Why are Pacific Island names still being mispronounced?

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Sporting commentators in New Zealand have been challenged to lift their game and learn to pronounce Pacific Island names correctly.

Pasifika make up about half of players in Super Rugby and the National Rugby League, while one third of last season’s ANZ Premiership netball squads have Pacific Island heritage.

But current and former players across the codes say their names are still being mangled on a regular basis.

Sky Sport commentator Fauono Ken Laban said it wasn’t good enough.

“I find it offensive from a Pasifika point of view and from a professional broadcasters point of view I find it completely unprofessional and unacceptable that commentators won’t take the trouble to learn to pronounce the names correctly.”

Fauono Ken Laban

Fauono Ken Laban Photo: supplied

The former Wainuiomata rugby league captain said sports like rugby and netball used to be dominated by pālagi players in New Zealand but are now overwhelmingly Māori and Pasifika.

“As an example I think it was 28 of the 37 players that wore the All Blacks jersey in 2020 were Māori and Pacific Island boys and the same obviously in rugby league and netball. We’ve seen that for quite some time so our main sports is a reflection of how society has changed.”

The son of Samoan immigrants to New Zealand, Fauono often felt the brunt of “up front in your face immediate reaction” from the Pacific Island community when they hear their names being mispronounced on TV.

“Some pālagi commentators will just copy other pālagi commentators and think, ‘that’s the way he says it so that must be correct’.

“…away from my professional life I’m 24/7 in the communities where I was brought up and the people that are close to me understand the importance of saying those names.”

Sports commentator Keith Quinn.

Sports commentator Keith Quinn. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

Retired broadcaster Keith Quinn commentated his first live rugby match on radio in 1971 but he admitted the pronunciation of Māori and Pasifika names was given little thought during the early stages of his career.

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“We were ignorant of it and that’s why I say there was an evolution for broadcasters, because we were mostly white guys commentating white names and suddenly these other names came in,” he reflected.

One of those names was former Tonga captain Inoke Afeaki, who debuted for Wellington in 1993 and the Hurricanes during the inaugural season of Super Rugby in 1996.

“When I first started playing my name was mispronounced,” said the Tongatapu-born, Wellington raised second rower who captained the ‘Ikale Tahi at the 2003 Rugby World Cup.

“…at times it would actually get more offence if it was misspelt in a newspaper article and within the same article it would be misspelt two or three times, so that was just irritating as well.”

Former 'Ikale Tahi rugby captain Inoke Afeaki.

Former ‘Ikale Tahi rugby captain Inoke Afeaki. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

By the 1990s Keith Quinn was the lead caller for TVNZ’s All Blacks coverage and a regular behind the microphone at Commonwealth and Olympics Games.

The Wellingtonian thought he was at the top of his game until his own daughter, who was taking Pacific Studies at Victoria University, called him out.

“She said to me, the boys in the class say that you don’t say the Polynesian names correctly – the Samoan names in particular correctly,” he recalled.

“And I said to her, well, who are you talking about? And she said, well, this guy, you call him Leo ‘Lah-fah-ahlee’ , playing in Auckland? And I said, Yeah. And she said, you say, ‘Tupoh Far-mah-sino’.

“Well I said what is it then? I’ve been doing this for 20 years. And she said, it’s Tupo Fa’amasino and it’s Leo Lafaiali’i. So I thought, that’s what the boys at Victoria’s Pacific class are saying…I better have a look at this.”

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Keith Quinn began to study the pronunciation of Pacific Island names in detail and said being regarded as a broadcaster who ‘got it right’ became a point of pride for him.

“Pacific people came up to me and spoke to me and wrote me letters, and there were incidents where a guy didn’t charge me for a taxi ride or didn’t want to charge me for a taxi ride, because I was the guy that said the Samoan rugby players names correctly.”

Inoke Afeaki said if a commentator or person is mispronouncing your name the best thing you can do is to tell them.

“I think like anything life people get better at it when they’re corrected and we just need to throw our five cents worth at the commentators that really mispronounced it,” he said.

“…the names are foreign to most New Zealanders, the rolling vowels in the Pacific language, but over time they’re getting better and it’s nice that we’re aware of it now.”

Central Pulse and Silver Ferns mid-courter Whitney Souness said the pronunciation of Pacific Island names is also a problem in elite netball.

“We’re getting a lot more Pacific Island girls coming up in the sport and there’s been quite a few of us in generation as well,” she said.

“From what I’ve heard on TV all the names have always been mispronounced and I think our generation we needed to correct them and just tell them, because if they don’t know they’re never going to know and change.”

Central Pulse and Silver Ferns mid-courter Whitney Souness.

Central Pulse and Silver Ferns mid-courter Whitney Souness. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

Born and bred in Porirua, north of Wellington, Souness is proud of her Samoan heritage and said families definitely notice when their name is not said correctly.

“As a Pacific Islander you carry your name with pride and that’s a name your parents gave you so when it’s not said correctly your parents might take it a bit harder because that’s your name.”

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Inoke Afeaki said sporting organisations could also take the lead and promote their players and the correct pronunciation of their names.

“It does get tiring when you have to correct people on the spot when they could have been given this information earlier to practice,” he said.

“What I loved about the islands or any country that I went to I had to learn names is I will tie a little story to their name, I will try to figure out what their name actually means.

“The Japanese have two Chinese characters in there which references their place where they’ve come from. Most Tongan and Samoan names have a family history to their history.”

Keith Quinn said by and large New Zealand commentators are pretty good at pronouncing Pacific Island names these days, but there remained a few outliers.

“I can hear those commentators who have worked at getting it right and I can hear those commentators who haven’t worked at getting the names right.”

For Fauono Ken Laban, the answer is simple.

“My own view is that we need to have more Pasifika commentators.”

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