A question of names

I wanted to write about names and their spelling since a post by Michael S. Kaplan but for a reason or another I postponed it till now. I decided to return on this topic since, for the whole day at the hospital up to now, my name was regularly misspelled, and considering I am not even hitting problems with “foreign” names here, it makes me quite upset sincerely, as it’s all due to the way software has been written.

As you most likely know if you read my blog, wherever this happens, is that my name is Diego Pettenò (well, this is not going to be technically right in a few months but that’s another point altogether). You can see there is something “funny” on the final “o” of my surname. If you’re American, you might not know that’s called an “accent”, and it gives the proper way to pronounce the name. I guess one of the reasons English is considered easier than French, Italian and Spanish is that it lacks accents.

What is the problem? As the computers used nowadays seems all to derive from some English based design, they base themselves still on the ASCII table, the ASCII table makes it very difficult to handle special characters, which include “ò”. On some systems, like the credit card system for what I can tell, this is handled by replacing the accent with a quotation mark, making my name Diego Petteno’; not exactly my name but it comes closer than “Diego Petteno” that many other systems use; this is especially boring because “Petteno” (with no accent) is a different surname in this area, so I make it a point to distinguish between the two.

It is even worse when you go away from the Venice area, where both surnames are quite common, and enter Verona area, where at least Pettenò is not; I’ve been called Petteno all day, and I’m not liking it. And this is staying in the same country, actually the same region. I don’t even want to know how people whose main alphabet is not the latin one feel about this, with forms to be compiled with an approximation of their actual name.

I’m always signing up with my full proper name when I can, but a few times I’ve been asked to remove “non-letters” from my surname, and the scary thing is that this seems to happen more often with Italian sites rather than American ones, lately. It is not possible, for instance, to issue a wire transfer to “Diego Pettenò”, you have to round it down to “Diego Petteno”, even when using SEPA (Single Euro Payment Area, which means a global “namespace” for wire transfer in the Euro Area; note that European languages are quite full of special characters, I can’t think of another one but English than doesn’t have them, and much more “complex” than “ò”).

And don’t even try to get me started about katakana passwords :P

Update (2017-04-28): I feel very sad to have found out over a year and a half later that Michael died. The links in this and other posts to his blog are now linked to the archive kindly provided and set up by Jan Kučera. Thank you, Jan. And thank you, Michael.

4 thoughts on “A question of names

  1. Out of curiosity … Petteno is emphasized on the second syllable, Pettenò on the third, right?Italian is, after English, probably the European language with the fewest “strange” characters. German has four (Swiss German only three). French has nine, I think. Norse languages are the worst.But even English has a few French words that are unchanged in correct spelling, even though nobody bothers when typing on a computer. An example is “fiançé”. Another letter that appears is ë, as in the name Zoë.

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  2. I try to embrace Unicode as much as I can in my code but one particularly tricky area is regular expressions, especially in Ruby. The concept of a-z suddenly becomes very obsolete. It would be impossible to give all the characters you do want but having to give all the characters you don’t want is almost as bad. I gather there are character classes for dealing with this but I’m not sure which regular expression engines support them. Ruby 1.8’s certainly doesn’t. I haven’t tried Oniguruma from 1.9. But if you think that’s bad, an even more basic problem that frequently affects my name is the lack of support for spaces! My name is not LeCuirot!

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  3. What about countries that don’t even use the Latin alphabet?For example my name is properly spelled only in Cyrillic but my passport has a transliteration in Latin letters because that’s what I use when I go international. Same with my credit card (back home). Should I expect you to have my name written in Cyrillic when you send out a wire transfer to me? You were talking about the SEPA… and Greece is in the SEPA, too.As I understand it, the accent only gives out the correct pronunciation. Would it be fair to say that your name is “Petteno with the accent on the last vowel”? In Bulgarian we also have these accents but they are not part of the alphabet. We can use them to avoid ambiguity but it’s perfectly acceptable not to.My advice would be to take it easy with the written form. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask people to approximate “non-letters” so that anyone anywhere in the world can retype what you put down. If people mispronounce your name (abroad it happens to me all the time and I don’t like it either) then just correct them.

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