My name is Liisa.
It’s a great name that I love, but not one I write down very often.
I noticed at a young age that both of my parents often replaced their first names with initials when writing things. I asked why this was.
My mother said it was so her gender would not be immediately discernible and nor would her country of origin. It was easier to blend in. There was also the fact that her Finnish first name is extremely difficult for monolingual English speakers in New Zealand.
My father, having a perfectly ordinary English name that gives him no trouble in New Zealand, said it was quicker and easier and didn’t give away unnecessary information.
Here we come to, in my opinion, a huge cultural difference. Growing up in New Zealand we were told at home and at school, again and again, to never, ever, under any circumstances, give out any personal information. Never give your full name or address, never answer the phone with your name, never put your surname on your letterbox.
(For those of you unfamiliar with the letterbox issue, the problem is that with a name on the box it gives a passerby both your name and address. They could then look you up in the phone book and give you a ring. If you were out and didn’t answer [this was a time before mobile phones and the internet] they’d come round and break in).
Now living in Finland, the opposite is expected of me. Everywhere I go I am required to give out my full name, address, phone number and social security number. At times I find it very difficult to conform to this information giveaway, but I try my best.
I remind myself that here in Finland I know very few victims of crime and don’t know anyone that has had their home broken into, ever. In New Zealand, I don’t think I know anyone that hasn’t had at least their car broken into, and in a lot of cases also their homes and businesses.
For me, what is a safety issue is to Finns a politeness issue. I am considered to be very rude, and perhaps hiding something, when I don’t feel comfortable giving out all of my personal information.
In English it is quite acceptable to replace your first names with initials (e.g. J.K. Rowling, T.S. Eliot, A.A. Milne), but in Finland it is mostly frowned upon.
As a child, I was fascinated by the fact that when using only my initials my gender would become unapparent. For this reason I signed most of my work in this form. I continued in this fashion throughout my teens and along the way collected other reasons to add to my appreciation of initials.
‘Liisa’ is a surprisingly difficult name to have in an English speaking country. Even now, Word is telling me that I have spelled my own name wrong. It suggests ‘Lisa’ and ‘Liza’ instead.
I have on one occasion, in the pre-internet world, been asked if I have spelled my own name wrong. In cold, hard ink.
I can appreciate that in the English language two consecutive ‘i’s is rather a rare occurrence. I can expect my name to be written as ‘Lisa’ or ‘Lissa’.
To be fair, ‘Lissa’ is really quite a logical deduction and it explains why this is one of the commonest spellings I have received of my name. People acknowledge that there is an extra letter in the middle of my name, and while two ‘i’s is odd and rare, two consecutive ‘s’s is perfectly feasible and common in the English language.
In addition to the fact that as a child I rarely had my name spelled correctly, in my early teens I was alerted to another issue. A teacher at school came to ask me if this was indeed the correct spelling for my name. I answered that it was and added that it is the Finnish spelling.
“Oh! It’s a foreign name! I thought your parents were just trying to be artistic or something!”
Now to be honest this really is a fair assumption, although the comment certainly made an impact as the thought hadn’t previously occurred to me. In New Zealand, there is nothing about me that says ‘foreigner’, I do not look foreign (if there is such a thing in New Zealand) and I don’t speak with an accent, there is no reason to assume that I have any other cultural connections. At the time I also had an ordinary English surname.
So is this what people are really thinking? I believe it’s safe to say that most of us attach rather negative connotations to unnecessary creative name spelling.
What does a prospective employer think when he comes across a CV from Jaycyn or Phaleighshia? Granted this says more about the parents than the person carrying the name, we still make assumptions about the way they may have been raised.
In Finland, I experience similar problems. I do not look foreign and I don’t speak with an accent and I now have a full Finnish name. There is no reason to think that I am anything other than born and bred.
This of course leaves me desperately trying to explain my foreign background whenever I make a cultural faux pas.
For some reason, the fact that I could be foreign seems so implausible that I have on several occasions been asked, when speaking my own native English to my children, if my husband is from England?
On other occasions I have heard rather loud comments behind my back about that ordinary Finnish woman trying to be better than the rest of us by speaking English to her children.
As much as it annoys me, I have to admit I make just as many assumptions as everybody else. I see what I assume to be Finnish people giving their children foreign names and/or odd spelling and find it weird and uncomfortable. But these are just assumptions, how do I know what cultural connections these people have?
In terms of pronunciation, initials are great. As long as the letters are from the English alphabet, as they are in my case, they are then easily pronounced in English.
So how is ‘Liisa’ supposed to be pronounced? I personally consider my name to have two correct pronunciations. The way my mother says it and the way my father says it.
In English my name is said the same way as ‘Lisa’. In Finnish, in addition to some minor phonetic differences, it essentially has a longer vowel sound. I choose pronunciation based on the language I am speaking at the time.
At school in New Zealand, while my name was mostly said as ‘Lisa’, I was over the years called a wide variety of names from ‘Liza’ to ‘Elly’.
I recall one teacher that told me my name was simply unpronounceable and that she’ll just call me ‘Lizzy’ instead.
There is also a cultural aspect to my name. While English names rarely tell you much of their specific origins, Finnish names are instantly distinguishable as Finnish and their bearers will be thought of as Finnish.
While this is fine, I am also a Kiwi, despite my not being able to express this with my name. Using initials in place of my first names leaves the possibility that my names are perhaps foreign (i.e. non-Finnish), which would explain both my cultural oddities and my good command of the English language.
But of course, when in Rome… in Finland I endeavor to use my full name in all appropriate situations. In English, I prefer initials!
What do you think? What conclusions do people draw from your name?
Are initials a great alternative or are they secretive and unnecessary?
Image: Creator unknown, image source