Tonight is the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, and the headliner is Michelle Obama. I'm actually more interested to hear from another speaker who will be brought out to "highlight Barack’s life story," as the Convention schedule says. That's Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack's half-sister, who is scheduled to speak shortly before 7 p.m. Denver time (9 p.m. Eastern time). At the very least, I expect her to lead off with some self-deprecating remarks about her difficult-to-pronounce surname. Since there's already been such a to-do over Barack's name (see my two posts from Feb. 2007), you can bet there will be a lot of head-scratching over "Soetoro-Ng." Let me try to break it down.
Barack and Maya share a mother, Ann Dunham, an American anthropologist who got her PhD at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. She divorced Barack's father and married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student who was at Hawai‘i's East-West Center. They moved to Indonesia, where Maya was born in 1970. Maya later settled in Hawai‘i and became a teacher there. In 2003 she married Konrad Ng, assistant professor at the University of Hawai‘i's Academy of Creative Media. Ng is of Malaysian Chinese descent, but he was born in Canada, where his parents emigrated.
Maya is one of those wonderful names that seems to work in any culture. Ann and Lolo most likely picked it based on its Sanskritic roots — though Lolo Soetoro was Muslim, like many Indonesians of Javanese descent he would have been steeped in the localized Hindu-Buddhist traditions that predate Islam on Java. (Maya herself identifies "philosophically" as Buddhist.) And it's fortunate that her first name works so well cross-culturally, since her surname is bound to be a puzzler to most people outside of Southeast Asia.
Soetoro is a typical Javanese name, pronounced [sutoro]. As we saw in the case of the fancifully named Batman bin Suparman, the Su- or Soe- prefix (from a Sanskritic root meaning 'good, fortunate') is very common in Javanese names. The oe spelling is a colonial vestige, as that digraph was used in the Dutch East Indies to represent /u/ when a standard Roman orthography was introduced to Javanese, Malay, and other local languages in the nineteenth century. After Indonesian independence, in 1950, spelling in the national language was modified to render /u/ as u, perhaps because oe was the orthographic element that looked most egregiously Dutch. (In 1972 there were additional spelling reforms to change tj, dj, and j to c, j, and y respectively.)
Lolo Soetoro was born in the late colonial era (c. 1936), so the Dutch oe spelling would have been in effect then. Interestingly, even after 1950, some Indonesians held on to the oe spelling in their names, perhaps out of a certain nostalgia for colonial days. First president Soekarno made the switch to Sukarno, but his successor Soeharto kept signing his name with oe (though many newspapers switched it to u anyway). And Sukarno's daughter Megawati (president from 2001 to 2004) uses an oddly half-archaized spelling for her last name, Soekarnoputri, choosing the old orthography for her father's name but rendering the -putri suffix ('daughter of') with the modern u.
On to Ng, a common name among Southeast Asians who descend from Hokkien- and Hakka-speaking migrants from the southern Chinese province of Fujian. It's pronounced [ŋ], but very often it is said as [εŋ] ("eng") by Westerners who might have difficulty with a syllabic velar nasal. The spelling is sometimes romanized to match the Western pronunciation as Eng (or occasionally with another initial vowel, as Ang, Ing, Ong, or Ung). Wikipedia explains that Ng is "a Cantonese and Hakka transliteration of the Chinese surnames 吳/吴 (Pinyin: Wú) and 伍 (Pinyin: Wǔ), and Hokkien (Taiwanese) and Teochew transliteration of the Chinese surname 黃/黄 (Pinyin: Huáng)." Konrad Ng's parents are from Sabah on the Malaysian portion of Borneo, so in this case Ng likely represents a Hakka transliteration. (According to Nicole Constable's Guest People: Hakka Identity in China and Abroad, 57 percent of Sabah's ethnic Chinese population is Hakka.)
I doubt that Maya will get into the ethnolinguistic nuances of her name, but she will probably give a quick primer on the pronunciation of [sutoro (ε)ŋ], much as her half-brother used to break the ice when teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago, according to Salon:
"The first thing people ask me is, 'How did you get that name, Obama,' although they don't always pronounce it right. Some people say 'Alabama,' some people say 'Yo Mama.' I got my name from Kenya, which is where my father's from, and I got my accent from Kansas, which is where my mother's from."
Sometimes self-deprecation is the most disarming way to deal with onomastic peculiarity.
[Update #1, 9:00 pm: Disappointingly, Maya didn't even say her name, let alone offer pronunciation pointers. I suspect that the convention organizers weren't interested in drawing attention to her alterity, since the focus is on Obama's "very American story."]
[Update #2, 8/26: Welcome, Andrew Sullivan readers.]
[Update #3: In this clip of convention coverage from CSPAN, the announcer says the last part of her name as [ɪŋ] ("ing"), as best I can tell. That matches what a lot of the commenters below thought, as well as the pronunciation guides to her name that have been given by USA Today and The Tampa Tribune. On the other hand, I heard a CNN announcer say her name as [εŋ] in a promo for an interview this morning, and I'm pretty sure the anchor in this video from New America Now also says [εŋ].]
[Final update: Follow-up discussion here.]