The Name Game
I always take a week to recover from flying across this vast planet. During my first week in either country—Canada or China—I have many surreal experiences during which I dream vividly, sleep erratically or like a boulder, and sometimes even see things or hear things that don’t seem to be there. Jet lag brings us another layer of consciousness, I’m convinced. Some of my best writing and thinking has happened during these weeks—and this is a lucky year: I get 4 of them.
That is the positive way to look at jet lag. Otherwise, you just feel like you’ve been dragged behind a dog sled by your pinky toe.
My particular obsessions this week included watching all the episodes of “Orange Is The New Black” on my one-month trial membership of Netflix AND trying to think up a name for this child in my womb that is kicking me right now.
As a nickname, we have gravitated towards the ridiculous. For my partner Guo Jian who is a non-English speaker, when he first heard the name “Echo” it did not have any other English connotations other than being the name of a guitar effect. His band’s guitar players found it highly amusing that we named her something they step on when they’re on stage. No amount of poetic explaining could stop their chuckles.
This summer, while on tour with Long Shen Dao in Canada as their manager and opening act, I was also three months along in this second pregnancy. The band wondered what we would call this one and they started suggesting other guitar effects. The discussion happened while driving, suggestions bouncing off the interior of the van in a ricochet of humour.
“Flanger,” one said (and he pronounced this with the hard “G” making me snicker, much to everyone’s confusion!). “No, it should be ‘Wah Wah’” said another, making everyone double over because “wawa” is a colloquial way of describing either a baby doll or an infant in Chinese. A third band member thought “Grunge” might suit the unborn bump on their van driver (an additional role I held!) but he was dismissed by the subtle suggestion of “Fuzz” from one of the quieter members.
That one made me laugh and I might have chosen “Fuzz” as a good nickname for this bump had Guo Jian not ceremoniously decided, as the father with a booming voice, that this child was most certainly going to be “Distortion.” A roar of applause followed along with several predictions for this child’s future affection for heavy rock or metal music.
That last, most ridiculous suggestion seemed to stick.
“Distortion” is getting bigger all the time, kicking wildly, swimming in circles. He most certainly has some fetal attitude!
And now that we know it’s a boy, I need a name that isn’t “Distortion” for when he arrives. What’s more, it has to be a name that works when a Chinese person says it. Even though this child will have a Chinese name that is separate from his English name, it’s better if both names are pronounceable for both sides of family. “Echo” is just that. Her Chinese name is “Ruyi” and that just sound like “Roo” (of “Kangaroo”) and “Yee” (as in “Yeehah”). In the end, everyone’s happy.
If you’re interested in playing along with this “name game,” here are detailed and challenging criteria:
- Interesting: I can’t have one child with a conventional name next to my first child with the name “Echo.”
- Clarity of Meaning: I can’t have a name that’s an obscure word in another language when “Echo” is so clearly a word in the English dictionary.
- 2 syllables: Because Chinese is set up in such a way that each syllable is a character, I am restricted to two syllables for my English name so that the number of pronounced sections only equals what a Chinese person can hear as two characters. (Guo Jian is, likewise, restricted to a two-syllable Chinese name so that this kid’s full name isn’t more of a mouthful than it already will be!)
- No double consonants in one syllable, unless they’re the same consonant OR unless they’re an “SH” or a “CH” or “NG”: In Chinese, any combined consonants create two syllables. For instance, “Scott” sounds like a one-syllable name to us, right? Well, in Chinese, this name is actually three syllables. The “S” creates a “Sa” or “Suh” sound; the “Co” creates a “Ka” or “Kuh” sound; and finally, the “tt” creates a “Ta” or “Tuh” sound. Altogether, it comes out like: “SUH-KUH-TUH” (or, “SA-KA-TA”). Because it’s ends with a double “T,” there’s only one sound in both the languages, so if the name we choose has any double consonants with the same sound like “Egg” or “Kiss” (!) then we’re cool, but note that both of those words are two-syllables sounds in Chinese. Regarding “SH” and “CH” sounds, these exist in Chinese and so they’re okay. Names like “Charlie” and “Shaney” come out sounding virtually the same when a Chinese person says them, so they’d work well. “NG” only works at the end of a syllable, just like in English. More on that below.
- Final Consontants Restricted to “R”, “N”, “M” or “NG.” Otherwise Vowel Endings Preferable: In English, constants that occur at the end of a syllable don’t imply an additional syllable. In Chinese, that’s not the case. With the exception of the above constants that can exist as enders, the other consonants make Chinese speakers grope for vowels to finish off the sound. “Scott” is an example of that, above. If you want to experience a thick Chinese accent while speaking English, just try saying “I speak Chinese” while adding vowel endings to each consonant, creating additional syllables. It comes out like this: “EYE SA-PEE-KUH CHAI-KNEE-SUH.” Additionally, the combined “NG” exists in Chinese and you’ve surely heard it in the surnames “Wang” or “Chang.” It works as a consonant-based ender, but in English we don’t use this very often except while making progressive verbs (or gerunds—when they turn to nouns).* They’re rarely present in names and only present in a few generic nouns. That being said, I did hear of a boy called “Shilling” once, but I hardly think that’s the name I’d choose! *(Because that sounded really language nerdy, here’s a link to more info about those grammar terms!)
- It can’t have a “Th” or a “V” in the name: Both of these sound combos are not present in Chinese either, so Chinese people simply can’t say them unless they’ve practiced or know some English. The “Th” would get revised to just a “T” sound making “Heather” into “Hetter.” The “V” always gets revised into a “W” sound, making “Evelyn” into “EYE-WAY-LIN.” It’s just not okay!
- Ideally, no short “I” or “E” vowels: In Chinese, these short vowels are not part of the language soundscape, so “Ember” and “Echo” often get pronounced like “EYE-mber” or “EYE-co.” (And “Ember” is three syllables for those unpractised with my foreign name: “EYE-MUH-BAR”! Sound a bit like “I’m a bar”!) Still, I put this criterion at the end because I chose to ignore it with “Echo.” (Note: a short “i” is like the “i” in “igloo.”) It’s the least offensive pronunciation error. Since I’ve long lived with it, it doesn’t bother me anymore.
So, as you can see, it’s a riddle. I have four months to solve it.
When I was first dating Guo Jian, he had a few English expressions under his belt that he pulled out when I least expected him to. One of these expressions came out after a mocking argument we had over something I don’t remember in the least. He ended his position by saying, “Okay, I have five words for you.” I looked at him, expectantly.
Holding up one finger per “word,” he said these “Chinese syllables”:
- Wa (Wah)
- Te (Tuh)
- Ai (Eye)
- Wei (Way)
- Er (“R”—like the letter)
For the non-Chinese speakers reading this, here’s a tip: read them fast and out loud. Also, don’t forget what I said about Chinese people substituting the “W” for the “V” sound. The above “5 words” are really only 1 word in English and that word makes for a very modern and colloquial final comeback in a silly argument.
When I finally realized what he was saying, I laughed until I cried. I still tell the story to whomever expresses an interest in the Chinese language and how it compares to English. Every time I tell it, I laugh anew. I’m giggling right now as I type this.
I’ll leave you hanging with that. Surely someone will decode it in the comments section.
But before I end this post, please, PLEASE consider helping me brainstorm a good name for this little boy that is partway through his gestation! During this week of jet lag stupor, I have poured over name books and the dictionary and I’m no closer to solving my dilemma. I am quite open to suggestions!
Until next time,