Navigating name diversity: why getting it right matters

Click to play video: 'What’s in a name? Neetu Garcha on why getting it right matters'
What’s in a name? Neetu Garcha on why getting it right matters
Global BC reporter Neetu Garcha explores that question as she describes how she’s been saying her own name wrong most of her life, why she’s decided to stop and how to say it correctly. – Apr 13, 2021

You may be hard-pressed not to find someone in Canada who has memories of dreading the moment their school teacher reads their name off a list in front of the entire class.

For many, that moment often involved an internal debate about whether to correct the teacher, whether to go with whatever pronunciation they came up with, or to create a version of their name that’s easier for others to say.

Well, for UBC associate professor Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, she’s long been the one in the front of the classroom, introducing herself to students with her traditional Hawaiian middle name.

“Every semester we download a class list and there is the students’ first and last name but then there’s also the preferred name, and it’s interesting because some of the international students will have an English name as a preferred name,” Galla said, adding “names carry a particular power and I tell them it’s okay for us to use our Indigenous and heritage names and that regardless of if it’s difficult, it’s my responsibility as an instructor to learn your name.”

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Galla said she respects each student’s choice, knowing for some Indigenous peoples particularly, there could be some trauma related to forced assimilation associated with using traditional names.

But whether it’s through the use of correct spelling, pronunciation, or diacritics, authentic names can connect to family lineage, place, land, tradition, cultural practices, language and cultural identity and she said that needs to be more widely appreciated.

“I think for a long time, we’ve been making other people feel comfortable and I think we need to be comfortable with our names and our cultures and communities that we represent. I think there is definitely power in that but with that causes a lot of discomfort to others, but that’s okay, I think that’s part of the learning and unlearning that needs to happen.”

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Galla, who teaches language and literacy education and critical Indigenous studies, said amid the global reckoning on racial justice that was sparked by the death of George Floyd in the U.S., more of her students have voluntarily begun addressing her by her Hawaiian name.

“I didn’t ask why they made that decision but it’s really interesting to see students are making that transition,” she said. “I think it has made students think about not only culture and diversity but also why do we actually make that change?”

It’s a question that 26-year-old Gurpinder Gaidu grapples with. Gaidu, a student at Douglas College and a women’s representative of the campus students’ union, said she grew up seeing people with Punjabi names, like hers, being made fun of.

“I did witness people being bullied for their name,” she said, adding that’s part of the reason she still hesitates with her own this day, “I don’t want people to say ‘oh my god’ here it comes again, another challenging name from the Punjabi community.”

As a child, for example, she said kids would joke about her relative named Simran, by saying “sim just came back from a ran,” as in, Iran.

“I really do change the way my name is pronounced because I do want to make it easier for other people so I kind of shortened it to Gurp and say my name rhymes with burp but my name actually doesn’t rhyme with burp because my full name is Gurpinder.”

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“I really do appreciate people who do acknowledge pronunciation and apologize beforehand and say I’m sorry if I mispronounce your name or people who ask how do you pronounce your name because it gives respect and makes you feel valued at the same level.”

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It’s a sentiment Amrita Ramkumar, a Metro Vancouver resident who grew up in Mumbai and moved to Canada as a teenager, shares.

“I was 17 and I remember telling people ‘oh hey my name is Amrita’ and everyone’s like ‘what? Reeta?’ and I’m like ‘no no no it’s Amrita’ and they’re like ‘oh, um-reeta’ and I’m like yeah I guess okay fine like I guess it’s um-reeta. So I’ve just been telling people my name is um-reeta since then.”

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Ramkumar’s native language is Tamil, but she speaks four others including Hindi, Marathi and Bengali. Especially as someone who grew up in such a diverse community in India, she says at first, she didn’t understand why people weren’t taking the time to learn her name in Canada.

“I kind of took offence to it because I thought they didn’t think it was important enough to learn the actual pronunciation of my name but then I also realized a lot of Canadians don’t roll their ‘r’s’ but in India people do,” she said.

“After coming to that realization, I was like oh okay they’re probably not doing it on purpose and they are trying but that’s just the way to pronounce and I feel like at one point I was just like it’s whatever, I don’t think it matters to me.”

