Maya Soetoro-Ng: what's in a name?

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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 / (Pinyin: Wú) and 伍 (Pinyin: Wǔ), and Hokkien (Taiwanese) and Teochew transliteration of the Chinese surname / (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.]


  1. James said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 1:11 pm

    I think that here in Hawai‘i the pronunciation of Ng is more often /ɪŋ/ or /iŋ/ rather than /ɛŋ/. That’s how I’ve heard the surname said in English by people from the various Southeast Asian locations where Hakka people have settled, as well as locals with the name. Not sure how it would be pronounced by speakers of Bahasa Indonesia/Malayu.

  2. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

    James, thanks for the local knowledge from Hawai‘i. I think it's more likely to be pronounced as [εŋ] on the mainland, but maybe I'm overly influenced by the song "Ana Ng" by They Might Be Giants.

    Hmm, according to the Los Angeles Dodgers website, the surname of Dodgers vice-president and assistant general manager Kim Ng is "pronounced 'ANG'." Is that supposed to represent [æŋ]?

  3. Karen said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 2:07 pm

    I think "eng" is influenced by the name for the letter "N" as well, at least among Anglophones who have never met an Ng. (I just read Bone by Fay Myenne Ng; I was surprised to find out that she was Chinese, as to my ignorance that was a Vietnamese-looking name.)

  4. Maya said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    As another Maya, I like your "Maya is one of those wonderful names that seems to work in any culture." I'm an Anglo girl from New Mexico named after a New Zealander friend of my mother who spelled her name "Maja". But Russians I meet say that it's a common Russian name, and Germans I meet say it's a common German name (spelled with a j, not a y), and Hawaiians say it's a common name in Hawaii. And Indians tell me the meaning of the word in Hindi, and my Latin teacher always mentioned the ancient Greek earth goddess, Maia.

    Here in the (mainland) U.S., however, no one can say it or spell it: I get a lot of Mia, Mya, Miya, and the dreaded Myra. I've tried "like the poet!" as a hint for the spelling, but that only seems to work with African-American women of a certain age. So maybe the future president's sister can help me out make our name a little more well known.

  5. Leo Petr said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 3:33 pm

    As someone of semi-Russian extraction living in Canada, I tend to imagine an invisible Ы at the front of "Ng" but — come to think of it — not of "Nguyen". Apparently, it is usually pronounced as the "close central unrounded vowel", [ɨ].

  6. Sili said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

    I'm rather pleased with myself for having guessed correctly that the <oe> was Dutch in origin. But I didn't know that it was properly used in "Soeharto", I don't think I've ever seen it without <u>, but I'm hardly representative.

    What I'd like to know, though, is the stress and the nature of /r/ in 'Indonesian'.

  7. Sili said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

    Ooops – wrong link, sorry.

  8. Paul Clapham said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    There's a lot of Ngs here in Vancouver, there was one on my daughter's swim team at her university for example. I've never heard any pronunciation but "ing" here. Except for those people who attempt "ng".

  9. Zinger said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

    I hear /ɪŋ/ as well in Southern Ontario. I'm usually the one saying it, though, so my observations may not be representative.

    There was an episode of the tv show Numb3rs with a character whose last name was actually spelt Ing. Another episode features an appearance by an actor named Andre Ing, who is of Asian descent as far as I can tell from the picture on IMDB.

    My last name is Elzinga. This one usually mystifies people. Like Obama, it often gets mispronounced. It's a great way to pick out telemarketers. Sometimes it gets mispronounced right after I've spelt it out and said it, and they've written down. One of the most common is Elzinger. This puzzles me. It wouldn't be so surprising in England, but here in Canada we don't add r's to words that end in vowels.

    Sometimes I tell people the true origins of the name. Sometimes I tell them I come from a long line of Spanish comedians known for their one-liners.

    Bonus points if you can tell the origins of the name without the assistance of online tools, or if you can come up with something funnier than the Spanish one-liner thing.

  10. Nathan Myers said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

    Sili: This western USer found /r/ in Indonesia unremarkable. What seemed remarkable was that all syllables were unaccented, or equally so.

  11. Adrian Bailey said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    The only Ng I know of is a doctor in Birmingham (England), who is called by his colleagues and patients "Doctor En Gee".

