I am a lover of languages and culture. I have formally studied Latin, German, Spanish, and French. I am constantly looking up ways, via Google Translate, to say any number of things in any number of languages. I understand the development of any given language is influenced by the cultural norms and history of any given set of peoples. The tones and inflections used to convey meaning are as simple to one as they are complicated to the other. Thus, as much as I love all languages and the acquisition of languages, I don’t necessarily do justice to the particulars of pronunciation that greatly differ from that which I learned and developed during my American English language development. But, I try and isn’t that the key?
I met a young man at the grocery store yesterday. He is from Nigeria. Now, I have many Nigerian friends, some that would cause offense if they referred to me as anything other than family. I am familiar with the sound of the language and the beautiful combinations of meanings that make up the names of those that I have come to love over the years. So, when I asked this gentleman what was his name and he replied, “Just call me Yemi because you won’t be able to pronounce my name.” I was a bit bothered.
Yemi doesn’t know me from the next person. He doesn’t know my background or my abilities. For all Yemi knew, my mother or father or husband or grandparent could be of Yoruba heritage from Nigeria. For all he knew, my name could be Yoruba. I could have been raised in Nigeria and be well versed in the language and the culture. But, from appearances, Opeyemi made an assumption.
In this case, he was partially right. I couldn’t pronounce his name if pronouncing his name meant, with only one try, getting the exact inflections and tone on the precise syllable as would one of his countrymen. However, if Opeyemi were a friend, I would eventually learn because at least I would try. My inability, at the moment, was not due to being absolutely unable.
What I should have done was point out all of the words that Yemi should not say or even try because his Yoruba accent made it such that his pronunciation of simple English words was not exactly the same as American-born and raised speakers of English. But, how rude would it be for me to harp on a slight difference in pronunciation when the real value, to me, is the effort and the ability to understand meaning. Just as my Yoruba has a heavy English accent which dictates the amount of perfection in accepted pronunciation so does his heavy Yoruba accent dictate the amount of perfection in the accepted pronunciation of American English.
I did not say all that I could have said to Yemi as he prepared my tall soy chai with no foam. What would have been the point? I planted a seed and I am sure that even if he gives the same disclaimer the next time he shortens his name for the sake of those who can’t pronounce it, he may think about the crazy overbearing woman at the grocery store with the monster four year old giving him the “what for”.