Life With a Name Constantly Mispronounced

awnreehuh? Could you repeat that for me please?” That was my mom’s exact reaction when my dad presented my birth certificate for her release from the hospital when I was born. When my mom read my name on the document she asked my dad: “What kind of name is this? I can’t even read it.” He briefly answered that it was a French name without being aware that it could also be found in other non speaking French countries like Germany or Denmark where its pronunciation was different. Then my dad slowly broke down my name into syllables for my mom to hear it: awn-ree-ET. That’s right. My name is Henriette.

My mom holding me when I was about nine months old

It was very unusual for that time and place for a child to have a foreign name. It seemed that I managed to slip through the system’s cracks because a few years later the law got very strict about parents naming their children foreign names. My dad was actually very proud of my name. He tried to convince my mom that Henriette was going to distinguish and make me stand out from other children. It was a wonderful idea. However, it had not always worked that way.

My mom got extremely upset and firmly told my dad that she did not care what my official name was going to be. She would call me Anca. Anca was a simple and adorable Romanian name with variations suitable for a girl of any age. I believe it can still be found somewhere in the history books. As a result, everyone in my immediate family started calling me Anca from the beginning of my life. It didn’t seem to bother my dad who also caIled me Anca until the end of his life. I find it odd that none of them called me Henriette. I could not understand however, if my parents needed more than nine months to find and agree on their new baby’s name.

It is not a secret that I was the result of an unexpected pregnancy and a law that made abortion and contraception illegal for most of the women. My mom did not fall in the allowed categories. My parents already had two grown up children when I was born. Another child would make their lives more difficult than they had already been.

Forty – some years later, my sister decided to tell me that I was supposed to be a miscarriage and turned in my mother’s womb. Despite all these unforeseen obstacles, I still insisted to come into this world. Maybe these were warning signals to let me know that my life was going to be anything but easy. Luckily, I was a child my parents had never regretted having.20170612_182607-1

The pronunciation of my “French” name had been my life’s nightmare from the beginning. Almost every person I knew in Romania had trouble saying it because female Romanian names starting with letter “H” were very rare. People would start reading it beginning with “H”, how you would normally read a name in Romanian, instead of keeping the letter silent like in the French language that my parents insisted on using for my name. Reading letter “H” sounded like the screeching noise the needle of an old record player was making on a broken record.

Almost all female Romanian names end in letter “a”. The trouble with mine was that it ended in “tte” which people also read letter-by-letter as you read a Romanian name. I hated the name Henriette. It felt very awkward for me to correct adults in official business such as doctors or government officials because of the sound of the silent “H” that went with my name. Some found it charming. Others paid no mind to it. All the people that were close to me called me Anca.

I am sure you are wondering how I “acquired” such a name. The only woman known in Romanian culture to have a similar name was the sister of the reputable poet, Eminescu, that is considered a national figure in Romania. However, her name was written differently. Even though it started with “H” it ended with “a” which made its reading much easier. You may say it was the Romanian version of my name. Her name was Henrieta. So, there were no pronunciation issues there.

Some people that could not pronounce my name called me this way when it was very clear that they were two completely different spellings. And to be even meaner, people were associating Henriette with the male name, Henry. I can’t tell you how many times people called me Henry when it was pretty obvious I was the female version of Henry.

This is the story my mom told me how my name came about.

My mom somehow felt she was going to have a girl but did not know what to name her. A lady she worked with suggested Anca. My mom liked this name. It is my understanding that both my parents agreed on naming me Anca.

My sister came up unexpectedly with my French name at the last minute when my mom was still in the hospital. My father liked it, too. This is what happens when your sister insists on taking private French lessons. She even named my first doll, Françoise, that is also a French name. She was trying very hard to keep up with some of her classmates that were also studying the French language.

My parents could barely make ends meet yet they were paying for her French lessons. My brother and I got pretty upset with my mother later on because she could have done a lot for us with the money she had spent on my sister’s lessons. That’s how my mom was. She thought that the only way to make her children happy was one at the time and in the order which they were born. Being at more than a decade distance from my sister and brother it is easy to imagine that there wasn’t much happiness left for me. Nevertheless, my sister never had any use for French later in life.

