African-American orthography

This is an e-mail that was forwarded to me. A slightly different version of the e-mail is posted at, which doubts the story is true and suggests the e-mail is racist.

A school teacher friend sent this to me. This is a child’s name!

“Le - a”

How would you pronounce this as a child’s name?

Leah? …………… NO.

Lee - a? ………………. NOPE.

Lay - a? ………… NOT A CHANCE.


f Are you resorting to tongue clicks yet??

This child attends a school in Livingston Parish, Louisiana. Her mother is irate because everyone is getting her child’s name wrong. She says it’s pronounced “Ledasha.”

When the Mother was asked how in the world she figured it should be pronounced that way, she said, “‘cause the dash don’t be silent!”

So, if you see a name come across your desk like this, please remember to pronounce the dash.

And if anyone asks you why, tell them it’s ”cause the dash don’t be silent’!

- end of initial entry -

Alan Roebuck writes:

OK, somebody’s gotta say the obvious:

How come it ain’t “Lehyphena”?

LA replies:

The article deals with that possibility.

Rob C. writes from Missouri:

Even if the e-mail you posted is in fact a fabrication, the scenario does not by any stretch beggar plausibility. A friend of my brother’s wife who is a receptionist at a pediatrician’s office recounted the time a black woman came in with her child. The woman wrote the name of her child on the waiting list as “Iam.” After quite a long time waiting, the woman returned to the receptionist’s desk and inquired about the delay. When told that “Ee-am” (similar to “Ian”) had been called out for several times with no response, the black woman angrily replied, “It’s pronounced “Yum,” as in “Will-yum” (William)!”

LA replies:

That’s a wonderful story. The name William is prounounced Will-yum (actually it’s the unstressed schwa sound, not a “u,” but I can’t reproduce the schwa symbol here). This woman wanted to be creative and take one part of the name William and make a new name of it. Logically enough, but entirely incorrectly, she thought that the letters “iam” by themselves were pronounced “yum,” when in fact they only make that sound when they follow the double “l” in William. It’s a classic combination of the black creativity in naming their children and low black intelligence.

Rick Darby (here is his blog) writes:

This I know for a fact, because the young black man was a co-worker for awhile. His name was Dwyane. Pronounced Dwayne.

I’ve wondered since whether his parents were being creative, or did they
just misspell Dwayne? We shouldn’t forget that many white parents, especially the privileged, give their sprouts cool names like Star and Sioux-Zen (pronounced Susan; I knew her, too).

LA replies:

But the whites, however ridiculous they are, know what they are doing with the words. It’s different with the blacks. It seems possible that black creativity with children’s names and black low intelligence are not two different things, but two inseparable aspects of the same thing.

Andrew W. writes:

A somewhat famous example of creative African-American pronunciation:

Professional baseball player Desmond DeChone Figgins, goes by “Chone”, which is pronounced “Shawn.”

Andrew W. continues:

I should have mentioned in my first email that I think you’re on the right track when you attribute African-American orthography to a combination of low intelligence and creativity. My best guess would be that Chone’s mother was only semi-literate, as “Chone” to “Shawn” is quite the stretch.

I’d also say that based on my personal experience, this sort of extreme creativity in naming seems far more common in lower-class than in middle-class blacks. I’m struggling to think of any blacks famous for something other than sports or entertainment (such as blacks in politics or the news media) with such outlandish names.

Larry G. writes:

So should we call them AfricandashAmericans?

Kristor writes:

About five years ago I was shopping for Christmas at Toys R Us, and the clerk who checked me out was a pleasant, intelligent young black girl by the name of Shitae. I am absolutely not making this up. My first impulse was to chuckle, but then, thinking what horrors she must have to endure every day of her life, my heart broke for her.

Rick U. writes:

This reminds me of a dispute in California a few years back on the teaching of “Ebonics” in the school system to help the black kids who we’re raised in the inner cities or had illiterate parents. There was a serious effort on the part of “Black Leaders” to have it institutionalized like they do with Hispanics who are raised in Spanish speaking homes. What a mess!

Here is the Wikipedia lead:

On December 18, 1996, the Oakland, Ca school board passed a controversial resolution recognizing the legitimacy of “Ebonics”—i.e. what mainstream linguists more often term African American Vernacular English—as a language. The resolution set off a maelstrom of media criticism and ignited a hotly discussed national debate.

Clark Coleman writes:

A few notes. First, the misspelling of Dwayne as Dwyane is rather famous today because of NBA star Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat. Let’s not forget former NBA stars Isiah Thomas and Micheal Ray Richardson (whose parents’ misspelling of Michael has now become commonplace).

Secondly, I believe that the uneducated lower classes tend to misspell their children’s names regardless of skin color, though not necessarily in perfect proportion to their race’s representation in the lower class. I have seen many examples among whites. I have encountered several white women in Virginia named Sheila, except that their parents spelled it Shelia.

I tend to pronounce the names as they are spelled when in private, just to highlight the absurdity: She-lie-a and Dwy-ane and Eye-Zi-ah and My-chee-al.

