I suffer a chalk-on-a-blackboard spasm every time I hear NPR reporter Michele Norris pronounce her first name as “MEE-shell.” The correct pronunciation is Mee-SHELL (with that delicate French inflection on the second syllable) or Mis-SHELL. I literally wince when I’m driving in the car and Norris comes on and says her name. She doesn’t just emphasize the “MEE” — she revels in it. I’ve been to France many times and I worship the language, and Norris’s mispronunciation, I feel, smacks of cultural arrogance.
I complained about this nearly three years ago, but I didn’t offer what seems like a logical analysis. MEE-shell plus the re-spelling of Antoine as “Antwone” (as in Denzel Washington‘s Antwone Fisher) suggests that this is an African-American cultural thing. They’re don’t want to roll with the French (in these two instances, at least) and have a need to colloquialize and make it their own.
Can you imagine the furor if some Anglo TV or radio journalist did the same? What if a TV anchor named Enrique Phillips (having had a Latino mother, let’s say) decided to pronounce his first name “Enricky”? Or if a TV journalist narrating a documentary about Emiliano Zapata pronounced the Mexican revolutionary’s first name as “Eh-MILLY-yano” instead of the correct “Aymeeyahno”? People would pounce and say “show some respect to the Spanish language,” etc. But Michele Norris gets to mangle her first name because she’s African-American and is therefore allowed to “street” her name down any way she chooses.
Go ahead and pounce on me for this, but I have the high ground here. However your name is pronounced in the culture that spawned it, say it that way. If your name is Marcello Mastroianni, you absolutely must pronounce it as “MarCHELLo MahstroyANNI”….period.
Update: Here’s an excerpt from a Skanner interview with Michelle Norris:
Kam Williams: “Attorney Bernadette Beekman says, ‘I always wondered about the pronunciation of her name. [‘Mee-shell’] Why the emphasis on the first syllable?”
Michele Norris: “I don’t exactly quite know why my father stepped on the first syllable like that, but I proudly honor him now by insisting that people pronounce it the way that he did.”
So her father, Belvin Norris, Jr., is the culprit. Michele was born in 1961. She was four when Paul McCartney‘s “Michele” came out in late ’65, so I’m guessing that’s where her father got the idea, thinking that if it was good enough for the Beatles, etc. Maybe. That or he just decided to create his own sound. If Belvin had been to Paris (which I doubt) he would’ve pronounced it differently, I imagine. Or perhaps not. I know that if my father had decided to address me as “Jeef” or “Jefferoon” when I was a kid, you can bet I would have blown that off and come up with my own pronunciation.