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These stories of navigating name diversity are representations of the reality for thousands of Canadians, living in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural society that’s dominated by anglicized titles and documentation systems.

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As easily as they put one foot in front of the other when they walk, their brains are trained to pronounce their names according to who they’re addressing.

The authentic versions are reserved for members of their community who understand the language, lineage and heritage behind the name, in other words, those who are trained to say it authentically. Then there’s the version of their name that’s for everyone else, to make it easier for others to pronounce something that’s foreign to them.

It’s that unfamiliarity that’s often a deterrent for people to put in the effort to learn new sounds and names, according to adjunct linguistics professor at UBC, Heather Bliss.

“It can be hard if you’re just looking at something written down on a page because spelling is a very imperfect reflection of how things are pronounced, especially as we see variations from language to language in terms of the alphabet they use,” Bliss said.

“I think because from a very very young age, maybe three to six months, we’re set in a particular way of forming our mouths, making sounds, thinking about languages that we are growing up around in a particular way, it can be really hard to change those patterns.”

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Bliss said as a linguist, trained in the sound systems across the 7,000 languages of the world, even she finds pronunciation of new languages hard, but not impossible.

“I have experienced this embarrassment in my own life, especially because I’m a linguist so there’s this expectation that I put on myself that I should be able to get pronunciation down right away,” she said.

“But I think there’s lots of resources out there and I think that’s probably a good place to start before we burden somebody by saying ‘hey teach me this, take time out of your day to teach me these things that I need to know to be a better ally,’ we can put in that work ourselves by going to the internet, going to resources we can trust and learning that way.”

Bliss says taking the time to learn about someone’s name and practise getting it right, is a deep sign of respect.

“If language is a marker of identity and a marker of our linguistic and cultural heritage, then we really want to honour that by trying to pronounce and spell these signals of identity and culture and ancestry and lineage in the right way.”

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Using a traditional name pronunciation can be liberating

For me, like so many others, I’ve long been conflicted about the anglicized version of my name, which is pronounced as “knee-two” “gar-cha”.

The way my parents, and much of the Punjabi community, refer to me is more like “nee-thoo” (but the “th” is pronounced kind of like in the word seventh, but softer) “g-uhr-cha” (with a rolled “r”).

As a child, I didn’t think twice about changing my name to make it easier for others to pronounce it. Even then, one of my elementary school teachers had a hard time saying the anglicized version, and embarrassed, I suggested everyone just call me Nancy. A name I randomly selected, because it started with the same letter as my actual name and it was an English name that those around me could easily pronounce. So, for a year of my life, I was referred to as Nancy by classmates and my teacher.

By the following year, I switched back to the anglicized version of Neetu, and not long after, I came up with a seemingly genius way for people to be able to say it correctly, “it’s like your knee and the number two,” I would say, and I used that reference for years to come, right up until a few months ago, in fact.

That’s when I started reporting on the farmers’ protests in India and I was pronouncing every Indian name authentically, but my own. I got to my sign-off at the end of my reports and I found it very difficult to say “Neetu Garcha, Global News,” in an anglicized way. While I had this kind of inner conflict in the past when pronouncing Punjabi names correctly on air and not doing the same with my own, this time was different. It was like a lifetime of inner conflict had ballooned and was ready to burst.

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It was amid a civil rights movement that had me reflecting on my own heritage and identity as a Canadian-born and raised Punjabi woman, that had sparked the kind of conversations I had never had before about microaggressions and the millions of ways they manifest and about how I can help to move the needle.

So, with the knowledge that my platform, and how I do what I do, can influence young people, imaging myself as a little girl seeing someone on TV pronouncing their name authentically, rather than anglicizing it, I made a decision.

After several months of reflection, I’ve decided to permanently stop anglicizing my name and only using the traditional Punjabi pronunciation.

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Before making this decision public, I’ve had the opportunity to share my reflections with friends and colleagues, many of whom immediately began to practise saying my name the way it’s meant to be said. Their enthusiastic support for the change and quick efforts to learn how to say it correctly made me feel more accepted and authentically myself than I ever have in my life.

Having said that, I don’t expect anyone to get it right all the time or right away, not even myself; it’s a big switch to make after decades of pronouncing my name one way.

But I know it’s not only the right thing to do but also the right time to be doing it.

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