See the accent above that ‘e’ up there? That is called a French “accent grave.”
My mother put that accent on my name during a fit of post-postpartum delirium. It’s supposed to make the “e” on the end of my name sound like “eh” as in the word “bed.” This is not to be confused with an “accent aigu,” which makes the “e” sound like “ayyy” as in something Fonzie used to say on Happy Days, or for those of you not of a certain age, like the sound in “day” and “say.”
That’s right. That little speck, that many people mistake for a piece of lint or some stray eyebrow hair, changes the pronunciation of my name from the two syllable “Gah-Reen” to the three syllable “Ga-ree-neh.” And nobody in the USA has ever heard of it. Oh, and don’t forget to roll the “r.”
People who see my name in print, then meet me later are in the worst name-pronunciation scenario because the accent is almost never printed on anything that officially refers to me. It’s not in my high school year book. It’s not on any of my by-lines. It’s not even on my passport. I finally figured out how to change it on my facebook account. Generally, Americans do not have the slightest idea what an accent grave is anyway, but at least if it was there, they’d ask the question.
As it is, pretty much everyone mispronounces my name.
I always feel like a snobby snob when I try to correct them. They get embarrassed and confused and I feel like a jerk for making them feel bad. Then, I feel the need to fill the stunned silence with my dissertation on French accent marks. Their eyes glaze over and it just spirals down from there. It’s like when you call a guy in the office “Chuck” and he looks down his nose at you and says in a James Bond accent, “No, it is Charles.”
The reason mom did this horrible thing to me is because my parents wanted to give me a traditional Armenian name. Makes sense – retain your heritage, proudly uphold the honor of your lost country, yadda yadda yadda. The problem? The Armenian language has its very own alphabet.
Those 4th Century Armenians were a wily bunch and managed to create their own script up there in the isolated mountains. They were pretty impressed with themselves over it, too. The church even Sainted the guy who developed it, Saint Mesrop Mashtots. (I know, I know ‘mash tots??’ – those poor little tots! Make fun all you want, but this was a good 200 years before the English got it together in the alphabet department. So, think on that for a minute.) The whole alphabet is phonetic. The final sound of my name in actual Armenian script looks like the symbol below:
|“eh” . . .?|
All by itself, it means the word “is” or “to be” in Armenian. People wear this symbol as golden charms, stencil it onto t-shirts, and etch it into the sides of stone walls. It’s very esoteric.
So fast forward about a millennium, to my mother sitting in her hospital bed after I was born. She’s watching the television, doing the recuperation portion of child-bearing, when a hospital records administrator gives her my birth certificate to fill out. My parents decided what my name would be before I was born, of course. They were the plan-ahead sort. If I was a boy, Garen. If I was a girl, the feminine version of that, Garine. She stared at the name as it was written on the page in English. Other Armenians in the west already had established this spelling. She wondered how she was going to get American English speakers to say the all important “eh” on the end of my name.
OK, so are you with me so far? This is where it gets a little twisted.
It just so happened that at the moment my mother was filling out this birth certificate, the TV was blaring an afternoon matinee of the 1940 W.C. Fields movie called The Bank Dick. For those of you under the age of 85, W.C. Fields was one of the best comedic actors of his time. Most often, he played drunken ne’er-do-wells who hated kids and carried a cane. In this particular movie, his character frequented the Black Pussy Cat Café and was named Egbert Sousé. (Remember that accent? ‘Ayyy!’) Throughout the film, the joke is about this accent because his name isn’t souse, which of course, means a drunkard, it’s Sous- ayyyy, something refined and French sounding.
The recurring gag line is, “You see? It’s Sousé, with an accent grave!”
My mother, who knew french, thought, “Yes, Mr. Fields, that is it! An accent grave!” She wasn’t even looking at the TV screen at this point.
But here is the kicker. If you are astute, and I know you are, you may have noticed that Mr. Fields and his gag line were actually wrong! (refer to paragraph two up at the top) The accent on Sousé is NOT an accent grave, it’s an accent aigu. So, I got my accent grave from the fact that my mother knew how wrong they were in a Hollywood comedy movie about a drunk guy at the Black Pussy Cat.
What’s more, my mother absolutely loved to tell this story.
Sure if you know me at all, you’ll see how the gist of this story is truly a grand metaphor for my general life force – a little cynical, a little silly, and, too often, a little bit off.
Meanwhile, my name is Garinè. . . and only French people can read it right. Too bad, I’m not French.
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I know you are just dying to actually hear it said out loud, now that I’ve gone through this whole crazy explanation! Click here for that: