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What’s in a Name? Why Mispronunciation Is Still Colonization

“Why do people even give their kids’ a difficult name when they can go with an easier one?” I overheard the other day.

Even though the comment wasn’t directed toward me, I felt triggered. As a Muslim living in the United States with an obvious “foreign” name, I know it’s often seen as difficult. I learned that the hard way when a substitute teacher once barked that it didn’t matter whether he pronounced my name correctly after I tried correcting him. He had cared enough to pronounce my White friends’ names perfectly, so why not mine? 

That was the resounding moment at which I realized how different my name was from those with easy-to-pronounce English names. And it has fueled my drive to politely but firmly correct people whenever they mispronounce my name. But the reason goes beyond mere pronunciation.  

Names that others may perceive as difficult often bear cultural, linguistic, or religious significance. One example is those named after our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH.) They are truly blessed to be named after such an inspiration for Muslims and humanity. We can all learn from his near perfection, so those named after Rasulullah (PBUH) may feel particularly inclined to emulate his goodness to the best of their abilities. 

I feel that the meanings of my name help hold me accountable for my actions.

Similarly, those whose names have Arabic meanings may feel connected to those meanings. Take my name, for instance: Samirah has the dual Arabic meanings of joy and good friend, while Aziz translates to mighty and has the religious connotation of Allah’s (SWT) name Al-Aziz, The Strong and The One Who is not Defeated.

I feel that the meanings of my name help hold me accountable for my actions. As a friend, I try my best to keep my good friends close and be there for them when they go through difficult times. And when I don’t hold myself up to that standard, I feel as though I have let down a crucial part of myself. I also tend to stay calm and confident when faced with jealousy and other hardships. So when I face challenges, reflecting upon my name encourages me to remain true to myself and become a better person, Alhamdulillah.

These types of meaningful names are not limited to Arabic and Islam either. There are countless examples of meaningful cultural names across the world that pay homage to specific languages and communities. One example is the name of Nigerian-American TED Talk speaker Erikan Obotetukudo. She explained that Erikan means victory comes from God, while Obotetukudo combines the names of the first three families in her ancestry, Obot, Etuk, and Udo. Her last name directly traces her to her lineage, country, and region. As Erikan eloquently stated, “If I ever get lost, my name will lead me back home.” 

So why IS IT THAT mainstream American culture prefers Eurocentric names and identities?

In order to answer this question, we must consider the historical context behind this mindset. The primary reason behind the esteemed global status of English as a language at the expense of most non-European languages is that European countries began colonizing the rest of the world in the 1600s. In the traumatic and violent colonization that spanned across centuries, European colonizers purposely diminished and erased many of the vastly diverse languages, and thus cultures of the peoples that they invaded.

For example, when the British Empire ruled over India, the ruling British class used English as a weapon by which to evaluate Indians; they tended to favor Indians who learned English and acted British over Indians who remained true to their lived cultures and mother tongues. This led to a long-lasting national preference for English following the official end of British rule. The superior nature of the English language in India is demonstrated by the fact that English is one of India’s only two national languages among the many other languages spoken across the country. 

Similarly, English was the primary language of the British colonies that became the United States after the Revolutionary War. While the United States gained independence, it has still depended on the British superiority complex to exclude non-English narratives. This is demonstrated by the utterly inhumane treatment of Indigenous Americans and their languages by Americans across national history.

In the late 19th century, there was a rise in White American boarding schools meant to assimilate indigenous children into White society in part by forbidding them from using their mother tongues at school to forcibly prioritize the English language. In doing so, Americans exposed their intolerance toward thriving communities using their own languages and hindered the existence and usage of such languages in current indigenous tribes.  In response to this immense linguistic threat, indigenous scholars and language activists have more recently formed The Language Conservancy, which has been working across communities to revitalize indigenous languages that have declined largely due to the underlying colonial history.

Some employers in America, for instance, avoid hiring people with accents since they associate having an accent with being underqualified.

While this may seem like a distant past, the repercussions of linguistic superiority politics continue to exist in people’s biases against “foreign” accents and “difficult” names. Some employers in America, for instance, avoid hiring people with accents since they associate having an accent with being underqualified. And on the individual level, Erikan Obotetukudo repeatedly considered changing and shortening her name in order to better fit in with mainstream American society. These situations bear an uncanny resemblance to the mentality of those problematic boarding schools – sound and act American enough in order to succeed. 

The reality is that Americans with accents are often fluent in languages that solely-English speakers can often only attempt to know. This makes it even more commendable that Americans with diverse backgrounds even attempt to include English in their vocabularies and lives. So the sense of entitlement that English speakers without foreign names or accents may have blatantly overlooks the abundance of languages spoken across the world. That is why Americans and, more largely, anglophones without foreign names or accents must humble themselves by realizing that they are limited to English. And while English is the portal to one world, there are so many more linguistic worlds that are equally deserving of respect.

Taking that into account, if you also have a “difficult” name, don’t be embarrassed. If anything, appreciate your name for how it pays tribute to your unique roots and history. After all, names and identities like ours are the ones that have helped forge the United States into the thriving ethnic, linguistic, and religious hub that it is today.