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What’s In a Name.

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Does it irk you when Americans massacre the pronunciation of your perfectly wholesome Serbian name? It irks me. It frustrates me even more when American Serbs conform to the butchering of their own names to make it easier for non-Serbs. When Dušan becomes Dousanne or when Ivica become something to the effect of Eveekah. Or when Željko turn himself into Zelko. Am I expected to maim my centuries-old last name and turn Ivković into Ivkovick just because some people are refusing to try to hear me and pronounce it right?

This phenomenon pisses me off not because I don’t want to accept the fact that we, like numerous other groups of non-Anglophone immigrants, should adjust to the language and customs of the culture that dominate the country we decided to move to. Not at all. If you wanted to remain 100 percent Serbian, linguistically and culturally, you should have stayed in the Fatherland. (Even there, it’s increasingly more difficult, but that’s a different subject.) What bothers me is the general unwillingness to make an effort and adjust correctly, at least when it comes to personal names. There is a way to adjust more correctly and although it may not be perfect, Serbian immigrants of older generations, mainly those who arrived prior to the Communist takeover of Serb lands, have done it with more sense.

Visit any old Serbian cemetery in the States, read any church founder rolls, google any early-generation Serbian immigrant of note and you will find names spelled in a way that allows for their pronunciation to sound more organically Serbian, more correct. An Ivković that arrived to America in 1903 will adjust the written ending of the last name to sound Serbian rather than keep it only visually similar, while changing the pronunciation. So, he or she would substitute –ić for –itch or –ich, because the symbol ć does not exist in Latin alphabet the English language uses. Substituting ć for a c corrupts the last name and changes it. You may think it’s the same name, but if it’s not pronounced the same, it’s not the same.

In linguistics, it’s called transliteration. By definition, transliteration is the conversion of a text, including names, from one alphabet or script to another. Now, I’m not a linguist, but one doesn’t have to be an expert to know that one’s name is first spoken and then written down in a language of one’s choice, using the alphabet of that language to transcribe the name. In Serbian, you write your name according to the rules of the Serbian language. And the rules exist, so, no, it’s not up to you to adapt them to your needs. You may corrupt them, and no one can stop you, but that makes you illiterate. The same goes for English; you adapt the spelling to the pronunciation according to the existing rules.

Imagine if the Chinese or Arab immigrants decided not to adapt the spelling of their names, as they are pronounced, to the English language upon immigrating. Latin alphabet is just one of many world scripts and within it there is a multitude of varieties. When spelling a name of a non-English origin in English, one must use only the signs that English speakers can read, whether one is a Serb, Arab, Chinese or Armenian.

Imagine if the spelling of Michael Jordan’s name was not adapted to the Serbian alphabets. In the Serbian Latin alphabet, MJ’s name is spelled Majkl Džordan, so the Serbs can understand who we are talking about. The transliteration is even more needed with names whose English spelling contains symbols that don’t exist in any of the Serbian alphabets, like q, y or w. And this goes for English-to-Serbian, French-to-Serbian or Bengali-to-Serbian transliteration.

The ongoing misdirection and neglect partly came about after the World War II, when the Latin alphabet was imposed on the majority of Serbs. The Cyrillic alphabet was the script that dominated the literate parts of Serbdom for centuries. The Latin alphabet came to dominate after the Communist takeover in 1945. Its use in Serbia rapidly intensified through educational and commerical inclinations after the October Fifth coup in 2000. So, before 1945, a Serb from Herzegovina or Montenegro would have to transliterate his name from the Cyrillic script into the English Latin script, turning Ивковић most likely into Ivkovitch and preserving the essence of the name and its pronunciation. In more recent decades, a Bosnian Serb refugee would merely erase the diacritical mark in ć and be left with a c, perfectly acceptable in the English alphabet, but incorrect and transformative of the name. So, Ivković becomes Ivkovic, pronunciation ending in k, not ć. This changes the name completely. Thus, if we all still used Cyrillics in the Fatherland, upon coming to America we would have to look for transliteration solutions. Being accustomed to the Latin alphabet, we fall prey to the visual similarities and simply omit the differences that actually make sounds distinctive from one another, thus changing our own name.

A lot of Serbs I’ve debated this issue with throw the I-refuse-to-change-my-name argument at me. Well, by refusing to transliterate, you are actually changing your name. If I spell my last name in way that allows Anglophones to end it in –ick, guess  what? Yes, I just changed my last name. If I spell it ending in –ich or –itch, I just preserved its Serbian form.

At the time when Serbian cultural institutions are paralyzed, to say the least, it is a small wonder that the people, left to their own devices, are going with the flow and simply letting this part of their cultural identity die, since, yes, the name is a crucial part of one’s identity. Most of the recent immigrant generations are guilty of this. It takes time and money to change one’s name and most of us decide to leave it alone. It’s a weak excuse though. Of course guidance by experts is needed to overcome this problem, but with that obviously lacking, people themselves can pay more attention and respect to the general rules of phonetics and linguistics that apply globally. I’m not about to prescribe transliteration rules for every Serbian name. First, as I said, I have no necessary expertise, and second, it is more important at this point to raise the issue than to debate solutions.

Author: Vladan Ivkovich

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