What’s in a name?

Reading time: 5 min 21 sec

What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose,

By any other word would smell as sweet.

Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

I recently watched a video on Facebook by Nuseir Yassin on his account Nas daily about names. The premise was that the real names of people, places, or countries are misspelled or mispronounced due to the receivers’ unconscious feeling of superiority to the other. (Some of these places are now getting their names back.) I believe that this issue has become more relevant recently because of the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US especially. Many white people “cannot” pronounce the “difficult and long” names of their BIPOC counterparts. A more concrete example would be that of Hasan Minhaj who went on The Ellen Show, where he explained jokingly how other people (and the host) always fail to pronounce his name correctly. A contrast was made by Minhaj who gave the example of Timothée Chalamet and Ansel Elgort’s names which are more difficult for Americans/English speakers to pronounce than normal and yet they don’t seem to mispronounce it but they do not bother to learn how to pronounce his two-syllable name correctly.

This issue goes far deeper and further down in history as the video on Nas Daily’s Facebook account explains.

I also have found similarities in my personal history. My surname is Pydatalli (pronounced pie-da-ta-li) and my ancestors came to Mauritius from India during the rule of the British over Mauritius. I am very curious about my ancestry and when I was a teen, I used to google my name to find other people who might have the same surname as me. The closest name I found to my name is ‘Pydithalli’. I used to theorize (to myself) that the people who brought my forefathers to Mauritius probably did not understand the language and just wrote whatever they understood. And also my ancestors probably did not know how to read and/or write in their language let alone English. I never thought of it as a superiority thing from the people.

This occurrence led to a loss in connection from one place to the other. It would be rather difficult to trace back history if your name starts abruptly somewhere. I will probably not be able to trace this name back to India.

Well, the question is, should we question whether it was a white supremacy thing or if it was just something that could not be avoided given our still limited spread and learning of foreign languages. We do not know and I don’t think we can also speculate since we have not lived in that era, nor do I think there are studies specifically based on this issue in Mauritius.

During secondary school (in Mauritius, the education system is based on the British model), many of my teachers either pronounced it the way they wanted (which meant they probably pronounced it incorrectly) or genuinely knew how to pronounce it because they had encountered it before. Writing my name though has always seemed difficult to others, and I often felt embarrassed that the other person felt inconvenience by my name or the latter felt too embarrassed to ask the correct spelling with the result of butchering my name. It is to be noted that Mauritius is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural island with most people speaking at least 3 languages. We are descendants of Africans, Indians, Chinese, and Europeans. Yet, you would think this would not happen.

Snéha Khilay recounts several responses of people with foreign-sounding names in the Uk with similar findings as my personal example as well as other interesting ones.

As far as my first name goes, it consists of 3 syllables and seems rather easy to pronounce. During my first year at university, my English teacher (English was mandatory for my first semester) asked me how to pronounce my name which I thought was very considerate. For the first time, I did not feel ashamed of my name. I told her to pronounce it any way she wanted because I was not used to being asked.

While I was in China, I experienced something completely different looking at my Chinese friends’ interactions with other foreigners regarding their names. The fact that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages if not the most difficult language to learn is accepted worldwide. All Chinese people are also well aware of that fact and hence when they are at school they choose an English name that they will use to facilitate the lives of their foreign friends. Though I suppose it is easier to make friends or start up a conversation.

Foreigner: Hi! My name is Jack! What’s yours?

Chinese: Hello! My name is Xiao Zhan.

Foreigner: uhhh zxyao zan

Chinese: No it’s see-ao jan. Or you can call me Mathew!

Straight up saying your name as is can be difficult to move past the greetings and start to get to know each other. The Chinese name may prohibit you from getting past the first level of getting acquainted and getting to know each others’ personalities and preferences.

“My name is my identity, and allowing someone else to say it wrong is stripping me of that,” is a quote from the post, “The racist practice of mispronouncing names“.

Your name is your identity. You are given a name most probably by your parents or relatives and most of the time there is a meaning behind your name. Many times, like mine or this story about a Chinese-Indonesian, our name reflects our culture, ethnicity, religion, a part of history and it is a reminder of the struggle that our ancestors faced. It is a reminder of where we came from and we should all respect that.

Whether it is the name of a messiah in your culture or an adjective that qualifies a character that your parents want you to have or it is just a name your parents found cute, in any case, pronouncing and spelling your name the way it was intended to, is a sign of respect as a normal human being. In some cases, it might be a superiority issue, but more than than, I find it a sign of disrespect that people do not pronounce or spell your name well.

There is another perspective on this issue. People might just be pronouncing your name correctly but in their accent. Here is an example of what I mean. I recently watched a video by Trevor Noah where he explains why people change the way they speak to some people and ultimately pronounce names differently because in their language that is the way they are taught to pronounce certain words/letters. It was a stand-up comedy show I think. He recounts telling someone his name as ‘Trevor’ and them, not understanding. And that his friend had to say that his name is ‘Treva’ for the person to understand.

Our differences in languages mean that some languages contain accents, symbols, letters that do not exist in others. In languages using the same symbols, characters, and letters, we might pronounce a group of words differently in one language than in another language in the same group. Our accents also play an instrumental role in how we pronounce words and letters. There are perhaps other factors that may affect the way you pronounce, like your level of education, your place of birth, etc.

One important rule that I always tell myself is this:

We cannot expect others to understand. We can merely try to understand others, and if we become more friendly with them and we know that they will be able to understand, then we may try to educate them on this. However, we can never really change a habit of theirs if they do not want to. Because believe it or not, the way you speak is a habit that you cultivate over the years, and just like behavior, it takes a level of self-awareness or a catalyst moment to modify it.

Please do let me know what’s your view on this topic in the comments. You can also contact me via email.

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