For many centuries, French was the language of nobility and high education in many European countries including Romania. French and Romanian are both Romance languages. The French language influenced the culture and the way of life in Romania at the turn of the 20th century. A lot of writers, painters, and sculptors used French names to fit well with the French artists they met when they studied in Paris. My father, who came from a very poor background, loved the idea of education and emphasized it with his children the best he knew how. He believed that education was the only thing that was going to guarantee us a better future.

I had no idea what my real name was until I was six years old and ready to start school. That was when things started to get complicated. It is not difficult to guess why. The night before my first day of school, my mom tried to explain to me that when the teacher was going to take roll she would have to call me Henriette. Then she started to pronounce it for me because I needed to learn how to say it. She was not very good at French in school. She sounded completely off and almost amusing. I got so confused and said to her: “You can’t be serious. Why did you change my name? I like being called “Anca“. Then my sister taught me how to say my name correctly. That was when I found out that was her idea to name me Henriette.

The next day, I was afraid the teacher might also encounter the pronunciation issue. Guess what? I was right. She had trouble calling my name. When I said it aloud the kids in class started laughing. That was the beginning of the most difficult task of my life. I had no idea how much extra work I had to do just to “educate” people how to say Henriette in French. Only a few teachers that were familiar with the French language were able to say it without me making corrections. Every time I had the French class, I felt such a relief. One less teacher to teach. This was the only time I felt that my name and I belonged together. Thank you, French teachers!

When people called me Anca I felt “normal”. I can’t express how embarrassed I was every time I tried to explain that Anca was not my real name. I sounded something like this: “My real name is Henriette but you can call me Anca“. Every time I had to correct someone I felt like I was trying too hard to explain my parents’ name choice, excuse myself for having an unusual name, and make it easier for people to be able to call me something. I guess I wasn’t strong enough to say to them: “Henriette is my name whether you agree with it or not.” Unfortunately, there were different times and different attitudes.

Many people felt disappointed because they expected a connection between the two names. Almost every kid I knew along with a few adults found it funny to pronounce my name, were making jokes, and called me in the most ridiculous ways. Also, they found it humorous that my parents had very simple original Romanian names and dared to name their child a foreign name.

A couple of years ago, I called a friend from Romania. The connection was pretty bad that she couldn’t hear who I was. I said: “You know me. I am Henriette.” Then she said: “Of course, I remember you. How many people do I know that go by that name?” I didn’t exactly know how to feel about her remark. I would like to think that she wasn’t ridiculing me and tried to say: “You are one of a kind. How can I forget you?”

The name issue doesn’t bother me as much anymore. When I moved to the United States I could not pronounce my own name in English. This time, twenty some years later, I was still learning how to say my name. Some people change their names when they move here to sound more English.

Maybe there are people out there that are saying that swinging between two names is not a big deal. I would agree if at least the names were somehow connected such as “Suzy” and “Suzanne”. Maybe my dad and my sister were a bit ahead of their times. All I know is that they placed a heavy weight on me every time I had to defend my name no matter what country I happened to live in.

My parents are not around anymore. I don’t keep in touch with people I knew in Romania. I finally find my identity when I came to the United States. I knew I would always be Anca for my mom. However, it took me over 25 years to get my birth name reinstated. The English version of Henriette reads letter “H”, my dear old Romanian acquaintances. Now, you can go ahead and read it unless you insist on calling me the French version. Either way, just don’t go over “tte”. I guess some things will never be as you would like them to be.

The only people still calling me Anca are my sister and my brother. We are not very close, though. So, I don’t hear Anca that often. What would I do here in the United States if I changed my name to the Romanian name Anca? I would probably have to teach people how to say it correctly because it was considered a foreign name or change it back to Henriette. Maybe one day when I visit France my name will finally become music to my ears as originally intended. Until then my name will sound h-EH-n-r-ee-EH-T.

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Photos: my own

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