"My Desi surname was not professional enough for my professor"
Desi names are often chosen for a child based on heritage, mother-tongue, religion and one’s desh – the country, city or town their families originate from in the homeland.
Notably, immigrant parents and first-generation born British Asians from South Asian communities often choose a Desi name for their children to feel connected to their roots.
Desi names also have rich meanings and a strong attachment to culture and faith as well.
Therefore, if a name provides such a sense of identity, then surely pronouncing the name correctly is something that should be equally important?
While it is a common occurrence to hear a non-Asian person pronounce Desi names incorrectly, a Desi person should say it correctly.
However, as time has progressed more and more British Asians are choosing to pronounce their names with a British twang or accent.
This mispronunciation is intriguing. Why are British Asians choosing to Anglicise their rich, colourful names?
Names originating from languages like Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Gujarati should bring pride.
Yet, many British Asians are trying to distance themselves from it instead.
Is this a marker that we are on a path to losing our mother-tongue pronunciation?
DESIblitz explores why the pronunciation is proving challenging for some South Asians.
Mispronunciation of Desi Names at School
In the 70s, first-generation British Asian children went to school in the UK.
Traditional Desi names were difficult for teachers and other staff members to pronounce.
For example, for British born Punjabis, among peers, names ending in ‘dip, neet, inder, jit, deep’ generated great confusion which led to a divide between pupils.
In many cases, British Asian pupils were bullied and teased for their names.
Desi names further ostracised children from social groups.
Kuljit, an IT worker raised in Bedfordshire reports that she felt conscious of her name growing up:
“As first-generation Indians, my sisters and I all have Desi names which were not well received by our classmates.
“Kids would laugh at you and some would not want to play with you because you were different.”
Therefore, in order to integrate more seamlessly into British schools, people started to use English phonetics to pronounce their names.
Many thought this would show their white counterparts that they weren’t any different from them.
In some cases, children even discarded their Desi name entirely at school in favour of a nickname.
Nikil Kallathil, a trainee pharmacist based in Luton recalled his decision to use a ‘British-sounding’ nickname.
“I was bullied relentlessly. Even my teachers struggled to say my name.
“I remember feeling sick every time it got to my name on the register and they stumbled over it.
“After a while, I asked everyone to call me Niki – it was easier and people started treating me better”.
Embarrassed by my Desi Name
When British Asians first began attending British schools, a sense of embarrassment of their name began.
A Desi name was a clear marker that you were not the same as other students.
For many, it was the first time they truly felt ‘foreign’ in the UK.
Harvinder, a student based in Wolverhampton says:
“I was embarrassed by my name.
“My teachers would really struggle to say my name.
“Sometimes they just said something else completely so I started saying it in an English accent to help them.”
Charusheela Ambalakarar, a Gujarati woman born in the UK, recalls the difficulties with her name during school and beyond:
“Every time a teacher called out my name, I would be prompted to help them pronounce it.”
“They struggled because it was not a ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’. But I struggled as well because it made me stick out like a sore thumb in my classes.
“Despite me shortening my first name to ‘Sheela’ to make it easier for people, my surname was still never easy for people to say.
“At home or among family or my community no one ever had any problems, it was only outside of the home.
“From school to people on the phone, I just got used to spelling it out. But it is not fair that I had to experience this.”
It is clear to see why many Desi people have mispronounced their names from a very young age.
In addition, many just wanted to fit into a society that treated them differently.
Altering your name to sound more ‘British’ was a quick and easy way to change this treatment.
However, it did lead to many detesting their Desi names which naturally caused a desire to separate themselves from their cultural identity.
Integrating into the Workplace
The need or desire to mispronounce one’s own Desi name has also derived from issues in the workplace.
Research has indicated that names on CVs and in job interviews that are not ‘British’ enough can also create barriers.
Pronouncing names in a more western way to fit in happens more often than one may think.
In addition, having a Desi name hinders job opportunities.
Natasha Singh, a medical student from London recalls a time when she had to give a presentation to the company’s board members:
“I was being introduced by my professor and he quietly told me they would introduce me by my first name only.
“Everyone else was introduced by first and surname – it seems my Desi surname was not professional enough for my professor.”
Similarly, Navneet Kaur aged 38, feared job discrimination so much that she created a fake name for several jobs:
“When I was in my twenties I used to use a fake name on my CV just to get in the door.”
“There’s no way I would have got the roles I applied for if I used my real name, especially back then.”
An alarming fact is that this discrimination against different South Asian names has not really progressed in the last 60 years.
In 2012, Professor Yaojun Li concluded from his extensive research that:
“After 1983 the unemployment rate of Pakistani and Bangladeshi women has remained consistently and substantially higher than the rate for white women.”
A 2018 study by the University of Oxford found ethnic minority applicants had to submit 80% more applications than a white British person in order to receive a positive response from an employer.
This emphasises the unfortunate state of racial bias within the workplace and signifies why British Asians are ‘whitening’ their name.
Leaving Ethnic Details off Job Applications
In 2017, BBC’s Inside Out London used two participants, ‘Adam’ and ‘Mohamed’ to apply for 100 job opportunities.
Listing the exact same CV, but using different names, the study found that ‘Adam’ received 12 interviews whilst ‘Mohamed’ was only offered four.
Leaving ethnic details like your Desi name out is shown to help integration into the workplace.
Faheen Aslam, aged 41, recalls filling out an application as a joke but received a surprising response.
Born in Pakistan but now residing in the UK, Faheen worryingly states:
“When I was younger I filled out a bunch of applications with different names as a laugh with my friends.
