deserve to have yourself be called what you wish. People should either pronounce the name correctly or shouldn’t say it at all. Obviously, this can sound a little extreme, and I make exceptions for people whose sound inventories don’t include certain sounds. It’s a problem when I know people are more than capable of pronouncing a name correctly, and still refuse to try and pronounce a name the way someone wants, all because they’re too lazy to ask.

In my freshman year at NYU, I’ve met some people who have non-English names, and purposely go with a heavily Anglicized pronunciation of their name, even though it’d be pretty easy for people to pronounce it as it’s written in the language (obviously within reason). At first, I was a little put off by it, but I have learned that how we pronounce our names is up to us, and if that means “white”-ifiying it versus the traditional pronunciation, so be it. I might not like it, but again: it’s not for me to decide.

The reality is that this idea of not using people’s real names or somehow compelling them to change the pronunciation or the name entirely for someone else’s convenience is often discussed in the context of ethnic minorities. This happens to a lot of people with “unconventional” or “foreign” names, regardless of race. But in the context of minorities in the US like myself, this often feeds into very subtle dynamics of cultural repression and assimilation, and it is something that we must work against. But again: the choice is not always ours to decide (if at all).

The fundamental difference between my Chinese name and “Sean” is that I’m OK with one and not the other. Someone’s name is inviolable, and it’s not up to anyone to tell them to change it or how to pronounce it. The moral of this little story is: always ask someone how to pronounce their name, and earnestly try to pronounce it they way they want, not what’s most convenient for you. If they let you off with a mispronounced syllable or sound, then that’s fine. But respect what they have to say. It’s their name, not yours.

The Process of “Conlanging” – Avreça, My Conlang

Since I joined a group called “Constructed languages” on Facebook, a conlanging side project of mine, called Avreça, has seen significant progress. From a document of a measly six pages, it has become an expansive grammar and vocabulary list of forty-two pages. I must confess that not long ago, I was highly opposed to the entire principle of a conlang. You can see a post from that time right here. I used to think that it was fundamentally pointless to create a language, especially out of existing ones, for use by the international community. You run into a number of important issues, such as: is it equitable to only include some languages and not others? is the range of expression of the constructed language vastly more limited than its constituent sources? is this practical to learn?

To address the first question, there is almost no solution. Actively including only a set category of languages, such as Slavic or Romance, is inherently exclusive. Whether it is difficult to learn is not the question here. This does indeed create the impression of superiority of that language family over others.

Second question: It’s almost a given that the expression in the constructed language won’t be as well developed. To arbitrarily give new meanings and connotations to words that didn’t have any previously is simply not appropriate, because those meanings develop with time and history. There has to be a context for it. However, the reason that Tolkien’s conlangs can do this is because his worldbuilding gives the context for the expression in those languages. If the con-universe gives a history to the language, then the vocabulary ought to reflect that history.

Third issue: The practicality of a language is entirely dependent on how the person chooses to construct the language. However, including certain features of the constituent languages is also a question of expression and equitability, the grammars of each languages have different nuances.

Granted, these things largely apply to conlangs that draw on existing languages for their lexicons and grammars. In the case of Tolkien, he built from the ground up. However, my conlang is the former, because I’m not experienced enough to build the morphology and roots from scratch.

I never intended my conlang to be used by a large community, but they certainly could if they so wished. As such, the issues mentioned above don’t necessarily apply, but I still stress practicality. It is a bit Romance-centric in terms of its general vocabulary and grammar, but its poetic and literary features draw from Dravidian languages, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu. I started my conlang mostly for recreational purposes, but I had also started writing a story into which I wanted to incorporate my conlang. And thus, Avreça was born. You can download a document detailing the conlang here: http://www.mediafire.com/view/92ijw6jx0ii957a/Avreça.pdf.

Avreça’s grammar, as previously mentioned, is primarily Romance-centric. There exists an indicative and subjunctive version of each verb conjugation. Currently, all verbs are regular, but if it were to be used more often by actual people, I’m certain that many verbs would be become irregular. As per the tradition, so to speak, of Romance languages, there are three types of verbs, -ar, -er, and -ir.

A rather curious feature of Avreça is that it actively distinguishes between poetic/literary language and common language, which are nearly always separate. The actual poetic/literary lexicon, as I said, is largely Dravidian, Sanskrit, and Hindi-Urdu in origin. Only two words come from Japanese, al ossache and al hyachia, which are derived from sake and hyakki yagyō. The concept of ossache is similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, whereas hyachia describes any shady or suspicious part of society, usually in an abstract way.

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Synonyms: A Good Thing or Just Extra Stuff?

When looking through dictionaries of different languages, you begin to notice that for several languages, there aren’t too many words for the same thing. In Romance languages, there are never more than two or three words for the exact same meaning. If there are more words that translate to that meaning, the extras most likely have a different nuance.

Take the word, “blue.” In English, we have several words that can be this color: “azure,” “cerulean,” “sapphire,” or “cobalt”. While these words do have distinct shades when physically represented, we often use these words interchangeably, often for poetic or literary value. Sure, you could say that the night sky is blue, but that doesn’t provide nearly as much beauty or aesthetic depth as saying that it is sapphire. There are many words with such synonyms and interchangeability. This is not to say that English lacks nuanced vocabulary, because it doesn’t. Much of the nuance in English is implied through context, intonation, and emphasis.

I can’t say for every language, but many Romance languages, Hindi, and Kannada don’t have many synonyms. In literary works, there are a few more for writers to work with, but even those can have other meanings attached to them. But first, let’s define what a synonym is: a word that is identical in meaning and differs little otherwise. If a word has an extra nuance or meaning to it, then it’s a not a synonym.

For example, there are three words in Kannada that can be translated as, “embarrassment.” However, only one, talebaagisu, actually means “embarrassment,” as in, “humiliation,” or, “chagrin.” The other two, sankocha and aumana, are, “embarrassment,” when you receive a service or offer that is overly grand for the occasion and when you receive help when you don’t want it (a blow to your pride). As you can see, the nuance is very heavy, and all three words are very different.

We use synonyms all the time in English, whether it’s just another word or a euphemism. While other languages certainly have euphemisms, the ones that I’ve read and learned about have considerably fewer words of identical meanings used interchangeably. So the question is: What’s the point of having synonyms? Tell me what you think in the comments!