What’s in a name? Scattered Thoughts on ‘Mispronunciation’

Pranav Kuttaiah
8 min readFeb 4, 2022

Now that I’m a basic-ass NRI again, I think it’s about time I offered my two bits on the most basic-ass of NRI topics — the mispronunciation of “my” name. Bear with me though. I think I have an actual point to make. My urge to type this out into a piece stems from a singular motive — that I can link this set of interconnected thoughts to somebody as an article rather than incoherently mumble the many compelling reasons I believe we need to divest from the many manifestations of a convoluted, wealthy PoC politics of recognition.

In most liberal towns in the United States, one is often asked the same question: “How do your say your name?”. This comes from a good place, so I don’t find the need to be dick-ish about it. My go-to response, therefore is, “Say it however you want”.

I like when the discussion ends here, and people pick up on the fact that I probably have a few other topics I’d rather discuss than this. In most liberal towns in the United States, however, things are almost never this straightforward. Most usually reply with a “I want to get it right, I want to make sure you feel seen, you feel heard, that your name is said with respect…” and various other iterations of this.

Now this too, probably comes from a good place. But it usually stems from a general atmosphere of debilitating guilt foisted on would-be leftists by the non-white intellectual and social elite. This paradigm likes to focus, of course, on the easiest markers of cultural difference — names, food, clothes, cultural practices — and insist that these are somehow central to personhoods. Such a charade is itself predicated on a deeper premise: that the individual personhood is the only unit in which politics can and must have some sort of true meaning. These things crystallize into an edifice of self-congratulatory ignorance and performativism that ends up lurking behind seemingly innocuous beliefs that things like names are very important.

So where does one begin to steer things at that point in the conversation?

I could take the approach of a nuanced personal history. The first-name by which I’m currently referred to was given to me as a name of convenience — a passably common Sanskritic name with no relationship or bearing to either of my parents’ lives, beliefs, lineages, linguistic traditions, or anything else. I have a “village name”, one that my parents believed wouldn’t serve me too well in the types of places that ID cards, passports and other documents are the de facto currency of recognition. So they strategically chose an “ID-card” name — one that had a vague enough pan-Indianness and would steer me away from any religious-based trouble.

Neither of them really know how to “pronounce” it, actually. They never call me by it, not even when I’m in big trouble. In later years I’d hear that in Sanskrit it’s written with a “ ण “ and not a “ न “, a distinction that would be totally irrelevant to a passable colloquial pronunciation. Moreover, as is the case with most Sanskritic names, there is a convention of pronunciation that is prone to the vagaries of its many offshoot languages. Most Punjabis would interchange the ‘r’ and the ‘a’, the Bengalis would say it with a ‘b’ instead of a ‘v’. South-Indian sanskritic names have also undergone a pernicious change that historians of linguistics call “schwa deletion” — where a name like mine would have traditionally ended with a “du” in Telugu or a “an” in Tamil or Malayalam.

The truth — for anybody vaguely familiar with South Asian languages — is that there’s no actual fixed way to say this (or any other similar) name. It would depend on the speaker and the language in which the name is contextually being spoken. So there’s amply good historical reason to back my original answer: “Say it however you want”. But all of that is just pedantic linguistics which, as we have established, these questions are not actually about.

The awkward dance around pronunciation of names is necessitated by people who try to wield certain kinds of power on the basis of certain kinds of identities — which are mobilized strategically as tacit claims to legitimacy. To the ear that has never even heard the words Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil or Telugu, the meaningless act of fretting over a few alien syllables is deemed a fair penalty to avoid the charge of racism. There’s an important political lesson that underlies this — and it’s precisely that which I think is worth expending energy to actually write about.

My complicated and sometimes hurtful personal experiences convinced me from very early on — however tacitly — that “I” was, thankfully, something quite a bit more than my name(s). Of course, one can very easily discern when a mispronunciation is an act of malice or provocation — but beyond that, it never seemed like the kind of thing that was worth stymieing a genuine connection and shared set of values over. If the intent and values were clearly shared from the get-go, the semantics was always unimportant. Conversely if I felt my point was simply not being understood or received with the generosity it deserved, it did not matter if the person could flawlessly say every one of my names.

