DEAR MISS MANNERS: This is a problem for the cosmopolitan multiethnic set:
I am a multilingual person who has lived in four continents, only recently back in the United States. In the U.S., I frequently meet first-generation Americans who mispronounce their own names. This is, of course, part of the American ethnic experience, where minorities with complicated names simply adjust and butcher their monikers for the majority’s comfort.
As someone who can speak the relevant languages and thus know how to say the names properly, do I refer to these persons as their names should be said? Or do I defer to the majority, and distort the names as they do?
This is complicated, additionally, by the fact that, if a first-generation person has a strong American accent, sometimes he/she genuinely cannot pronounce the name that his/her parents bestowed. Does etiquette explain what is helpful and what is obnoxious in this instance?
GENTLE READER: Etiquette does indeed consider it obnoxious to mispronounce people’s names deliberately. That is what you would be doing if you did not use the pronunciation that the holder of the name uses.
Miss Manners wonders how you imagine it might be helpful. That upon hearing this, a new acquaintance would run home and say, “Pa, you’ve been saying our name wrong”?
What you can do is to say something nice about the name and then comment on how it would be said in its country of origin. But she suggests caution – surely as a linguist, you are aware that pronunciations vary over time and by region.