  12. Lee Morgan said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 6:34 pm

    According to Wikipedia, the Javanese /r/ is alveolar, which means I can probably pronounce it, but doesn't say whether it's a trill or a flap or an approximant or whatever. My guess would be a trill, because it seems to be most common, but I have to claim ignorance at this point.

  13. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    Yes, Javanese /r/ is an alveolar trill, though it's often flap-like intervocalically.

  14. Bill Poser said,

    August 25, 2008 @ 11:43 pm

    The Sanskrit prefix su- is cognate to a prefix more familiar to English speakers, Greek eu-, as in "eukaryote" and "euphony".

  15. Goh Eng Cher said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 12:06 am

    My Chinese surname is 吴, and if I am Cantonese or Hakka, the transliteration will be "Ng". However, because I am Teochew, it becomes "Goh". My fellow Teochew with the surname 黄, ends up with "Ng". Hence two persons with the surname "Ng" may have completely different surnames in reality (i.e. by Chinese norms) and belong to different dialect groups. Confusing enough?

  16. Kenny Easwaran said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 12:08 am

    As another data point, I've only ever heard "ing" when people pronounce the name Ng, either in New Jersey or California.

  17. Carl said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 2:56 am

    Here in Hawaii, Soetoro-Ng does a lot of ads that play up Obama's connection to and understanding of the Asian-American community in general and Hawaii (or as Soetoro-Ng calls it in deference to the local shibboleth, "Havai'i") specifically. I think she was actually reasonably influential in his very successful primary push. I didn't see her DNC speech, but I imagine it was targeted at a very different audience than the ads made for Hawaii.

  18. Carl said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 3:00 am

    Another comment: I had a friend named Jimmy Ng from Canada who worked as an English teacher in Japan. When he helped out my school's English camp, the native Japanese teachers were very confused by his name and called him Jimmy N. G. Unfortunately for Jimmy, "N.G." is a Japanese-made initialism that means the opposite of O.K. (presumably, it derives from "Not Good").

  19. dr pepper said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 8:59 am

    The ethnocultural width of Barack Obnama's immediate family is amazing. But in a couple of generations most families will be like his.

  20. Rob P. said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 11:14 am

    Since nobody's guessed, I'm going to go with some sort of Frisian as the origin for Elzinga.

  21. Aaron Davies said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    @Carl, that's odd, I'd think Japanese would find it easy to approximate as a simple syllabic [n], given that they're fairly used to using that as the name of the "n" kana "ん"/"ン".

  22. Matthew Austin said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 3:51 pm

    In Cantonese (as spoken in Hong Kong at least), there is a tendency for word initial ng to be lost. As this inital ng- disappears, the few words consisting of ng alone are changing to [m]. So the surname Ng is pronounced [m], with a low falling tone, by many speakers. This has led to a joke whereby the girl's name Ng Si-Man ('Grace Ng') sounds like 'm si-man' ('not graceful').

  23. Matthew Austin said,

    August 26, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    I should have added that 'm' (also with a low falling tone) means 'not' in Cantonese.

  24. Zinger said,

    August 27, 2008 @ 4:41 pm

    "Since nobody's guessed, I'm going to go with some sort of Frisian as the origin for Elzinga."

    Indeed. It's the sort of Frisian spoken in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands.

    I've no idea whether the -inga ending is common in the other strongly Frisian areas in Germany (and Denmark?).

    Similarly to "Doctor En Gee", I am often "Doctor Ee El Zed Ai En Gee Ay".

  25. Rob P. said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 10:39 am

    Well, I would have guessed Friesland, but I'm only vaguely familiar with it from a brief time spent in another part of the Netherlands (Eindhoven). I was largely extrapolating from names I know like Heitinga (to a lesser extent, Raukema, Sietsema, Boukema). Also, the z threw me, I would have expected an s, but I'm not sure why. In any case, I wasn't sure enough of myself to be that specific.

  26. Zinger said,

    August 29, 2008 @ 6:13 pm

    It's a good guess, given the limited exposure. I've a friend who's more Dutch than I am (I don't speak it. She does, even though she was born in Canada), and she didn't know.