But enough with the personal, there is a structural observation embedded here that I’m trying to parse out. There is something about a type of moral argument in which a name comes to be the ultimate repository of the personhood; where the mispronunciation of the name is seen to constitute a misrecognition of the person itself.

Moreover, in societies where such arguments hold sway, the violation of every single facet of personhood is seen as acceptable so long as it doesn’t trespass the sanctity of the name. Corporations are engaged in detailed calculations based on what you feed them through personality quizzes, clicks and likes to accurately predict which brand of chaddi you’re likely to buy in 2027, but they’re allowed to do this under the rhetorical security of “respecting privacy” because they apparently can’t collect your name.

This is the topsy-turvy world engendered by a type of politics for which the clear definition of the self (as encompassed in the name and a few other token markers of ‘origin’) is the central project. This politics takes a language of recognition painstakingly fought for by the organized politics of different historical underclasses and hollows it out into compliance-based word game for the propertied class. It erroneously conflates a very real type of violent misrecognition that straitjackets certain people into oppressive categorizations, with a wholly different, unforgiving and elite impulse to treat names like private property and police the transgression of it.

Let’s back up a bit and unpack that, because it’s important. To clearly define something is to fiercely police its boundaries. There are things that I do believe are worth defining (and defending) in this manner. We all need to agree on the meanings of certain politically-charged words, and fiercely oppose those who would seek to disintegrate them into meaninglessness, or invert their substance towards a different political agenda. I will eternally argue that we must always defend a progressive definition of “democracy”, “freedom”, “free speech” and so on. I’m even immensely personally invested in defending “Buddhism” as a set of political practices from elite mumbo-jumbo con artists who would rid it of its profound committment to genuinely just forms of kindness.

But are names really all that? Are you telling me its really the most urgent political necessity to make names the site on which you’re willing to go to war? Do you really feel it makes a difference if your landlord or boss or vice-president is commonly referred to by some apparently unconventional combination of syllables?

Names are essentially conventions around which to organize property and ownership clearly; to recognize clear bases for entitlement (and non-entitlement), to draw lines along which to enfranchise and disenfranchise. Surnames were necessitated in most parts of the world by conscription. First name changes for women after marriage were seen as necessary to signify a change in who owned them.

Names are administrative power. The constancy of name is the basis on which accumulation can take place — that property can be consolidated and passed on, that recognition can be attributed, that fame can proliferate. The time-honoured, global tradition of the “pen-name” — the guise under which an author can de-centre their personhood and invite the reader to reflect on the point — is on its deathbed in a world where somebody has to be nameable as the “first” to do something for the wheel of prestige and capital to stay churning. In a moment in which it’s chic to be rethinking marriage and living arrangements, few ever consider the radical possibility that each phase of their life be marked by a name change.

To posit such a ridiculously oppressive site as the basis of a supposedly radical politics of recognition is therefore, to me, patently absurd. It is simply antithetical to every spiritual and ethical tradition I believe in, that calls on us to divest from the hubris of the self. If you cannot discern somebody’s sentiments towards your humanity and right to exist unless they perfectly intonate your name like your parents do, you probably should reconsider whatever you think or call community.

I’ve been good all these weeks and not slipped in any Kanye into my writing, so cut me some slack on this one. I keep thinking off late about his change of name. He went from rapping in anger in 2005 -

“And wouldn’t change by the change or the game or the fame
When he came in the game, he made his own lane
Now all I need is y’all to pronounce my name
It’s Kanye, but some of my plaques, they still say “Kayne”

- to changing his name to Ye because:

“I believe ‘ye’ is the most commonly used word in the Bible, and in the Bible it means you. So it’s I’m you, I’m us, it’s us… It went from being Kanye, which means the only one, to just Ye being a reflection of our good, our bad, our confused, our everything.”

If that’s the transformation that the person accused of being the 21st century’s biggest egotist underwent, then I think we could all afford a rethink on the politics of names. To centre oneself — especially with a moral claim on politics — is to make a name a brand, a credential, a store of low-effort value to accrue woke cred. And I think we could all do with de-centring our selves a tiny bit. Say my name however you want.