Monday, 14 March 2011

What's in a Name?

Last September, when I was fresh off the plane in China, and just moved into the house of my homestay family; I was asked by my homestay mother (a teacher), whether I would be interested in teaching English to a group of Chinese schoolchildren from ages 5-7 in her local primary school. Eager to score brownie points with the family, and naturally interested in helping share my mother tongue, I agreed.

On the first day at the school, the Chinese teacher supervising my spoken English class asked me to take the register. I picked up the list of those who should be in class, and began to read out the names. Chinese names are generally constructed of 3 characters: the first character a surname, the last two characters the given name. I read the first surname, and then instantly became stumped on the given name. Those two characters I had never seen before, and I had no idea how to pronounce them. A familiar pattern came to emerge; that being I was often familiar with the surname, and completely ignorant to how to read, let alone pronounce, the given name. Clearly there was something going on here...

And as it turns out, there is. In Great Britain, the 100 most common surnames are found in around 20% of the population. Yet in China the top 100 surnames are found in more than 90% of the population. Even more; in a country the size of China, and with a population as numerable as it is, that means that a lot of people have the same surname. So in order to provide a unique and distinctive surname for their progeny, Chinese parents resort to choosing names rare and uncommon. In the UK this would be no particular problem; the Latin alphabetic denotation of the name explains more or less the pronunciation of lesser used names. But in China, where names are denoted by characters; those names which are denoted by rarer characters are simply unpronounceable unless the reader knows what that character is.
My Chinese name is given in this format: the surname is common, and the given name is rarer. When I first arrived in China I could not understand why teachers, and people who I showed my visa or student card to were unable to pronounce the Chinese characters. I assumed somewhat naively that they must not be as educated and learned in Chinese characters. But I was wrong; and recently having spoken to some of the brightest people in the country at Peking University, they assured me that they have just the same problem with many surnames: they are simply unable to pronounce the rare characters which make up the name.
Perhaps it is a poor reflection on me that it has taken this long to cotton on to the nature of Chinese names; but it leads me to think...Next time I complain about being rubbish at remembering what someone is called, I should spare a thought for the Chinese. One could be the brightest spark in the country and would still struggle with names...

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