What's in a name? Introducing yourself in academia

Having an unusual, foreign or difficult-to-say name can present challenges in UK academia, says Marta Natalia Wróblewska

July 19, 2016
name unusal
Source: istock
Certain names can prove tricky in academia where the lingua franca is English, says PhD student Marta Natalia Wroblewska

So, what’s your name?

It’s Marta.
Oh, Magda! I have a friend…
No, that would be another popular Polish name. But mine is Marta.
Manga? Well that sounds Japanese!
No, actually it’s Marta. M-A-R-T-A
Oh! Ma-ta!
You know what? Just call me Martha.

…and that’s even before we get to my last name: Wróblewska (oh God, how to pronounce the "w"? what’s that weird slash above "o" – maybe it’s an accent?).

Despite these small phonetical complications, I still consider myself lucky name-wise.

Think of Jakub Błaszczykowski – when he scored in Euro 2016 people were tweeting: “He will never trend on Twitter as only 7 people know how to spell his name.” And the man is a football player, so just imagine what the chances for an academic would be. I would guess…nil.

In today’s globalised academia, with English as the lingua franca, the simple act of introducing yourself might be the first big challenge. I thought my European five-letter name would be entirely unproblematic, but it proved to be a bit trickier than that.

All this "onomastic trouble" got me thinking (hey, after all, I am training to be a discourse analyst).

In conclusion, I came up with strategies of coping. The first one would be to “translate” your name to a local equivalent. This works with most European names, which used to be the names of saints. For instance, Marta translates to Martha, Jerzy to George, the uber-popular Polish Wojciech would be Adalbert, and the Russian Ivan is actually John. Easy-peasy, right?

As a second option, you can take on an additional name of your own choice – so for instance 王勇 (Wang Yong) can decide to call himself Robert or something more extravagant such as Ronaldo. Some people opt to use their last names as first names, shorten their name to a more pronounceable form and remove problematic diacritical signs which are not to be easily found on most keyboards (such as German umlauts).

Finally, the last option is to stick to your own name and enjoy explaining its pronunciation over and over again. This strategy leads to awkward conversations like the one quoted above. Quite often people end up being called something that is not their name, or any name, for that matter.

That notwithstanding, I think it’s still the best choice for “political” reasons. As it was pointed out in a blog on a similar topic, Brits and Americans rarely change their names to local ones when they go overseas. A name is a very personal thing, so it’s nice to keep your own.

Any way you decide to go, if you want to stay in academia, you should make your choice wisely and hang on to it. As the Polish saying goes: “Half your life you work for your name, and the other half…your name works for you”.

Marta Natalia Wróblewska is a second-year PhD  student at the University of Warwick's Centre for Applied Linguistics. This piece first appeared on Warwick's PhD Life blog.

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