"But I tell you, a cat needs a name that's particular,
A name that's peculiar, and more dignified."
I was quite surprised to read, on Language Log, a post titled "Lower Case Names?", in which ⊱⍼ claims that there is "no ethical obligation" for anyone to comply with the wishes of people who prefer that their names be spelled in ways that defy orthographic conventions. I was surprised partly because I had never thought about this as an ethical question before, and partly because ⊱⍼'s insistence on his right to impose the arbitrary conventions of English spelling on others seemed somehow out of tune with the generally descriptivist character of Language Log.
Poser (for that is how he actually writes his name) begins by making what I think is a reasonable distinction between merely unusual spellings that nonetheless "fall within the conventions of written English"—such as Bille instead of the usual Bill—and names that leap the bounds of the Roman alphabet altogether, such as ⊱⍼. Here, I mostly agree with him. To take the obvious example, when Prince changed his name to a symbol that I could neither type nor pronounce, I felt no particular obligation to use it in writing or in speech; I did not rush to add a character to my favourite font, as people did upon the introduction of the Euro. On the other hand, I really don't have anything to say about Prince, so my non-compliance didn't make a particle of difference. (The only Prince composition in my CD collection is Sinéad O'Connor's cover of his stirring tribute to the third secretary-general of the United Nations.)
Where Poser begins to surprise me is in declaring that lowercase names fall on the ⊱⍼ side of the line rather than the Bille side:
If I write Bell Hooks in spite of Ms. Hooks' expressed preference for bell hooks, does she have a legitimate grievance? [...] I submit that the answer is "no". [...] Capitalization is part of the social convention for writing English. Like the alphabet, it isn't something that the writing system makes available for manipulation by individual users. Declining to violate the norms of capitalization should be no more offensive to the bearer of the name than declining to write a person's name always at the beginning of the sentence, regardless of its grammatical role. That just isn't the way it is done in English.
I'm always wary when anybody makes an assertion about what "should not be offensive" to someone else. Sure, Poser has a right to write Bell Hooks if he wants to—but bell hooks has every right to be pissed off if he does. I think wolfangel's post on the matter takes the most sensible attitude: refusing to lowercase bell hooks is a discourtesy, and to the extent that we have an ethical obligation to be courteous, we have an ethical obligation to comply with hooks's preference for lowercase letters. There are some fairly obvious ways in which the strength of this obligation varies: when Poser writes Ms. Hooks on Language Log, this is not nearly as discourteous as it would be in the salutation of a letter addressed to hooks herself. But I think wolfangel has effectively settled the ethical question, so I'd like to take a closer look at the linguistic question.
First, I'd like to point out that it is not true that the English writing system leaves no scope for individual choice in the capitaliztion of names. Consider closely the surnames of the following Canadian politicians:
- Flora MacDonald
- Sir John A. Macdonald
I submit that MacDonald and Macdonald are two different names—a minimal pair distinguished only by capitalization. It would be an error, albeit a subtle one, to write *Flora Macdonald or *Sir John A. MacDonald. The general English orthographic convention is that only the initial letter of a proper name is capitalized, but there is a large and well-established class of exceptions beginning with Mac-; would Poser insist that he has a right to misspell one of these names, but not the other?
But perhaps Poser will insist only that the initial letter must be capitalized, and concede that internal capitalization is freely perMitted. Well, there are a few good old-fashioned English names that have, at least among some families, traditionally been spelled with a lowercase initial letter for generations. Here's the name of a person who works for ITP Nelson as a writer and proofreader:
- Kathleen ffolliott
Now, I have a dim memory of reading somewhere that the spelling of ffolliott (and ffoulkes, and a ffew others) had its origin in an orthographic confusion—somebody's single capital F looked to somebody else like a double lowercase ff, or something like that. But even if ffolliott is an error, it is an error that has become entrenched, and, in an arbitrary set of conventions like the English spelling system, any sufficiently entrenched error is indistinguishable from a correct spelling.
