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Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.
A couple of years ago, people started noticing something different about me.
It wasn’t a big physical change, though that certainly did end up happening separately. Nor was it a major behavioral change. No, the change was stranger than that: I started pronouncing my last name differently.
The story of my decision to do that is admittedly odd, but I write about it here because I think that it actually has some interesting parallels to larger cultural shifts that have occurred in Maine over time.
My father was born in 1935 and his first language at home was French, but like many in his generation, he learned English in school, and it would later go on to become his primary language, though his English was colored by a very thick Maine accent.
He knew how to say his last name the “proper” way — which sounds a bit like “gan-yoan” for those curious — but when speaking with native English speakers, he decided to shift the name’s pronunciation to make it easier for them.
Those people, in turn did their best to mimic what he was saying, but given the thick, non-rhotic Maine accent, some funny-sounding varieties of Gagnon developed. Eventually to my father and his family the name became some variety of “gone-yer,” causing those who saw the name spelled and listened to how it sounded a great deal of confusion.
As regular readers know, I grew up in Hampden, and my upbringing was — just one generation from my father’s mostly French childhood — as American as it could get. No one, including my father, spoke French in the home and English was my first language. I developed a standard American speech pattern, so when I learned how to say my last name, I had a difficult time sounding like he did. Instead, I pronounced my name sounding like “gone-yah,” which is not how anyone should say my last name.
Because it was so strange, I was mercilessly ridiculed for my name growing up, which left me ashamed of my Franco-American heritage. Even my friends enjoyed making fun of me for it, coming up with an unending list of terrible nicknames for me. For years, I dreamed of another life where I had a simple to pronounce name like “Smith” or “Jones.”
Something changed, though, after my son was born.
My wife and I moved to the Washington, D.C., area in 2006, and he was born the following year. When my son was 2 years old, we put him in a preschool that was owned and operated by immigrants from French West Africa. They were wonderful people, and we loved sending him there. A funny thing happened, though, while he was there.
My son, you see, rarely heard me pronounce my own last name, but at preschool the native French speakers there would call his name on the roll every single morning, and pronounced it in flawless French. Every day, he heard his name and learned to say it the way that they said it. I was stunned when I heard him introduce himself to someone when he was 3 years old, sounding like a native French speaker.
As time went on, my son kept at it, and I never discouraged him from doing so. I began to just accept that he said it one way, and I said it another. Interestingly, it began to have an impact on me when parents of some of his friends, having heard his version first, began referring to me while pronouncing Gagnon the French way.
That was the moment I began to consider changing how I said it. After all, if all these people could say it correctly, why couldn’t I? A couple years later, I set aside any fear of sounding stupid, and just did it.
I tell this story now for one simple reason: I grew to love my heritage over time, and very much regret that it had been so thoroughly abandoned in just a handful of generations. I wish my family had maintained its original pronunciation. I wish my father spoke French at home. I wish we maintained a greater sense of cultural identity than we did.
Without a full, sustained commitment, cultural memory can be lost in a very short time. In Maine, that identity has had a distinctly Franco-American character, but with every successive generation, and the influx of new people to Maine from elsewhere, that character continues to fade.
I’m proud of being American, and regret nothing about my family’s embrace of assimilation over time. But something as small as hearing my name pronounced in certain ways has left me with a feeling of sadness at the things lost along the way.
For those of us from a certain generation, perhaps it is time to rediscover it and embrace it.