Finally, a sister-in-law used to work in public schools a generation ago and would report the outlandish names she encountered each year. My favorite was a little black girl named Placenta. We supposed that her mother heard the word in the hospital and thought it sounded nice. Along the same lines, I recall a football linebacker at the University of Texas at El Paso in the early 1980s with the first name Nikita. In a printed interview in Texas Football magazine, he was asked how he got such an interesting name. He said that he really did not know, that his mother said she heard it somewhere when she was pregnant with him and liked the sound of it. I looked up his birthday and realized he was born weeks after the Cuban Missile Crisis, meaning that his mother had almost certainly heard the name Nikita Krushchev on the TV or radio at the time. He was named after a Soviet dictator and neither he nor his mother even knew the details.

That brings to mind an odd practice that was prevalent among whites (and some blacks) for many generations: choosing a “Biblical name” that turns out to belong to a character who was entirely negative and sinful as portrayed in the Bible. Delilah is the most popular example, but several times (particularly when researching the family tree or reading history) I have come across an odd name, looked it up in a Bible concordance, and read the relevant passage only to discover that the character was portrayed entirely negatively. Apparently, just being a “Biblical name” was good enough for many of our ancestors.

Ben W. writes:

How about a football player at Florida State University named Mister Alexander. And that ain’t Mr. Alexander. “Mister” is really his first name, as heard on an NCAA telecast.

Joseph C. writes:

The post on orthography reminded me of a funny story.

Several years ago, a friend from Philadelphia was visiting his newborn son in the neonatal unit of The Children’s Hospital. While there, he heard two black ladies (one an orderly) remark on how a baby had a unique name—Pay-juh-mey. She said: “Ain’t that sweet. What a nice name for a boy. Pay-juh-may” When she asked my friend if that was his baby, and he replied yes, she remarked on how unique the name was. He was bemused at first, and when he asked what she was talking about, she pointed to the chart.

The nurse had marked on the baby’s chart that he needed PAJAMAS.

Shocked, the father just rolled his eyes and said,: “You’re right, ma’am. You don’t see many of those names around.”

Just another day in the world of ebonics.

Sam B. writes:

Here’s an example of a sad situation taken from many years ago when I taught English at a community college. This was a course in vocabulary building, not very challenging. The example below was from one part of their final exam that consisted of the following question:

Write a paragraph on the advantages and limitations of vocabulary building (English [course number]). At least five new words learned should be used and underlined, two of foreign derivation.

This is the student’s response. All errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. are copied from the original:

In the begening I didn’t like this class, I felt I had been subduced I had always servived on slange. I was told I had to take english I felt I was Culdersac. So I pick this class a random now I fell my Vocabulary is emortalized. I learned a great deal from this class perse. I no longer fell I came in mediocres. My vocabulary is no longer finite. People no longer fell i being Sans something. With what I have learned [?] in this class i fell I can talk to any one.

This is hilarious, but in a sad way, especially since the (black) student was well-behaved, conscientious, and turned in his work on time. Further, he did learn some new words—even if he misused most. Whether he will add them to his vocabulary is doubtful, but at least he tried.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

I just found that your African-American orthography post has grown somewhat with examples of names.

Oprah’s name is actually Orpah after Naomi’s Moabite daughter-in-law, who decided to go back to her own gods and people, unlike Ruth. It wasn’t a misspelling that caused the name change, but that people around her couldn’t pronounce the “r” before the “p” .

Strange that she kept it, and with such a normal middle name like Gail, given the mispronunciation, and the story behind the original Orpah.

LA replies:

I had thought of mentioning the Orpah/Oprah story earlier in this thread and had looked it up, but I felt it didn’t fit the pattern of creativity/low intelligence. As I see it, the biblical name Orpah is clunky sounding and Oprah is euphonious. So her family was doing the right thing when they instinctively changed it.

Deborah A. writes:

Please allow me to contribute two more unusual black names. My sister worked many years as an RN in a maternity ward and these were her favorites: Turkia, Marashino Sherie, and Latrina. The nurses tried gently to disssuade the mother from “Latrina,” but to no avail. Turkia was named in honor of the day she was born, Thanksgiving. What can you say about Marashino Cherie except that it sounds like the stage name of a burlesque dancer …

As always, thank you for the insight and wisdom of your blog.

Ron K. writes:

I’ve been working up a message on how the civilian trial of KSM can be turned to our advantage, but then you go and divert into my specialty, onomastics, so that’ll have to wait …

Yes, “Iam” and “Micheal” are the errors of marginally literate U.S. blacks, but note that the increasingly popular Irish form of “William” is in fact “Liam,” by almost the same process as in the ghetto. [LA replies: But “Liam” isn’t “Yum”!] “Micheal,” or rather “Micheál,” is indeed the Gaelic spelling of the name. It’s pronounced “me-haul.” (That sounds even more black: Me Haul Booty!)

On the other hand, if your name is something like Clarence, Walter, Bertha, Lillian, or even Lawrence, you’d almost have to have black descendants to have any hope of seeing a child named after you. Whites treat their recent ancestors as lepers as far as christening their children goes. (Say what you will about Ozzy Osbourne, he named his son after his late father.) A larger portion of the black population keeps the older names alive.

