Names no game when put on Convocation stage


When it comes to saying students’ names, as they are announced on stage upon graduating from university, proper pronunciation is essential.

Linguistic Anthropology professor Karen Pennesi’s recent paper, Reading and Righting the Names at a Convocation Ceremony: Influences of Linguistic Ideologies on Name Usage in an Institutional Interaction, shows how proper pronunciation of names at convocation matters beyond the moment. The paper came out of a project, which included interviews with Western students and orators, as well as a participant study with her serving as an orator at convocation.

“In interviews, for some people, (name pronunciation) is a big issue. It’s part of their identity and their sense of belonging. If people are always messing up their name, then they feel like they don’t belong and it’s just a big irritation over and over,” she said.

“The fact there is such a protocol to pronouncing names (at Western’s convocations) and most people give (pronunciation) importance shows (it matters). Western has a huge diversity – the so-called ‘English names’ aren’t dominant here. The chance of making a mistake or finding a so-called ‘foreign name,’ there’s so much possibility here,” Pennesi continued.

Western graduates are handed a name card with their full name as they line up in alphabetical order prior to getting their degrees. An orator or volunteer speaks to each student, asking for the proper pronunciation of their name, ensuring the orator who will read it later gets it right. If the name presents any difficulty, students make notations or phonetic clues on the card to help with pronunciation.

Obviously, Western values the importance of its graduates’ names, Pennesi said, as it takes the time to do this. And this isn’t an uncommon practice.

“Some smaller colleges, they know the students (and their names). One college has students phone in and pronounce their own name three times, so you can practice. That’s time consuming and you are constrained by the number of students you have,” Pennesi explained.

“It’s clearly an issue in every university. What do you do? It’s such an important public thing to say the name (properly).”

At the heart of the issue is cultural sensitivity, she noted.

“For a lot of people, it becomes this thing that is part of their interaction with society, part of their identity,” Pennesi said.

“For some refugees who come here with nothing, maybe it’s the last thing they have, and now they have to change their name, too? That might be the only link they have to their past life,” she continued.

“The other important thing is the parents – that’s who comes to watch, mostly. They’re the ones who gave that name. They want to hear it and be proud, and I think we have to keep that in mind, too.”

Mispronunciation of uncommon names can “contribute to negative feelings about being treated as outsiders in the dominant society. Attention to linguistic ideologies reveals that the university’s protocol is as much a mechanism for reducing uncertainty among orators as for treating students respectfully,” Pennesi wrote in her paper, noting consequences of mispronunciation are not trivial.

Faculty and staff reported instances where names were misread and graduates missed their opportunity to walk across the stage. Family members missed their graduate being called, staff members couldn’t locate the correct diploma, and one-time orators had refused to volunteer again after feeling that they had made embarrassing mistakes.

Proper pronunciation of names is important, for both the students and the university, she explained.

This story originally appeared in the June 5, 2014 edition of Western News.