“Okay guys, listen. I don’t mean to make anyone uncomfortable since I have brought this up before, but you’ve kind of been mispronouncing my name this whole time. It’s Kajal (car-jill). Not ‘kah-jaal’,” I said with my heart in my throat. The friends of my now ex-boyfriend stared blankly back at me. “Oh sorry,” one of them finally said, “we’ll say it correctly from now onwards.” Needless to say – they did not.
Tchaikovsky. Beethoven. Benedict Cumberbatch. Timothy Chalamet. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Arnold Schwarzenegger. These are all names that appear very complex, yet so many people can accurately pronounce them. Considering that these people are famous, I’m sure their names have been said out loud too many times to count, which almost definitely helped. However, I’ve come to learn that no matter how many times you tell people your name out loud, they will mispronounce it if they lack the decency and respect.
My grandfather gave me my name. He had apparently become obsessed with it the second he came to know that my mother was pregnant. And having grown up in a pretty non-diverse Indian town, everyone could correctly pronounce one another’s names – something I took for granted until I moved away.
University came with all kinds of different people. People of different races, ages, nationalities, and religions. People with different music tastes, idols, political beliefs, and names. I too struggled with pronouncing the names of others correctly. Certain isiXhosa names require a sound that comes from the clicking of the tongue on the roof of your mouth. Certain Afrikaans names require a sound that comes with tightening your throat. However, I never once brushed off someone’s name as simply too difficult. I always tried.
I am grateful to the people who make an effort. Some get it right after the first time I correct them, others ask for guidance when they get stuck on certain syllables or forget it altogether. This call for the correct pronunciation of my name is not for them. It’s for the majority of the people I have encountered in my time at university who simply do not care to try.
As an 18-year-old, fresh-faced, and new to the world, I was complacent in this matter. People mispronounced my name and I seldom corrected them. In fact, in a way, I actually encouraged them. “Call me whatever you want!”
I feel that this is a burden many people of color take on – adjusting your own identity for the convenience of others.
The act of renaming is not a new concept for South Africa. Like so many other things, the mispronunciation of names is rooted in colonization. Through white supremacy, the renaming of slaves was a convenience for colonizers, which stripped victims of their history and identity.
Nelson Mandela’s first name was not Nelson. It was Rolihlahla. The name ‘Nelson’ was his Christian name (but really, I mean English) given to him by his teacher. Under apartheid law, this was a common practice. However, that did not make it right. One cannot deny that the underlying reason for this change was merely because the pronunciation of ‘Rolihlahla’ was just something European colonizers could not be bothered with. In 2020, I guarantee that Mandela would have been faced with, “Uh, that’s kind of difficult…I’ll just call you ‘Ro’.”
What may seem like a meaningless act to some, is actually an identity-shifting discourse for others. The constant mispronunciation of one’s name can lead to a weakened sense of self-worth. Every time I let someone get away with mispronouncing my name, I felt like I betrayed both my Indian heritage and my grandfather. I have recently made the decision to actively correct people. This does not make me irritating or difficult. By owning my name, I am standing up against a vehicle of racism.
It’s been almost three years and the best friend of my ex still calls me ‘Kah-jaal’. Hasan Minhaj had to give Ellen DeGeneres a crash course on how to correctly pronounce his name. Lupita Nyong’o made a tutorial on how to pronounce her name in different accents. And my Chinese friend’s mum still insists on being called by her ‘Western name’ in public to make assimilation easier.
People’s names are their identity. Regardless of your intention, when you don’t make the effort to learn how to pronounce someone’s name, you’re basically telling them that because their name is “different” it is unworthy of the minimal added effort to get it right.