Friday 11 February 2011

Chuka Umunna

When I first noticed the name of the up-and-coming British politician Chuka Umunna I fired off an email to him to ask him how he preferred his name to be pronounced. I got a brief acknowledgement promising a reply in a few days — but then nothing more.

Now, through the good graces of the BBC Pronunciation Unit (thanks, Martha Figueroa-Clark), I can reveal that he is ˈtʃʊkə ʊˈmʊnə . He has confirmed that this is the correct pronunciation of his name.

Chuka Umunna grew up in Streatham, south London, and is of mixed English, Nigerian and Irish descent. He is also well-connected, being the grandson of a High Court judge — Sir Helenus Milmo, who played a leading role in the Nuremberg trials — and the nephew of a leading libel lawyer, Patrick Milmo. He was elected as the MP for Streatham in the 2010 general election.

Martha tells me that the chap who handles Mr Umunna’s media enquiries says that a lot of people (unsurprisingly) do not know how to pronounce his name, and may attempt to give it a non-English-sounding pronunciation.

(I think the name Umunna is of Igbo origin. In that language it is presumably pronounced [umũna], with tones that I cannot guess at. If I am right, the first of the two letters n indicates the nasalization of the preceding vowel in Igbo, not gemination of a nasal consonant.)

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  1. Thankyou, John, for relieving my curiosity about this name. I'm afraid that the monoglot anglophone majority of us are likely to adapt its sounds to something more harmonious with our anglo Sprachgefühl and/or our notions of what the spelling sez to us and to come out with something more like /ˈʧuːkə (j)uː`mᴧnə/. I'm additionally relieved to gather from what you say that the name's possessor won't be getting hot under the collar about how he hears it attempted. And I have to confess to being amused by Mr Huntley's fear that "a lot of people ... may attempt to give it a non-English-sounding [sic] pronunciation". My mind's ear boggles.

  2. JWL - so we're damned if we do and damned if we don't! :) After all, if you don't know the man's name - as I didn't until today - you have to guess something; and it's got to be either more "English-sounding" or more "non-English-sounding".

    What are we to do?

  3. JWL: I think you'd have to be very Anglo-centric to pronounce his surname /juː'mᴧnə/. The most obvious 'non-English' pronunciation, which I imagine most people would guess without knowing it's Igbo, is /ʊˈmʊna/ or /uːˈmʊna/.

  4. In light of JWL's comment on Sprachgefühl, I have to say that the initial unstressed [ʊ] isn't something that rolls off my tongue. My intuitive guess (being unfamiliar with, say, Igbo nasalization) would be [ˈtʃuːkə uːˈmʊnə].

  5. [ˈtʃuːkəruːˈmʊnə], surely?

  6. Names of African origin can be confusing. I once said to a chap at work, "Can I ask your name?", to which he replied, "You can do", leaving me baffled. Turns out his name was Ukandu.

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