“It was bizarre that the ones I received a response from I had used non-Muslim names.”
He looks back with shock at how blatantly he was prejudiced.
Therefore, this suggests that those with ‘whitened’ names are more likely to be offered the job.
Although adopting western versions of Desi names can be helpful in professional environments, research suggests this can have damaging effects.
Xian Zhao, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, conducted extensive research into the pronunciation of foreign names.
He found a pattern whereby those who used a more ‘Anglo’ name instead of their own culturally significant name had lower self-esteem.
Therefore, mispronouncing your Desi name can indicate lower levels of health and personal wellbeing.
The Impact of Cultural ‘Name Switching’
Both mispronouncing your Desi name and not correcting others when they wrongly pronounce it can be harmful.
Many people switch names or de-emphasise the strong pronunciation of their name based on who they are with.
For example, Tahmeena age 26, finds that she name-switches when she is at work versus at home:
“I learned to pronounce my name the proper way because we speak Urdu at home.
“At work though everyone says my name in an English way – Tamina.
“I feel awkward at the thought of trying to correct them so I just let it go.”
While this may not seem like a big issue to some people, this is actually detrimental to one’s cultural identity.
Mispronouncing your own name suggests you are less important than those with ‘white-sounding’ names.
Naturally, this contributes to a lack of confidence and a feeling of inferiority in relation to your heritage.
Like Tahmeena, Neeraj finds it difficult to correct people when they say his name wrong at work.
Born and raised in Tamil Nadu, India, Neeraj came to the UK for higher education.
He frustratingly says:
“Everyone in England pronounces my name wrong – they don’t even ask how to say it correctly.”
Would it be easier if we just asked how to say someone’s name if we are unsure?
Moreover, Pirasanth Alocius, a sales assistant originally from Sri Lanka details his experience in the UK regarding his traditional name:
“In Sri Lanka, we use our father’s name as our first name and our personal name as the second.
“When I emigrated to the UK they didn’t understand this.
“They kept making mistakes on my legal documents – even today they still have my name the wrong way round.”
Myles Durkee, an assistant professor of psychology, says that “strategically mispronouncing someone’s name is a way of othering someone.”
Therefore, by this logic, purposely mispronouncing your own name is a way of distancing yourself from others.
It can even suggest that you do not regard yourself as a normative member of that work or social environment.
This kind of self-distancing was highlighted by a 2021 article written by journalist Rajwant Gill.
Detailing her exhaustion at correcting people who mispronounced her name, she began using the alias ‘Suzy Smith’. She expresses:
“Working in the media, you need answers at rapid speed, rather than having a 10-minute conversation explaining your name.”
As Rajwant started to shorten her name to ‘Raj’ to co-workers and friends, she reveals:
“Even with this abbreviation, people still get it wrong.
“I have been called Raz, Madge, Maz and bizarrely Rodge.”
This long history of blind ignorance has shaped the way many Desi’s are now introducing themselves.
It has almost become an innate tendency for many South Asian’s to automatically have a western nickname or abbreviation to refer to when their cultural name is mispronounced.
Does Mispronunciation show a Lack of Pride?
Mispronouncing our own Desi names can show a lack of pride in one’s mother tongue and heritage.
Allowing yourself to not say your name in its authentic way tells others that it is okay for them to do so too.
It tells others who are not Desi that implicit discrimination is okay.
If you don’t care about pronunciation then why should others?
Zhao says that it sends a clear message that you are minimal:
“You are not important in this environment, so why should I take time and my effort to learn it?”
When parents have given their child a traditional name to honour their culture, anglicising it can feel like a betrayal to them.
Moreover, future generations will see this and think that Desi names should be hidden, disguised and subdued.
However, it is worth noting that things are changing; the care we take to get names right is a topic increasingly under scrutiny.
Encouraging People to Pronounce Desi Names Correctly
It is important to note that this issue transcends the boundaries of Britain and has turned into a global problem.
In mid-2020 the #MyNameIs social media campaign started following the mispronunciation of Kamala Harris‘ name.
This sought to showcase the origin and meaning of names and encourage people to pronounce ethnic-minority names correctly.
Pakistani-American comedian and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani was among those who joined the campaign.
However, the issue already sparked the beginning of change years before this.
In 2019 American comedian Hasan Minhaj was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres show.
DeGeneres mispronounced Minhaj’s name (which reflects his Indian-Muslim background) so he used his time to correct the TV host.
In a clip viewed over 4 million times, he says:
“If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.”
This highlights the cultural and societal impact of mispronunciation.
The significance of social media exposes more South Asians to this problem, yet many are now seeing more people addressing the issue which should kickstart positive change.
Watch Hasan Minaj correct Ellen Degeneres
What’s my name? Timothée Chalamet. pic.twitter.com/M4JvVTEz9O
— Hasan Minhaj (@hasanminhaj) April 4, 2019
Following this, many others have gained the confidence to correct people when they have mispronounced their names.
Minhaj, and many others in the celebrity world, have served as role models for those wanting to reclaim their Desi names.
As a natural consequence, more Desi people have become comfortable with their names and are not trying to diminish the sound of it.
Sai Charan Nallani, born and raised in South India says that since coming to the UK as a student more people are correcting others on pronunciation.
He excitedly says:
“Our course peers are quite open-minded so they’re happy for us to keep telling them our names until they get it perfect”.
Hopefully, more Desi people become encouraged to be proud of their names.
Although, it is also the duty of colleagues and friends to step in when they witness the mispronunciation of someone’s name.
If not, it is likely that the true pronunciation will perish and the connection to one’s roots will slowly break further away.