What’s in a name? Or rather, the accent that goes into its making? A little squiggle can say so much.
The family tree creation website I am a member of, notified me that I had received a message. Checking my inbox, I saw that the email had come from someone with an impressively hyphenated surname, its many syllables redolent of nineteenth century colonial literature where such elaborate appellations were markers of aristocratic marriage alliances between suitably matched houses. Intrigued, I opened the electronic missive expecting a reconnection with a long lost relative with an illustrious past. Alas, the message, shorter even than the name of its sender, made up in temerity what it lacked in length. “It should be Ferrão”, my would-be patrician relative informed (nose turned up in the air, I imagined), referring to my online rendering of my last name sans tilde.
I shall come to reveal the secret of the missing accent soon, but permit me a while to reminisce about my personal acquaintance with that little squiggle that adorns my name. When I was eight, in preparation for sending me off to boarding school in India, my parents labelled all my things with my name. Though they said it was to protect against theft, it was perhaps their way of reminding me that they were still with me, despite the distance. At school, I would often look at the indelible ink on the inside of my shirt collars and recall my dad’s efforts. His oldest sister, who had dropped by to see me off, decided to stay and help my parents out. Entrusted with writing my own name in the books that I would be taking to school, I busied myself with the task, careful not to make a mistake while trying to impress my aunt who was watching my penmanship.
“You missed something”. I looked up quizzically. Relieving me of book and pen, my aunt added the little wavy line above our family name. “There”, she announced. “Now, you’re done”. Although I had seen the curlicue mark before, it had never dawned on me that it was actually part of my name. It certainly hadn’t been covered in cursive writing class. “What is it?” I enquired of my aunt. “It’s called a tilde”, she explained, “and when you see it over the letter ‘a’ which is next to an ‘o’, you know you have to say those two letters together through your nose. Like this”. She demonstrated, and I laughed at the funny sound she made. I had met my tilde for the first time and I decided that I liked the miniscule chap.
For Goans, especially those with a Catholic heritage residing outside Goa, it is not an uncommon experience to encounter folks who wonder at the seeming disjunction between the colour of our skin and the Europeanness of our names. And yet, even Iberian culture is not without its own miscegeny, what with the over seven century presence of the Moors on the peninsula resulting in such monikers as Almodôvar and Fátima, among others. Nonetheless, Goan names are exactly that. Even as these names may have their roots in histories of colonialism and conversion, in the same way that Goans have adapted Catholicism in uniquely local ways, so too have Portuguese names come to signify endemically Goan culture. For instance, in Goa, when one hears the name ‘Vasco’, it hardly conjures up the plume-hatted European navigator of José Veloso Salgado’s 1898 painting, Vasco da Gama perante o Samorim.
The worldwide ubiquity of the English language has meant that, for many, the skill of vocalizing the nasalized sounds so common in Portuguese is one that takes practice. In turn, this has manifested in the dropping of diacritical marks in the written version of once-sonorous Portuguese words and names, out of convenience and custom. But I would argue that Anglicization has also influenced technology. And to illustrate my point, I must come now to my confession of how I lost my tilde. To my interlocutor, the one who wrote to enquire after my missing online accent, know that it was not misplaced and that I have been aware of its place in my name for some time now. Rather, its disappearance was due to the fact that I am a luddite. I did not know how to use my computer’s keyboard to bend into shape the 451 years of Portuguese colonization that produced the squiggle that my Goan family proudly made its own.
From The Goan.