What’s in a name?

As a British migrant raised on Neighbours, I didn’t anticipate many language issues in Australia. Sure, there would be Aussie slang to deal with and I would have to learn to drop the final two letters from programme, but I reckoned there would be no struggles with pronunciation. Everyone speaks English, right?

Right – except an increasing number of those English speakers have come from somewhere else, and brought with them a fantastic array of names. Prior to my move here, my only real experience of Asian names was the branch of my extended family with the surname Ng. The trouble was, no-one ever said it out loud, so I grew up having no idea how it was pronounced. In the end I learned from US alternative band They Might Be Giants.

In Melbourne there’s no excuse for not being able to say the ‘ng’ sound correctly. Ngs are everywhere. I work with a Ngo. And Nguyen is set to overtake Smith as the most common surname in metropolitan Australia.

And there’s more. The biggest number of migrants to take up Australian citizenship come from the UK. But also in the top 10 are Indians, Chinese and Sri Lankans. Even as a European, I sometimes have to look twice at the vowel-rich Greek names found everywhere in Melbourne to work out what I’m reading. Of course, someone from a major international city like London would probably not have a problem, but there’s no doubt that ‘foreign’ names can prove challenging for some, and it is a recognised issue. My employer runs courses on working with Asian and Middle-Eastern names, while others offer online support.

British names are not immune either. This is what the woman who runs my local dry cleaner thinks I am called:

Receipt with name Bal McFarlene

It’s further complicated by the fact that names of British origin that were introduced to the country a long time ago have been Australianised. In Scotland, the second syllable of Mackay generally rhymes with eye. Australian Mackays often pronounce it to rhyme with day.

Despite all this, Australia’s multiculturalism is a wonderful thing, and life would be terribly dull if we were all called Smith. And when I’m struggling to recall whether I should address someone from China by the first or second part of their name, or slowly working my way through a five-syllable Sri Lankan surname, I remind myself that nationality is no guarantee of successful name use: it was only when the Silver Fox and I were moving away after three years in a particular suburb of the north of England that we realised that all along, our local (English) newsagent had thought the Fox’s name was Mick Farland.



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