Library Story: pronunciation is arbitrary

When I was a kid I pretty much lived at the main branch of the Brookline Public Library. I had a favorite librarian, named Doris, and I knew every nook and cranny of the children’s department (which is different now.) I made little forts for myself under tables and chairs and read all day, every day. I read everything. (I mean everything: when I was 9 they had to give me an adult card because I had depleted the readable material in the children’s department.)

I especially liked photo-illustrated step-by-step books about crafts; Cricket Magazine (which I read religiously, and sometimes submitted to); the titillating tales of Judy Blume (when I was a little too young to be reading them–I got to know Doris the librarian by going to the reference desk to ask her what a heroin overdose was at about age 7…); and a very cheesy series of American History biographies with spare, single-color line illustrations of things like Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag.

Once I was at the library with my father, and I pulled a picture book off of a shelf and then realized I didn’t want to read it (or maybe I had already read it!!).

I went to put it back and was surprised to find that the author’s last name was not spelled at all the way it sounded. I asked my father how that could be and he gave me a very enlightening explanation that went something like this: All pronunciation is arbitrary. You can spell things any way you want to, people just agree among themselves that they will pronounce things a certain way to make life easier. But that’s optional. You don’t have to go down that path. If you want to, you can spell your name RBBJQQMP and tell people it is pronounced exactly the way it is pronounced now and no one can dispute that. They will have to spell it that way, but pronounce it the same way you do.

That answer stumped me for a long time. I remember mulling it over in the middle of the night, reading cogent things aloud to myself in gibberish to see what it felt like to pronounce them another way, choosing the ideal spelling of my name and practicing it in cursive, weighing the pros and cons of deciding to join the larger social contract about how to pronounce things… Finally, at a certain point I decided that despite being offered the challenge to go my own way with language, it would probably be better in the long run to pronounce things like everyone else. I was afraid my father would be disappointed in me for being lazy and unoriginal when I told him my decision (it didn’t cross my mind at the time that he had made the same one…) but I summoned up the courage and went and told him what I’d decided.

He had no idea what I was talking about. I reminded him about the book at the library and the big decision I had wrestled with (“like Jacob and the angel in the Bible” I remember explaining, as that was my main metaphor for problem solving at the time,) but he genuinely couldn’t remember the conversation.

I felt a combination of awe that we could have discussed such an important thing that weighed on me for eons in child-time without its gravity having reverberations on him. But also a huge sense of relief that he wasn’t going to hold it against me forever that I planned to spell my name the way it was written on my birth certificate. (Which I loved in particular because it had a goat on it, in the city seal.)

— Anonymous

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Library Intervention Underway

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