Learning to Pronounce My Last Name
Updated: Mar 9
Depending on the particular point in my life I have felt more Filipino or more American. As a child, being Filipino was central to my young existence. Our food, our family lore, our culture, all emanated from this this country - this collection of islands - suspended in the Pacific Ocean.
“Do you ever go home?”
Upon finding out that I was Filipino, a fellow-Filipino might ask: “Do you ever go home?” Other times I was tested on my ability to speak Tagalog; the language which my parents used to speak to each other about serious subjects.
It was spoken on the expensive phone calls to our extended family who shared news of joy, and of sorrow. Even though it wasn’t my mother-tongue, it felt like the mother-tongue. I always thought that I would learn it eventually; and that all of the fragments that were floating in my mind, would someday fit together like a jigsaw puzzle that was finally solved.
I imagined that speaking Tagalog would strengthen my connection to home, but over the years I came to realize that it wouldn’t be so easy.
Bulaklak. Kami. Tayo. Sila. Huwag. Gatas. Tubig. Anak-ko. Kanin. Bahay. Balik. Nakatira. Na-saan. Kanta. Sayaw.
Flower. We (inclusive). We (exclusive).
They. Don’t. Milk. Water. My child.
Steamed rice. House.
To return. To live.
Aside from the lexicon which has absorbed words from the languages of the powers that subjected The Philippines to colonization (Spanish from Spain and English from The United States), I realize that it doesn’t have much in common with other languages I have studied. As fluent Tagalog remains beyond my reach I rely on the things I do know how to say, filling in the gaps with words in the American English equivalent. I focus on pronunciation.
As early as I can remember my parents used a certain pronunciation for our last name: Alampay. We were the A-LAHM-pay family (the final syllable rhyming with the word “day”). My parents were raising three children in Southern California, and chose to use a pronunciation that seemed more phonetically similar to how the name might appear to someone with no familiarity with Tagalog. When they spoke to fellow-Filipinos, however, they introduced themselves with the standard Filipino pronunciation: “A-lam-PIE” (the final syllable rhyming with the word “eye”). As children we were aware that a concession was being made. We knew when we were A-LAHM-pays and when we were A-lam-PIES. We recognized that our parents made this decision in order to smooth over the bumps we might face.
I knew that purposely mis-pronouncing my name for over a decade,
would leave a permanent mark.
When I was a teenager, some cousins in my mother’s home province of Zambales observed that I wasn’t saying my last name correctly. Hearing this did not come as a surprise to me at all. Although I didn’t say anything at the time, I knew that purposely mis-pronouncing my name for over a decade, would leave a permanent mark. I had slowly grown to love languages through my exposure to fellow-immigrant families, the languages they spoke, and the European pop music that my mother played in her car as we drove around town. I felt like a student of every language. Including English.
Despite English being my mother-tongue, people have remarked on the way that I speak. Some have noticed that I pronounce the word “aunt” as “ont” and not like the insect “ant”. Others have noticed that I pronounce the ‘l’ in “salmon”. I’ve been told, over the years, that I sound like I have a “Canadian” or a “Minnesotan” accent. More than once I’ve been told, “Yeah, like the movie Fargo” a film set in the northern U.S. states of Minnesota and North Dakota. It is worth noting that I’ve never heard any of those comments from people actually from any of those places.
Fellow-Americans have asked me where I grew up, and are surprised when I respond that I was born in San Francisco, and that I grew up in Southern California. A Californian through and through; yet, they notice my accent. To them, I didn’t sound the way a Californian was supposed to sound.
My father passed away during my final year of high school.
It was an excruciating time for all of us.
I inexplicably stopped wearing a watch.
Over time I grew intolerant of the altered pronunciation of my name; of his name.
I didn’t want to make anything easier for anyone.
Few people who meet me today know that my entire family of origin pronounced our last name as “A-LAHM-pay, rather than “A-lam-PIE” for at least my entire childhood. Years went by, and I accepted the notion that this is what you did when you moved to America: you made things easier for Americans. And if things were easier for “Americans”, they would, in turn, become easier for you.
My father passed away during my final year of high school. It was an excruciating time for all of us. I inexplicably stopped wearing a watch. Over time I grew intolerant of the altered pronunciation of my name; of his name. I didn’t want to make anything easier for anyone.
I don’t think it was until I was in college, at 18 years old, or perhaps even graduate school, at 22, when I moved to Belgium, and could really start from scratch, that I decided that I would no longer call myself Jessica A-LAHM-pay. Perhaps it had made things easier for us all, 20 years prior, but as I came into my own, it became more important for me to wear my name, without any veil to obscure it.
I began to learn to introduce myself in this new way. In every setting I was the same: Jessica Alampay. It takes effort. I still second guess how I say it. I began to regularly remember a high school classmate who used to rhyme it with apple pie. Sometimes I mouth the word “apple pie” to myself. An occasional reflex. As American as apple pie.
For so many of us, whether immigrants, or their descendants,
this may have been one of the easier compromises,
amongst the many other difficult ones.
I don’t judge my parents for converting our name into something that was easier for non-Filipinos to pronounce. Anglicizing one’s name in the United States can be like a right of passage. For so many of us, whether immigrants, or their descendants, this may have been one of the easier compromises, amongst the many other difficult ones.
By the time I began working in the field of college-level international education, I encouraged my students who arrived from all over the world, as well as those who were born a couple of blocks away, to teach their professors and their friends how to say their names. I encouraged them to give people a chance.
I would memorize and practice the name given by their parents. And for those who would select a different name to use to introduce themselves to America, I would learn that too. I would sometimes tell students that their name was the first word that a new acquaintance might learn in that language. I wanted to lead the way and demonstrate that for an American, making an effort at pronouncing a name was a tangible step in their direction. For me, it symbolized the extension of my hand, an act of respect for the immense effort that they were making to come and study in the United States. I also wanted to recruit new allies into my quiet fight to have people be embraced, despite the extra effort it might take.
Although I still believe this, I know that this insistence works well for some people, but not for others.
Our children seem at home with various languages
swirling around them -
it motivates them; and occasionally,
sometimes humbly, sometimes not so humbly,
they take pride in knowing more than we do.
At home, in Italy, for the time being, my husband and children, and I, tease each other about how any one of us pronounces words in Spanish, Italian, English, or Tagalog. When I'm tired or have become exasperated - as parents sometimes do - I won't even try to say their names with the proper accent. Our children seem at home with various languages swirling around them - it motivates them; and occasionally, sometimes humbly, sometimes not so humbly, they take pride in knowing more than we do.
They understand that language plays a role in drawing people closer together. In building bridges. In the formation of identity. Of belonging.
Responsible for their Filipino heritage, I wring out every last Tagalog word that I know to satisfy their curiosity, and to reinforce their connection to my family's home.
I have kept my last name,
and have passed it down to each of my children,
according to a Filipino custom.
It rests between their given name, and their father’s last name. It is written in ink.
I have kept my last name, and have passed it down to each of my children, according to a Filipino custom. It rests between their given name, and their father’s last name. It is written in ink.
To my ears, my husband’s pronunciation more closely resembles its true pronunciation, than my own. The similarities in the phonetics of Tagalog and Spanish give him an advantage, that I, as an English-speaker, don’t have.
He calls me “Alampay” quite frequently; it is an affectionate address. And each time, even though I’ve never told him, I am relieved that our children can hear their middle name pronounced better, perhaps, than I could pronounce it myself.