But What’s Your Name In English?

Thomas Sutherland writing on the South African digital current affairs platform, News24:

“Last night, a friend and I walked into a bar in Port Elizabeth. We entered into a delightful dialogue with two gentlemen about the harsh realities of life and cultural experience in South Africa. These gentlemen happened to be isiXhosa speaking, black South Africans. At some point in the evening two white English men entered the bar and introduced themselves. On being unable to pronounce the name of the one gentleman, one of the white men asked, “But what’s your ‘English’ name? Everyone has an English name.”

The attitude of the English man caused my new isiXhosa friend visible distress and he attempted to engage in dialogue with the man about why his attitude towards the African name is offensive. His efforts at dialogue were dismissed, and very shortly after their dismissal, a bar brawl ensued.

I am a white English speaking South African and, once again, I was forced to examine some of the harsh realities of English attitudes about race and cultural difference in South Africa.

Sadly, I get a real sense that the English have been regarded as ‘the better half’ of white South African populations. In the shadows of an increasingly militant criticism of Afrikaans and its position as a language of power, English has quietly tightened its grip on almost every aspect of life in this country. To put it simply, the English language is the most efficient colonising language in the history of the human race.

My surname has its roots in Ireland. At some point in the last one thousand years, my Irish ancestors would have spoken Gaelic. Woven into their language was a vast oral history around which all culture and thought was organised. At some point, English arrived in Ireland. It brought with it its alien systems and structures of power.

This pattern is visible in much of English’s colonial past, and it continues to occur in South Africa.

It is the only – and I mean only – mediator in the pathway to success in this country. If you fail to play by its rules, if you fail to integrate into its structures and systems, it will prohibit access to employment and an income.

My new-made isiXhosa friends are actively engaged in the re-emergence of Steve Biko styled Black Consciousness. Moreover, refusing to be bound by the traditional paradigms of race and racism, they have – with an inspiring effort – begun the process of re-imagining African identity and culture in ways that are lessening their binds to English life.

Names are not innocent. I will give my child an isiXhosa name. And it will be impossibly difficult to pronounce.”

Which reminds me of the shaming question also asked of those with native forenames and surnames in Ireland. “But what’s your name in English?

 

Advertisements

6 comments

  1. It is the only – and I mean only – mediator in the pathway to success in this country. If you fail to play by its rules, if you fail to integrate into its structures and systems, it will prohibit access to employment and an income.
    ————–
    That’s true even in countries that have never been part of the British Empire. Good luck becoming a programmer if you don’t speak English.

  2. Why would you need to have a “English language firstname” to be a programmer? Do you insist on calling any colleagues with name Seán or “Shane” as John?

    1. I don’t need to change my name. I just need to learn English – It’s far more popular in tech than any other language. Most tools and libraries aren’t documented in any other language. And if they are then almost always the English version is more complete, more up to date and has fewer errors in it. These days I don’t even bother with other languages and if I run into problems I always look for solutions using English.

      There’s a reason why the Linux creator – Linus Torvalds – a Swedish speaking Finn does all his work in English not Swedish.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s