I also take issue with Poser's insistence on specifically English orthographic conventions. Poser writes that a merely eccentric spelling such as Bille should be respected because "it uses only letters that are part of the English inventory, the correspondence between letters and sound is canonical, and it is capitalized according to the rule that says that proper nouns are to be capitalized." Certainly, if I'm writing in English, I will transliterate names whose owners would write them in non-Roman alphabets or in non-alphabetic writing systems. But suppose I'm writing about this phonologist:
This is a Dutch name, not an English name, but the Dutch writing system doesn't use any characters that aren't found in English. Should I "transliterate" Harry van der Hulst to *Harry Van Der Hulst if I'm writing about him in English? Nonsense! I should spell his name the way he does, and if I don't, then he has every right to correct me. He should correct me gently, because I am contending with an unfamiliar spelling, but if I insist that I have a right to capitalize him against his will and custom, would he not have a "legitimate grievance"?
I suspect, then, that the real source of Poser's resistance to spelling bell hooks's name the way she spells it is not the fact that it fails to conform to English orthographic conventions, but the fact that it does so for no reason other than that she wishes it. MacDonald and Macdonald and ffolliott and van der Hulst have history behind them; hooks is on her own. Perhaps Poser feels that to comply with hooks's preference would be to indulge her in a silly whim; although he does not say so, this attitude is implicit in his use of "⊱⍼" as a reductio ad absurdum.
A more vocally snide note turns up in a Semantic Compositions post titled "What's in a Spelling?". SC writes:
Although SC feels guilty for picking on him in the past, Redskins receiver Laveranues Coles pronounces his name as though it was spelled "Lavernius". This pronunciation can hardly be said to obey conventional sound-spelling correspondences in English. The situation may be different in African-American Vernacular English (your host is not familiar enough with literature in that regard to say), but assuming it isn't, what would it mean for someone to insist on holding Mr. Coles' name to the usual relationship between letters and sounds? What would it mean for a newspaper to spell his name "Lavernius"?
The situation "may be different in African-American Vernacular English"? Why, yes, actually—I'm surprised SC didn't know this, but AAVE uses a completely different writing system from other Englishes: ever since the issue of a decree jointly authored by Malcolm X and Prince Faisal in 1963, AAVE has officially been written in the Arabic script. As for what it would mean for a newspaper to write *Lavernius Coles, the answer is simple: it would mean that page A2 of the following day's issue would have to include a correction notice in a little box somewhere below the fold.
SC's post concludes with the following paragraph:
The point of all of these questions isn't to pick on any particular group of English speakers, although readers cannot help but notice that, by and large, these examples are drawn from the African-American population. For the most part, they violate conventional relationships between sound and spelling, and this may be as true for their own dialects of English as for mine, yours, or Bill Poser's. In turn, this raises an interesting question: if someone goes by a name that violates their own dialect's rules as much as your own, is it racially or culturally insensitive to ignore their preferences? And if we aren't consistent about applying our intuitions in this regard across minority groups, what justifies the exemptions?
The proliferation of African-American examples in SC's post may simply be an epiphenomenon of SC's familiarity with the names of football players. It might be an interesting exercise to attempt to recast SC's observations using such persons as:
What would it mean for a newspaper to spell his name Chumley? Perhaps the situation is different in Received Pronunciation....
But again, we have a contrast between a very old unconventional spelling and a very new one. And the correlation between African-American ethnicity and novel names is not an accident. A great many African-American families have good old traditional English names that they have borne for generations—ever since they were given to them by white slaveowners. The names of their African ancestors are in many cases unrecoverable. So one reason for making up new names, or new spellings for old names, is a desire to have a name of one's own, a name that, even if it does not have deep roots in one's own cultural background, can nonetheless serve to distinguish one's cultural identity.
I believe in treating all unconventional names essentially alike, regardless of the ethnicity of the people who choose them: I think they should all be respected, as much as one reasonably can. (If you don't have Prince's symbol on your keyboard, don't sweat it.) To insist on misspelling anybody's name is an act of personal discourtesy. But I also think that there is an extra layer of presumption in insisting on referring to bell hooks as Bell Hooks, or to Laveranues Coles as Lavernius Coles, or to Malcolm X as Malcolm Little, especially if the insister is white, and especially if the insister is not also in the habit of writing Folliott for ffolliott, Van Der Hulst for van der Hulst, or Chumley for Cholmondeley.