Why Pronunciations Matter

Name Pronunciation Matters Much More Than You Think

Although our names seem like just a way for others to remember us, there are powerful forces behind each unique pronunciation that can change how we view ourselves.

Arjun Thakkar

Over the past month and a half, I've probably told about a hundred people my name, where I'm from, my dorm building, my intended major, and a bunch of other introductory icebreaker tidbits centered around presenting yourself. As awkward and pointless as they can be, icebreakers are designed to help you put a name to a face by remembering facts that go along with the person. That process of attaching a name to a face is an important act of association that transforms labels of "he" or "she" into a tangible individual who was at least important enough for you to remember. If you knew everyone's name, you probably wouldn't make preconceived judgements about them since giving them a name gives them an identity that predominates beyond their appearance. In other words, our names act as incredibly powerful forces in our brains, letting us develop sophisticated profiles of the people that are meaningful in our day-to-day routine.

With this power in mind, what occurs when an individual has and uses more than one pronounced name? Is their identity fractured, like Batman villain Two-Face? Or are they complementary identities, each containing certain roles for a person?

Anyone with a unique name or a foreign one knows what it feels like to have others pronounce their name differently. When substitute teachers inevitably butcher a name, that student usually grimaces and, if they're feeling brave, they put forth the effort to try and correct them. That grimace is like when you ask your Dad to grab some Froot Loops from the grocery store and he grabs one of those sketchy knock-off Fruit Rings packages instead; it just doesn't feel right, and you could tell him what you actually wanted, but it's basically the same thing. Right?

That attitude of reluctant acceptance was my initial mindset upon hearing different pronunciations of my name. The name Arjun is originally supposed to be pronounced Uh-r-joo-n [əɹʤun], but I remember getting bullied and crying because name was 'weird' to others at a young age. When my first-grade teacher asked me if it was pronounced Are-zh-oon [ɑɹʒun], it had a certain ring to it that I thought sounded cool, so I said yes and have stuck with it ever since. Neither is really easier to say than the other, but I've become more accustomed to the latter in my interactions with friends and professors.

That's why it threw me off so much when one of my new friends, who happened to be Indian, pronounced my name the original way, the way that South Asians say it. Upon hearing him say that, I immediately felt like the guy was like my brother, like someone in my family who I had known for a long time.

Why would something so small change my reaction? There isn't anything inherently different about the two pronunciations, and such an insignificant label really shouldn't matter. While this is a fair point, it discounts the importance I've given to my name. The more Indian pronunciation is naturally used with family members, so anytime I'm at family events, gatherings, or just at home, that's the name I respond to. Anytime I've been at school, a job, or with friends, others use the first-grade pronunciation, so I associate that name with my external life. So when my friend said the name I associate with family, I internally associated him with that part of my life. It almost feels like I have two versions of myself; the Arjun who loves writing and cracks bad jokes, and the Arjun who listens to family stories and prays at temples. My Indian culture and identity seem separated from my more American culture that I acquired from school and activities.

As I've encountered more friends who called me the Indian version of my name, I was left confused about which version is correct. And the conclusion I've reached is that neither version is really the 'right' version; my experiences at school with friends were just as meaningful (if not more) than those I had with my cousins and at Indian events. I encourage you to look into the origins of your own name – I know mine comes from Indian mythology – and understand what your name means, not just from its origin, but also in terms of its importance to you. Maybe you've had a nickname or something your parents call you, so consider how those many names have influenced your own identity. No matter what, recognize that though your names define who you are to others, they need not define who you are to you.

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