All in a Jhon, the Name

¨It is John, not Juan¨(Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

“It’s John, not Juan” he snapped at me. Oops, I goofed. I knew the name was John. I heard it too, but somehow in my mind it had shifted to Juan. Maybe it was because I was speaking Spanish.

Anyway, I quickly proposed a defense. “They are the same name. Juan is just Spanish while John is English. No big deal.”

He looked at me like I had just told him a skunk was the same thing as his house cat.

To my good luck, we were interrupted then and did not get to return to the theme. But this issue of Juan and John sticks in my mind.

Maybe you are like me and in Spanish class learned the translation for all those English names. If you were Joe you became Jose, Fred Federico, George Jorge, and so on. My name kept its spelling but changed pronunciation. It became Dah-véed.

Still when I came to South America, I learned really fast that almost no one would call me that, They called me Day-vid.

Like it or not my name always announced my origins in English-speaking lands, both as a race-ethnicity and as a nationality. There is nothing I can do. No matter how well I speak Spanish, most people will see me and assume I can only be Day-vid and never Dah-véed.

A wrinkle has folded the face of Latin America, however. No longer is it the way it has always seemed to me. I am still Day-vid, but men around me are seldom Juan, Jorge, Guillermo, and such. Instead, they are now Jason, Joel, John, Richard, William, George, and so on. English names have been all the rage among parents for more than a generation, now, for men and women.

In their case, though not mine, the names seem to have lost the ethnic-racial affiliation and have become associated with something more akin to contemporary, modern, cool.

As a result, when I slipped and named John, Juan, I was called on it. Juan was backward and you could never call John that with his stylish hair cut, work in an NGO, and interest in global art.

Once it was only Royalty who could hold a name that would be translated wherever they went. I mean Queen Elizabeth is still la Reina Isabel here, and her grandson Prince William, is el Príncipe Guillermo. But that had and still has to some degree to do, with the traditions of a European cast of Royals who could rule any country and any language in Christendom. They, like God, were / are universal.

Since a global society is developing, people want to be part of that, they want to be part of the universal, with its sense of status and legitimacy. Juan is local while John is everywhere.

However, something strange happens that undercuts all that with the name John. People in Cuzco pronounce it like in English, but almost never spell it the way I did. Instead the spell it Jhon. They, along with the people of Bolivia, reverse the o and the h to create something different.

This is not the only name for which this happens. Many names get localized. Mine often gets spelled Deivid, which is how Day-vid sounds to them given their sense of phonetics from Spanish. The pronunciation, furthermore, is never the same as an English speaker would give it.

As a result people reach for the universal, for themselves and their children, but end up in a new local form. They never quite made it.

Many times I have wondered why the switch of o and h in John. I think part of it is the problem of pronouncing a j in Spanish, where it sounds like a forceful h, or a kind of y, depending on whether people re consciously making it sound foreign to them.

In the Andes when they look to how to modify the established writing system to accommodate sounds from another language, they already have a model from the way the Spanish tried to accommodate Quechua and Aymara, the native languages most spoken here.

There the h plays the role of modifying a consonant. It makes it an aspirated consonant, although such is never necessary with the j in those languages. But thinking this way, you give the j as y more force and aspiration and it seems to become a forceful ch. I think that is how people hear the English J.

Really, though, I have no idea. I just know many Jhons and always have to keep from trying to correct them on the spelling of their name. And, my name will often be Deivid, because David is the spelling for the Spanish pronunciation.

But still, like an old dog trying to learn new tricks, I make mistakes. Sometimes, even when I know better, I mangle people’s names. This new world of universals with their own, varied, localisms challenges me.

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