For the past thirty years, my own name has sounded foreign to me. Mangled by tongues who mean well. Pronounced quickly, with no melody, no cadence. No history behind it. No home.
My name, Pernille, a name that is so common in my home nation of Denmark that I had two others who shared my name just in my grade level, doesn’t flow well off of American tongues. The “r” gets lost, the lightness of its letter blends, and with its changed weight so does the sense of familiarity that comes with being called something that your mother chose for you.
My name carries history. It was the only name my biological parents agreed on, only because at the point of my birth they knew they would split up. My mother had already decided on Pernille, a name her mother loved dearly, no discussion needed, four and a half months later she left him.
When I was six, we moved to San Francisco, it was my first introduction to America. We tried to have people pronounce it correctly, but no matter their attempts, it slowed them down, they had to think about it, it didn’t just roll off their tongues. So it morphed into how it is pronounced now, Pur-neal, a mask I wear as an immigrated American. A name that I respond to, but will never really fit.
I think of my name and the emotions that it carries as I reach the milestone of twenty years as an immigrant in this country. Twenty years of living between two societies. Twenty years of not feeling completely at home in either. Of feeling homeless, rootless, despite the life filled with love that I get to have. I never knew I would grow up to be an American and my name reminds me of that. When I go home to Denmark, to those who knew me before, it is the sound of my name pronounced correctly that makes me feel like I belong. It is the ease with which they pronounce it. How they don’t tell me how they have never heard that name before. How I am not asked to “Say it first.” How they can spell it without hesitation. How I don’t have to say “That’s okay” when somebody bungles it within their well-meaning intentions.
How it rolls off their tongues and embraces me to be who I am, rather than what I am supposed to be.
As we look at our incoming students and the names that they carry, I feel the importance of the correct pronunciation. How their names carry their history. How their names carry the hopes that their parents grew as they blessed their new baby with a way to be known to the world. How because I gave up on correcting people, I will forever be known as something that my mother didn’t intend. How even when my husband tells me he loves me my name is not completely correct. How my own children don’t know how to say it the right way because their American tongues get in the way. And I chose to live with that. Too late to make a difference now.
But for our students, they shouldn’t have to make that decision. They should not be forced to give up, to be fine with their name not being pronounced correctly. That they should see the care with which we hold their names, much like those who dreamt of the name intended.
I wish I could go back to tell six-year-old Pernille to speak up. To continue to insist on the right pronunciation, on the right sounds, no matter how many failed attempts came before. To fight for her right to be welcomed in the way she was intended to be.
Perhaps this Pernille, the one who has lived in America for more than twenty years, would not be reminded then every single time someone says her name just how much she doesn’t belong here. How no matter what, America will never fully be home. How even her name had to change to be a true part of this great nation. Because it was simply easier to give up than fight. That is what I learned when I was six years old.
PS: To see how Pernille is meant to be pronounced, go here