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What’s in Your Name?

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

I have a friend in Atlanta whose last name is, ''Okpukpara." I also have a friend whose last name is, "Agbasi." What do the names, Okpukpara and Agbasi, have in common? They both contain unique phonetic sounds that challenge non-native Igbo speakers.

I was once at a public event with a guy whose last name was Okpukpara. We showed up at the concierge to be checked in. The oyibo lady at the front desk asked what his last name was. Since I had never heard him pronounce his name to a non-Igbo speaker, I had not imagined what was in store. In a very smooth and sensual voice, he very succinctly dropped the "O" word (with every letter and sound so intentionally enunciated). As you would expect, the oyibo lady then asked him to please spell the name. Yet in another well-rehearsed art of "Igboness" he went: "OKP- UKP- ARA." They came out in a kind of, poetic rendition, so much so that, for a moment, l wished my name was as pliable. It is unlikely that he remembers the incident because my guess is that he probably goes through this routine regularly. But for me, it was a first, a gratifying moment! I was especially proud that, not only did he pronounce his name clearly, he did not adulterate or dilute any letter or sound in an attempt to make his name sound “oyibotic” (Americanized or Anglicized versions of our Igbo names)!

I have also witnessed my other friend with the last name, Agbasi, do something equally refreshing. I once observed her trying to coach a non-Igbo friend by saying her last name. I noticed that she took the time to explain the unique "gb" sound to the individual. She explained it so that pronouncing the name as if it spelled "Abasi" was incorrect since the "g" in the spelling was not meant to be silent l. I was proud and delighted to have observed her make the effort to teach a friend something about our language.

Igbo names, both our given names and family names, are very important to our identity as Ndị Igbo. We have had very interesting and informative discussions in the past about Igbo names. In most cases, though, we discussed the meaning of the names as well as the context in which most names are chosen by our parents. However, I have noticed that a good number of us do not correctly pronounce our own names in accordance with the Igbo language diction. Since it is known that Igbo itself is a tonal language, it is important to highlight that any word that is even slightly mispronounced runs the risk of having its meaning altered or completely lost. Even more disappointing is when someone intentionally alters the pronunciation of one's name in order to make it sound more like oyibo language, or more appealing to oyibo people! Chai! Why should our names be treated with such self-effacement?

Enough has also been said about the deep thoughts these names carry –as opposed to most oyibo names whose origin and/or meaning we can hardly tell. Thankfully, Igbo names survived centuries of colonization and cultural erosion. What is not so fantastic, however, is that even today a lot of Igbo parents in the Diaspora give their children thoughtfully chosen Igbo names but never bother to make sure that those children grow up knowing how to properly pronounce their own or their family names. I do not know if there is any excuse for that! Not being able to speak a language that is considerably foreign to you is one thing, but your inability to properly pronounce your own name; your primary identity??? I don't know that excuses for that can be reasonably made.

And if you dare think that any Igbo name is too difficult to pronounce biko go and try saying the names of your Indian, Nepali, or Bangladeshi friends. You will come back with a renewed appreciation for your Igbo name! I am glad that I am Igbo and I am in good company in Ụmụ Igbo Unite, Atlanta. We understand that our names are not mere identity tags. Each Igbo name is a cultural and historical marker. It is a commentary on the circumstances and the sentiments with which your family welcomed you to this world.

Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the challenges that non-native speakers face with letters and sounds that challenge the monolingual aptitude of adult non-native speakers. I hope that I don't sound as if I am trying to embarrass or shame anyone about the proper pronunciation of their names. But this is a subject that I believe we should begin to pay some serious attention to. The days of diffidence and of feeling culturally inferior to oyibo are long gone! It doesn't help our cause if we continue to devalue our names or any part of our identity.


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