    Elsinga and Elsenga are alternate spellings, if I understand correctly. Other characteristically Frisian names with 'z' are Huizinga, Zuidema and Zandstra, which also have alternate 's' spellings.

    According to my Frisian-English dictionary, word initial 'z' doesn't occur in modern Frisian spelling, but according to Google, the 'z' spellings of all four names are more prevalent than 's' spellings (assuming, of course that the 's' spellers are not ashamed of their names and altering the spelling for the internet).

    When my mom, who speaks both Dutch and Frisian, pronounces 'z' the Dutch way, it sounds to me like an English 's', whereas Frisian 'z' sounds to me like an English 'z'. Furthermore, 'z' doesn't seem to be a commonly used letter in Frisian in any position. I can only speculate on the reasons for 'z' over 's', but I assume it has something to do with the fact that more people are literate in Dutch than Frisian, which was especially true when people started writing down this names. With Dutch being the language of power in the region, people probably weren't motivated to make their names look more Frisian.

  27. Joey Ngh said,

    November 1, 2008 @ 11:06 am

    2 steps to pronounce this N-G

    1. 'Ng' is pronounced 'Erng'

    2. Now try to do it without the R…

    There you go…I'm Malaysian that's my surname

    Peace :-)

  28. Rachel Thoo said,

    November 4, 2008 @ 11:31 pm

    I am a Chinese Canadian of Malaysian descent. My maternal grandmother's last name is Ng which means "five" in Cantonese and is Wu in mandarin, again, for the number five. It is pronounced ING as in ink.

  29. Susanto said,

    November 5, 2008 @ 4:28 am

    My father name "soebakir" use the old javanese prefix with "oé".. My father wouldn't to change it coz that's namé given by our grandpa.. A lot of javanese people use some old prefix with oé, dj, tc.. Ex; maridjan, soeprapto, mardjono, tcandra, soesilo..


  30. budi said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:33 am

    not all prefix 'soe' or 'su' in javanese name means 'good' or 'fortune'

    Even hindu & budha javenese are minority (majority are moslem and catholic/protestant) they're proud of their sanscrit name. They mixed their children name with sanscrit (hindu), pali (budha), old javenese names, arabic & western names.

    Not wonder if you found a moslem or christian javanese with full sanscrit or pali words in his/her name…

    -first presiden : soekarno (half javanese & balinese; karno was a knight name of mahabarata story)
    -second president : suharto (harto means treasure/wealth in sanscrit lang.)
    -third president : jusuf habibie (half javanese & makassarnese, arabic lang.-beloved joseph)
    -fourth : abdurahman wahid (javanese, arabic lang.-the first love provider)
    -fifth : megawati sukarnoputri(javanese,sanscrit: mega=cloud, wati:woman, putri : girl; her name means : the cloudwoman of sukarno's girl)
    sixth (now) : susilo bambang yudhoyono (javanese; sanscrit; susilo : polite, gentleman; bambang : another name of arjuna knight name of mahabarata story ; yudha : war/battle ; yana : area/path; his name means : arjuna (bambang), the gentleman of the battle field)

    maya in sanscrit means : virtual, unrealistic……

  31. Suardi said,

    February 7, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    Maya means in indonesian is imagination/Illusion, it is a commen name in indonesia for women but is also very beautiful name. Parent who give thier daughter the name Maya , intend to give a special pressure that how beautiful thier daugther is which they can´t express with any word , so they just call her Maya or illusion. Soe or Su means good, many indonesian espacially Javanese and sundanese lastname use Su, like my name Suardi, actually from Suwardi. Also Suharto, Sukarno, suroso, sutoro, su + harto has a meaning god property, su + roso has a meaning good heart etc. soory i dont know all the meaning from each last name, because mostly they are old name and from sangskrit

  32. Lolo said,

    December 24, 2009 @ 12:13 am

    So what about the name Lolo?

    I am Indonesian, not of Javanese descent, and Lolo means (in my parents dialect from West Sulawesi) youngest, as well as, good-looking (well, that's what they told me).

    I never came across any other Indonesian (except for hearing about other Buginese or Mandar) with the same name, until Lolo Soetoro.

    Does anyone know how Mr. Soetoro got his? It's not a common Javanese name at all.

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