V Is For… Volodya, and Other Unpronounceable Names

VNames are tricky.  I’ve worked with internationals most of my career, and the first difficult name I encountered was Nguyen, which is a very common family name of Vietnamese origin.  It’s pronounced, by the way, like “Win.”  Currently, I live and work in an ethnically diverse neighborhood of Chicago; there are seventeen different languages just on my block – people from the Americas, (English, Spanish, French, Haitian Creole, Jamaican, and a whole host of smaller regional languages); Europe, (French, German, Romanian, Polish, and Russian); the Middle East, (Arabic, Farsi, and some other languages); Africa, (Ghanan, Nigerian, Swahili – which is, itself, a trade language and not of any one ethnic group); and Asia, (Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese – which isn’t a language but a whole host of them, most common of which are Mandarin and Cantonese).  We also have a large Jewish population, and its a varied one in and of itself – some of its members speak English, others Yiddish or the language of their country of origin, and many, many of them speak Hebrew.

One thing I’ve noticed about Americans is how chauvinist we are about names.  We have trouble with foreign words, much less names, and I’ve met many, many people who only speak one language who insist they cannot possibly say such a foreign-sounding name as [insert name here].  For example, I worked with a lady who insisted that the last name “Bougoulas” was “Boogaloo.”  The gentleman whose name it was acted very graciously and didn’t appear offended, but I have to wonder how many times he’d encountered people unwilling to say “Boo-goo-lass.”  And that’s not even a “difficult” name.  Try saying some of the names from Africa, that use consonants next to each other in ways American English speakers aren’t familiar with – Mkuto, for example.

When Rachel and I wrote Burning Bright, the main character’s original name is Volodya, which is short for Vladimir in Russian.  We were advised to pick a different name, because it was felt that Volodya was too difficult for readers to enjoy.   We selected Sasha, which is short for Aleksandr in Russian.  It worked and we’re used to it now, but it was a hard choice to make.

What about you, Dear Reader?
Do you prefer familiar names, or do you like a touch of the exotic?

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