Published in  
February 25, 2022

The Gift of Being Mispronounced

A few weeks ago, as we got ready to record our conversation, my interviewer asked for clarity on how to properly say my last name. She wouldn't even attempt a pronunciation; she didn't want to mess it up. Laughing, I urged her to "give it a shot," to make an effort. She insisted I pronounce it first, waiting for me to give in to her anxieties. I didn't. I dug my feet in, leaned in closer, and told her to try - implying we weren't going to begin the interview until she at least risked failure. Pursing her lips, her eyes dropping for a second in resignation, she articulated it: "A-ko-mo-lafe?" It sounded vaguely Russian, so I celebrated the moment, and then addressed her confusion:

"The Yoruba people don't mind when others mispronounce their names. We celebrate the gift of mispronunciation: it affords us new opportunities to meet ourselves again as if for the first time. To hear the multiplicity and comical indeterminacy that haunts recognition."

Her eyes widened.

"If everyone got it right, nailed it on first try, what an awful cosmology that would be. It is because my name is not fully mine that I can trust you to bend it, twist it, and risk making it something else altogether. But if I do not risk your mispronunciation, I also foreclose the opportunity to become different, to taste new things. Yes. Our names are sacred because they are never complete in themselves - because we are hospitable to the stranger, from whose mouth and tongue we will occasionally hear God speak new secrets."

The rest of the interview was a blast.

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I feel inspired to add this thought: there are many cultural contexts, situations, and scenarios where the "correct" pronunciation is often rightly demanded, where people (especially minorities) have found it justifiably easier to shorten, modify, or even change their names completely because of the cavalier and disrespectful ways their names are pronounced.

My own wife, with an Afro-Euro-Indian heritage, christened with an African name, growing up in India, had to abbreviate her name because her peers and teachers mockingly pronounced her name. Ironically, my 'Indian mother' (that is, my wife's mother; I'm largely uncomfortable with the term, "mother-in-law") still pronounces my last name as "I-come-and-laugh-here"! Even further, in spite of the abundance of playful epistemologies in our naming rituals and the priorities of being hospitable to strangers, there are many Yoruba people I know who might prefer that their names are treated with palpable respect, or at least met with a degree of care and attention - even when a studiously exacting reproduction of the Yoruba tongue is not conceivably possible. So, whatever I write (here and elsewhere) is never to be interpreted through a universal lens, as an ultimate or secret truth that applies for all time. I invite diffractive thinking, where divergences and convergences, asymmetries, openings, and risky experimentation are privileged.

As such, what I call the "gift of mispronunciation" lies at the liminal middles between home and the diasporic world: it is a creative Yoruba-culture-inspired response to a globalizing contemporary modern ethic that is swiftly congealing around safety and correct pronunciation - one that expressly forbids getting it wrong, and is premised on full disclosure and recognition.

What this "gift" invites us to notice is that it is not possible to be fully seen - and that we never meet each other, not fully. Instead we co-invent the other in the intra-activity of encounter. The decolonial heart of this "gift" notices that to be met is an opportunity to be undone, and that to insist on being fully formed on one's own terms prior to encounter is to risk being fully available - for to be fully available is to be decided, done with, and rendered instrumental to the longings of the imperial.

Naming can hurt, being misnamed can hurt more - but even the irritability of hurt is duplicitous, open, and already political. We are hurt with/in complex paradigms; hurt is not apolitical. The "gift of mispronunciation" - more than just a simple practice to adopt - feels to me like an open inquiry into the things identity can do and the limitations of being recognized. It suggests that the universe isn't composed of straight lines, that we need the peripheral to see, and that children learn by messing things up.

This has been my playful realization as a Yoruba person, the gift of my culture (where 'culture' is not a static image or coherent archive of values, but a field of intensities and dynamic movements): that to be misnamed might come with a risky opening, and that even names breathe.

The Yoruba trickster god, Esu, was renamed Satan by the very hand of a converted Yoruba former slave and Anglican Bishop, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, who took it upon himself to translate the entire Bible to Yoruba - an impressive feat. Today, there are movements seeking to address this "error" - saying "Esu is not the Devil". I am not alone in thinking that Esu is probably more intrigued by the label than appalled.

What this "gift" invites us to notice is that it is not possible to be fully seen - and that we never meet each other, not fully. Instead we co-invent the other in the intra-activity of encounter.