Nijenrode or Nyenrode ?
It’s a simple question. Not a simple answer.
Look, I get it:
We live in a global world now, much more than we all did back in 1980, when we are at… Nijenrode.
Back when we were all at Nijenrode, our sense of globalization and political economy was largely limited to President Jimmy Carter trying to stop the fifth oil price increase by that infamous oil cartel known as the Organization for Petroleum Exporting Countries, or simply… OPEC. I also get that for this current young generation of business students growing up in the global village, it makes practical sense to simply change the name to the more obviously pronounceable “Nyenrode”.
It is more efficient because you don’t need to explain anymore that the “j” is pronounced like a “y”.
And yet I feel unsettled by the “j” being surgically removed in Nijenrode and replaced by a “y”. Why?
Because by fiddling around with people’s traditional names and heritage, are we not at risk of diluting our diversity and homogenizing ourselves in the global village? Was it not so much more colorful and enjoyable when we were not so homogenized? Just look at this… Do you all recall when the very disheveled economics professor Dr. Schep made his first schlep into our classroom at Nijenrode and began reading his roll call of all our exchange student last names?
You probably don’t.
But I do, because my last name begins with an “A” and was thus at the top of his alphabeticalized list.
Through his cigar smeared and yellowy teeth and deviously lopsided grin he uttered these first words:
“Ay-an-ya? Who is this Ay-an-ya?”
My point is that Dr. Schep pronounced the “j” in my name “Ajania” as a “y”.
That is what Dutch people often do in their culture, as do the cultures of several other European countries.
And I like that.
I like that my name is mispronounced because it is that very mispronouncing that reminds me that I live in a multicultural and diverse world, where people have different perspectives, different perceptions and different pronounciations.
Our differences define us and give us character and uniqueness. They link us to our history and heritage.
Take those differences away and we all start spelling and sounding the same.
I have pondered this philosophical question:
If the “j” in my own last name were supposed to be pronounced as a “y” would I mind having someone homogenize the spelling of my name into “Ayania”?
No, I don’t think I would like that at all.
Which brings me to the real calamity here: The legacy of Nijenrode, which dates back to the 13th century. You do realize that the castle we all went to school in back in 1980 was first founded around 1260, when noble medieval Knight Gerard Splinter van Nijenrode laid the first foundations for Nijenrode Castle?
It was in the year 2005 that our beloved Stitching Nijenrode, The Netherlands School of Business, became “globalized” and sanitized and homogenized into Nyenrode Business Universiteit.
Centuries of glorious history and culture from as far back as 1260 were erased in 2005 by a Dutch decision to dilute the Nijenrode name into a more practical and pronounceable “Nyenrode”.
I understand why companies and products sometimes need to be reengineered and rebranded but does it really have to be the same with the literary domain of words and culture? Is nothing sacred?
Cultural mispronouncing and misunderstanding of words is precisely the kind of clumsiness and imperfection that make us human.
I received my acceptance letter to Nijenrode the summer before we all met. I was in London working at my uncle’s shop. I receive it late because I was on the wait list and not sure I would be accepted.
The person who managed my uncle’s shop was a Hindu lady by the name of Padma and she had a fifth grade education and a lovely, lilting, sing-song Indian accent when she spoke English. I was so excited when I received my acceptance letter to Nijenrode and reached for the first person available to share the good news with which happened to be Padma.
I proudly showed her the letter and told her I was going to be studying in The Netherlands come September. Padma smiled widely and glowed with pride for me.
She peered at the letter I held before her and then she said, in her thick and melodic Indian accent:
“Tailoring, isn’t it? You will to be making a good tailor, I think so!” she said to me encouragingly while lightly bobbing her head from side to side.
I was baffled.
Why on earth did Padma think I was studying to become a tailor?
I asked her and she briskly pointed to a word on the Nijenrode letter she was still reading:
She thought that “Stichting Nijenrode” meant that I would be taking “stitching” classes at Nijenrode and thus train to become a professional tailor.
There is a deeper reason why I am sensitive to this name-changing lark, and that has to do with my grandfather and what I refer to as his “Ellis Island moment”. My grandfather grew up in village India and was orphaned at a young age. Like dear old Padma, he had a fifth grade education.
The village of Khathiwar in Gujarat, was so remote and isolated from the ruling British Raj, that, as my grandfather very thoughtfully lamented, he had “never ever set eyes upon an Anglo-Saxon”.
My grandfather wanted to build a new life for himself in a new country and so he left his village in India.
Like so many Indians about a century ago, he immigrated to Africa to seek new opportunities. He eventually went into the hinterland of Tanzania and opened up a retail shop in a small mining town. My grandfather embarked upon his new life by first taking a long train journey southward to Bombay Harbor. He then sailed on a cargo steam ship from Bombay port to the port of Mombasa in Kenya. Arriving in Mombasa with no paperwork or passport, the African clerk at the “Ellis Island” equivalent in Mombasa passport control, asked my grandfather to scribble his name on a piece of paper, which would then be processed into his official documents. A translator showed him how to write his name in English.
My original family name is “Ajanta” and we come from a long tradition of Indian artisans, craftsman, stone masons, sculptors and fresco painters. The legacy of Ajanta guildsmen reaches back into the centuries. My grandfather wrote the name “Ajanta” down on a paper for the African clerk, who, perhaps because he could not read my grandfather’s writing, thought that the “t” looked like an “i” and so wrote down “Ajania” and the name stuck! We have been stuck with the name ‘Ajania’ ever since. So now you can well appreciate why this 2005 makeover of the Nijenrode name is something very close to home for me. The Nijenrode family and the Ajanta family have something in common:
Centuries of history and heritage were wiped clean away by tweaking a letter or two in our last names.