The video “Substitute Teacher” by comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (often referred to simply as Key and Peele) put a hilarious spin on the very common experience of students who have had their names distorted by their educational leaders. This lighthearted video is a reference to a much bigger issue in which people have developed a certain apathy when it comes to the pronunciation of names which appear unconventional to them. I was raised being taught that my name represented my ties to my culture and role in the world — a belief quite common among Southeast Asian communities.
I decided to ask some of my friends about their names, and what having that name means.
Jeevin Amrit, pronounced Jee-vin, means “the king of life”
Nishanth, pronounced Nih-shaa-nth, means “peace at dawn”
Namratha, pronounced Numm-ruh-tha, means “modesty and humility”
Amrita, pronounced Uh-mrith-uh, means “nectar of immortality”
Inaya, pronounced In-ah-yah, means “blessing from Allah”
During this conversation, many of them mentioned that their names are often mispronounced and although they make initial attempts to correct those who falsify their identity, they often fall complacent as a result of the person’s unwilling tongue. My name means “a blessing from God,” and while the common mispronunciation of it as Pree-shah doesn’t change the meaning, I’ve always felt that choosing to pronounce my name incorrectly disregards its origin. I was given my name because my parents struggled to have kids for several years after having my older brother and suffered many complications throughout their pregnancy with me, thus when I was born, they felt that God had blessed them. The Sanskrit word “Prisha” is meant to give hope and warmth, and the way I pronounce it is the way my parents gave it to me. As my friend Jeevin says, “There’s a certain pride that you carry when you know your name has such a powerful meaning … it is a reminder of my roots.”
Followers of Hinduism will often name their children after important figures in Hindu epics. For example, the name Arjun is the name of one of the heroes of the Mahabharata and one of the five Pandava brothers. He is said to be a symbol of clarity, loyalty and often won the favor of the gods. When someone names their child Arjun, they are paying respect to his namesake and hoping their child will be a testament to Arjun’s strong character. This is no different than someone naming their child after the Angel Gabriel or the Prophet Muhammad.
Despite these sacred meanings, so many people resort to pronunciations or nicknames which are easier for the American tongue to pronounce. This is not about shortening one’s name just to a cute friendly nickname, but is about the obligation some feel to change what they are called in an act of complacency for other’s lack of effort. An example of this is people named “Prathik” (pronounced Prah-theek) going by the name “Peter.” A man at my dad’s old job, one that he had been at for several years, once asked if he could call him “Roger” instead of “Raj” or “Rajeev,” despite it having quite similar sounds. As a little kid I could not understand how this man could say the name “Roger,” but not “Raj.” It has become so common for people to dismiss the value that exists in the sound of a name for simplicity, while it might make no sense to the people who have often heard the name as a part of their culture. Some may say that because these names are common to us, we can’t understand why it’s difficult to pronounce. But the fact remains that these names have the same sounds as many common names in America, as can be seen in “Raj” versus “Roger.” The name is just as easy to say when you put in just a few minutes to learn it, but so many people are okay with not learning how to say it because of the bounds of their cultural view. It’s easier to say that you just don’t know how to say it because it’s difficult to pronounce, rather than to be aware of its significance and pronunciation.
It’s not that they cannot pronounce the name — they are choosing to not put in the effort to learn how to say it, or understand what it means to say it. They are disregarding the years of culture, family history and identity a person has associated with this chosen title. When you chose to call your colleague Parvati as Par-vaa-tea instead of Paar-vuh-thee, even when she has told you the correct pronunciation, but you have no issue pronouncing Hakeem Olajuwon, you are showing that since your colleague is just an average person to you, you don’t care enough about their identity to try to learn how to say their name right. When Americans who preach that our country is a melting pot, yet fail to learn how to pronounce their friends’ names, they actively place their friends into a box and remove them from this “pot” they take pride in. They are making their identity fit into guidelines that are convenient for others to follow and don’t require them to learn about another person’s culture.
Popular American comedian Hasan Minhaj took this issue to a national stage in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres where he asserts in front of his parents that if people can say Ansel Elgort and Timotheé Chalamet, why not Hasan Minhaj? He talks about how when he entered the entertainment industry, he was told to change his name to make it easier for his American audience to pronounce, but he refused. Hasan Minhaj is an icon to young brown people in many ways, as an Indian Muslim who has chosen to break so many boundaries for young children of immigrants in America. I believe Hasan should be the start of a new ideal — one in which we continue to correct people on our name again and again until they get it right and one in which we hold them accountable when they don’t; we recognize what this means in terms of how they see us.
So Shakespeare, what’s in a name? My identity. My culture. My history. So say it right. I understand that some names simply might be difficult to pronounce, but the effort is absolutely necessary. We are not being stuffy or annoying by expecting respect or acknowledgment of ourselves. We are not radical for suggesting we take up space outside of the guidelines that our fellow Americans have set for us. Be proud of the identity that you and your parents have created for yourself.
Prisha Grover can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org