Really, whites are in no position to mock the names of blacks or anybody else. At least blacks have the excuse of weaker intellects. How do whites defend the plethora of female Madisons and Taylors (and Parises and Hillarys, boys names for thousands of years) and Mackenzies, with no connection to any of those families? And that’s just the properly spelled ones. Can you really make fun of “Micheal,” when the grotesque “Mikayla/Makayla” outnumbers the proper “Michaela” by ten to one?

With naming, as with most things intellectual, the smarter you are, the dumber you feel. Fourteen-year-old ghetto lasses have no inhibitions about coupling their favorite syllables into meaningless combinations. (As do pharmaceutical companies, for that matter.) But after thirty years of studying names, I wouldn’t dare view myself as qualified to make a new name up. Maybe something from Greek elements, perhaps, but only after examining similar cases in the past (e.g. Pamela, Ha├»dee), and then only for a literary character, not a real child.

Here’s a link to a fun Sunday-supplement piece on very odd, if thoughtful, names of real folks. When it ran in the paper, there were pictures of about half the individuals mentioned. All of them were white!

December 16

James P. writes:

Ron K. says,

Really, whites are in no position to mock the names of blacks or anybody else. At least blacks have the excuse of weaker intellects. How do whites defend the plethora of female Madisons and Taylors (and Parises and Hillarys, boys names for thousands of years) and Mackenzies, with no connection to any of those families? And that’s just the properly spelled ones. Can you really make fun of “Micheal,” when the grotesque “Mikayla/Makayla” outnumbers the proper “Michaela” by ten to one?

I agree. Worse than that, the “idiotic made-up name syndrome” is not confined to low-class whites, but also to high-income professionals. There are some truly ludicrous examples in my neighborhood. I can’t be specific for reasons of privacy—it may well be true that the poor little tots in question are the only children in America with those particular names—but suffice it to say their families are neither black nor poor. One of the names is so bad I literally cannot remember it, because it makes no sense to me as a person’s name, it is simply a collection of made-up syllables. In my neighborhood, it is always the mother who fastens the dreadful handle on the kid, no doubt thinking the name is “cute” but never seeming to realize that some day an adult man will have to answer to “Aidyn” or something of that sort. It baffles me that the fathers do not object, especially when the child is male. (Men know far better than women that other kids need litlte excuse to taunt you, and if you give your kid a crazy name you are providing the other kids with ready-made ammunition for taunting.) Fortunately my wife and I had no differences of opinion about names, but I certainly would have put my foot down if she had gotten any wacky ideas.

Perhaps there is a larger point here about low-class behaviors climbing up the social ladder, but I don’t have time to develop the argument fully.

TT writes:

I have to disagree with the commenter who suggested that the strange names are not primarily an African-American phenomena. Sure there are people from all races who choose funny names or insist on strange pronunciations of their name, but in the African-American community it is more pervasive and the names more nonsensical. One even notices it in sports now as announcers struggle to say the names with a straight face. But what is interesting is that studies have been done suggesting that people reading resumes have a negative reaction seeing one of these strange names. No doubt many quickly pass on those resumes. If the EEOC ever found out about that they sure would be in trouble! Guess the single mother having her baby on the government dole wasn’t thinking that far ahead, or could even conceive of the day when her baby child might grow up and need to get a real job.

Rick Darby writes:

Another crop of alternative names: Shamika. Momah. Kinisha.

I hadn’t realized this phenomenon was so widespread among the younger generation of blacks. It seems to be a kind of tribal symbolism. They be havin’ nothin’ to do with no white “slavemaster” names.

Alternative-universe given names might be dismissed as just a fad, like the biblical names so popular among whites 25 years ago. But combined with other evidence, like the video you posted yesterday, it’s too clear that we have a broken and alienated subculture in our midst.

That’s not inevitable, I think. Consider the black population 60 or 70 years ago, when many were actually oppressed and discriminated against. You look at them in photographs, and the majority were very decently dressed and apparently able to behave themselves. Black actors in movies of the time—not a representative sample, obviously, but still—spoke in no more than a regional variant of standard English.

Something has happened to change a poor and uneducated but generally decent black population into one with a huge dysfunctional component.

Hannon writes:

The comment by TT reminded me of an axiom of sorts I heard years ago. It says that people with stronger names such as Elizabeth, Richard, Katherine, William, Robert, etc., statistically tend to end up in better positions financially and socially. They are the bankers, doctors and entrepreneurs.

People with unconventional names like Ethan, Zoe, Lillian, Julian, Loren, etc., tend to migrate into unorthodox careers that seem to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of their names: kite designer, museum specialist, art restorationist, etc. And those with common everyday names like Mike, Jeff, Joe, Mary, and so on may be expected to turn up in the most common positions available, as in retail sales, city administration, blue collar labor and so forth.

LA replies:

And people with names like Lordtyshon and Mareshino Cherie tend to end up in the clink or on the dole.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 14, 2009 02:38 PM | Send

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