It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you live in the US and have a non-English name, someone at some point is bound to butcher the pronunciation.
People across virtually every ethnic group have had to deal with others struggling to get their names right. And the problem seems to persist no matter how powerful or visible a person becomes.
Take Wednesday’s Senate hearing with top tech executives, among them Google CEO Sundar Pichai.
Despite the fact that Pichai runs one of the world’s most powerful companies and that he had testified on Capitol Hill before, senators still couldn’t seem to pronounce his name correctly – instead calling him variations of “Mr. Pick Eye” and Mr. Pish Eye.” (It’s pronounced “pih-chai,” like the spiced beverage.)
Then there was Sen. David Perdue’s handling of the Democratic vice presidential nominee’s name earlier this month during a rally for President Donald Trump. The Georgia Republican referred to his colleague, Sen. Kamala Harris, as “Ka-ma-la or Ka-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala,” punctuating that with “I don’t know, whatever.”
(Harris has served in the US Senate for almost four years and pronounces her name “COMMA-la,” like the punctuation mark.)
Continually mispronouncing someone’s name is lazy at best and malicious at worst, as many people have been quick to point out. And too often, the names that are regarded as “too difficult” to learn belong to people of color.
To paraphrase what actress Uzo Aduba said her mother told her growing up, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky,” people can learn to say Sundar Pichai and Kamala Harris.
Ultimately, experts say, the issue boils down to power and respect.
Botched names are often tied to race
Encountering unfamiliar-sounding names is inevitable in a country as multicultural as the US, and stumbling a few times at first is normal.
You might recall how many Americans tripped up over the name of former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg (it’s pronounced “BOOT-edge-edge”), prompting his husband to tweet several phonetic pronunciations.
Non-English names, naturally, employ stress patterns or sounds that aren’t used in English, and remembering those sequences can be challenging, says Megha Sundara, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The issue, though, isn’t unintentional mistakes, but rather how people recover from them.
“You can double down out of embarrassment, or apologize and fix it,” Sundara wrote in an email to CNN. “Because ‘say my name’ is perhaps the most basic way in which we ask others to acknowledge our existence.”
So when someone doesn’t take the time to learn the proper way to pronounce another person’s name – or worse, intentionally mocks it for being “too hard” to pronounce – it can come across as malicious.
It also evokes the nation’s history of dominant groups forcing new names on people of oppressed groups, such as enslaved Africans and indigenous children in government schools, says Rita Kohli, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Riverside.
“There is a longstanding history of forcible assimilation in this country as a way to maintain the power structure,” she wrote in an email to CNN. “To ensure that White Anglo Saxon, English, Protestantism stayed dominant, those who did not fit were made to change things such as their language, their names. It has created a culture where those who are dominant have not had to engage in reciprocal relationships of learning.”
That dominant groups dismiss certain names as too hard to get right is tied to racism and other forms of oppression, Kohli added.
Perdue’s derisive mocking of his fellow senator’s name amounted to “disrespecting and deprofessionalizing a Black and woman of color vice presidential candidate,” Kohli said. (A spokesperson for Perdue’s campaign has said that he simply mispronounced the name and didn’t mean anything by it.)
“One thing is for sure, if you have known somebody for a long time, and are still saying their name wrong, guess who has power in that relationship?” Sundara added. “It’s not the person who can neither correct you nor make it stick.”
Some children of immigrants adapted their names to make them ‘easier’
Having others constantly mess up your name can be so exhausting that some people with non-English names decide to adapt or change them.
One way is by adopting an Anglicized pronunciation.
For example, many South Asians pronounce Kamala, a common Indian name, as “come-lah” or “come-uh-lah.”
“People ask me how to pronounce it. There are many ways,” Harris said in a 2017 interview with David Axelrod. “If you were asking my grandmother, she’d say ‘come-lah.’ I usually help people pronounce it by saying, ‘Well, just think of a comma and add a “-la” at the end.’”
Others, like Mindy Kaling, shorten their given names.
The actress, whose birth name is Vera Mindy Chokalingam, told NPR’s Terry Gross that when she was performing standup comedy early in her career, emcees had trouble pronouncing her South Indian last name – so she shortened it, even though she had mixed feelings about the decision.
“It’s bittersweet, but I have to say, it was such a help to my career to have a name that people could pronounce,” she said in the interview.
And then there are some who choose to go by a different name altogether, like former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.
Jindal, whose parents immigrated from India and who was born with the name Piyush, began going by the name Bobby as a boy because he identified with a character in “The Brady Bunch.”
But some people are pushing back
But many people of color are no longer willing to accommodate the dominant, White culture at the expense of their own heritage.
Last year, comedian Hasan Minhaj appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show and refused to move on during a segment until the TV host pronounced his name correctly.
“When I first started doing comedy, people were like, ‘You should change your name,’” he said on the show. “I’m like, ‘I’m not going to change my name. If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.’”
Harris, too, has insisted that people get her name right, tying her experiences to what so many others go through.
“That the highest elected leaders should conduct themselves like they did when they were children on the playground, it speaks poorly of their appreciation for the responsibility of the role that they have,” she said on The Daily Show. “And I think it’s a reflection of their values and their maturity.”