How to pronounce Hindu Bengali names

“Hi, can I speak to an Arabian?”

“Excuse me?”

“Hi, I’m trying to reach an Arabian.”

“Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I am an Indian.”

“No, I mean is this the phone of Mr. An-arabian er… I’m not even going to try to pronounce your last name.”

“Ah, if you’re looking for Anirban, then yes. This is Anirban speaking.”

“Hi, I’m Betty calling about an exciting offer for a Visa credit card that will let you transfer balances from high-interest rate accounts.”

“Uhm about the offer. Well, you may very well be batty, but I’ll still decline. I already have more credit cards than I know what to do with.”

_________________

Sigh! I guess if this call had originated from a call-center in India, it probably would have been worse. Of course, I’d be able to tell from the fake accent. On the bright side that would have provided me an opportunity to immediately launch an insult-laden tirade in Hindi.

Granted, the spelling isn’t intuitive. Bengalis pronounce Anirban as On-ear-bahn and “Anirban” is neither fully Sanskritized nor Bengalified. But I’m so used to variants that are acceptable that I don’t mind anymore. North Indian friends have called me Aneer-bon. In North America, I’ll take that any day. I’ve been called many other things out here such as Aniraban, which makes me cringe, since I’m not really like the infamous mythical ruler of Lanka (well, there is nothing if there is no hope).

But seriously, how hard is it to pronounce Anirban? No, seriously. Compared to being called an Arabian, I’ll take Awnir-bahn or A-near-ban any day (not that there is anything wrong with being an Arabian if it is by birth or er… choice).

First, our names get mangled. Then to add insult to injury, we find out that there is an NFL team from Cincinnati called the Beng-uhls. For crying out loud, where do you get the gall? It isn’t West Bangle or Royal Ben-gull Tiger. Please, it is Ben-gaul and we are Bengollys or Bengolese (if you need to rhyme it with Congolese).

I’ve heard many horror stories about slaughtered Bengali names. For example, a North American was once visiting the ashram of a sage in West Bengal. The name of the mystic, Swami Nandanananda is a mouthful even by desi standards, but I’d break it down into Nandan and ananda and say it slowly. The North American devotee tried pronouncing it “Nandanandanandanandananda…” and went into an infinite loop. Or so I’ve heard. Don’t quote me.

Okay, I made it up.

Granted that Bengalis with Hindu names have a much easier time fitting in than some of our South Indian compatriots, but I’m still be hard pressed to find a Bengali in North America who hasn’t shortened his “good name” or gone with his nickname like good old Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Is it our fault that our parents put so much effort into finding involved names from obscure Sanskrit texts?

As for me, for now I’m going with Ani.

© Text, 2010-2012

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44 thoughts on “How to pronounce Hindu Bengali names

  1. I get irked when people call Kolkata as Call-kota. It should be Coal-kaata. Similarly, Rasogolla shouldn’t be pronounced as Raaso-gula. Its Raw-sho-golla ! Fantastic post 🙂

    • Well said, dada. These days, when I write Bangla using Roman letters, I tend to prefer a more phonetic spelling like most of my friends from Bangladesh. So I’d write something like “oshhabhabik” instead of “aswavabik” like many others. Just a matter of preference.

      Thanks for the praise. Coming from someone who is a master of wordplay, it means a lot.

      Shubechcha roilo, Anirban

  2. I hear you brother. With a name like Jyotishka you have no idea what it has been contorted into. My favorite one though has to be “Jyothika” which i have been called during my 5 year stay at Vellore. And now a second innings start as i head towards the US. Since you change it to “Ani” It’s time for me to change to “Joe” or “Jyo” 🙂

    • Consider your name already changed to Joe even before you arrive. One of my roommates in grad school was Tathagata – he became Tate overnight. Another, Sukirti was pronounced “security”.

      Safe travels. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Urmi. In the US, the Chinese have circumvented this problem by having “American” names. I know someone who goes by Horatio Chen. “Horatio” is his American name, but don’t ask me how he got it. I have no clue!

      Take care.

  3. A very good read!My name is Seemantini (Pronounced Shee-mon-tini in Bengali) and u can imagine, what I have to go through! To make matters worse, I have shifted to Dehradun a month back and since then I’m seriously thinking of shortening my name to something easily pronounceable…like Simi or Seema?

    • Thanks for reading. The problem gets compounded in countries where English is a native language because of the emphasis in most English words on the first syllable. So “multisyllabic” Indic names tend to get slaughtered. In Bangla we don’t put a stress on any syllables. French-speakers pronounce names differently as well.

      As they say, it is a mad, mad world!

    • But that is a variation in pronunciation. I would have no problem with that as long as all the syllables were intact.

      In Bangla remember that it is Awk-khoy Kumar and Maw-haat-taa Gandhi.

      🙂

  4. This was really funny! My sympathies at the mutilation of your name. We have a relative named Vaidyanathan Rajamani. Soon after he immigrated to Australia, he legally changed his name to Nathan Raj. Wonder why?!

    • Haah! Thanks for sharing. The Nikhil to Nick conversion is another well-documented one.

      The British began anglicizing our proper nouns shortly after they arrived. Remember Cawnpore?

      Subsequently Bengalis had names changed. Gangopadhyaya to Ganguly, Mukhopadhyaya to Mukherjee etc.

      A Ramchandra Basu became Ram Chunder Bose. Curiously, many diasporic cousins scattered across the globe use a phonetic spelling too (aka Shivnarine Chanderpaul).

      Of course there are others with short last names like Roy and Dash who fit right in.

      🙂

  5. Reminds me of an email from my firm’s NY office to an Indian client. It went, “Hello Mr. Harpreet Ramaswamy”

    For 10 whole minutes I had a vision of North vs South India war, and the kind of offense that Harpreet would take. And Harpreet was a lady, I discovered after sometime.

    I’ve had issues with being called Car-Thick (someone spelled it like that too), Katrick and so on. I have a thumb rule, if the to and fro of me explaining my name goes on for more than a minute, I ask them to call me Bob. Works fine.

    Joe, this a good prep for your US visit.

    • Thanks for sharing the vignette, Katrick. 😉

      There is an ISKON temple in West Virginia. In my childhood I visited it my parents. While trying to get there, we ended up getting lost and needing to ask for directions. We asked an old guy where the Hare Krishna temple was.

      He replied, “You mean the Hairy Carry Assrum?”

      For some reason your Harpreet post reminded me of this incident.

  6. I left the best part about my last name which is Namboodiry. Saying anything more will be a discourse in tautology

    • Even I wouldn’t be able to do justice to that one.

      😉

      However, a friend from Kerala once taught me that the way to pronounce Malayalam is Mal-YAA-lum not Malay-al-am like most Bengalis pronounce it.

      Cheers!

  7. My name is Uday. Thought it would be very simple for westerners to pronounce. That thought perished when I heard my TA call me U-day. Have been a U-day ever since 😦

  8. How can someone turn Anirban into An-Arabian in the first place? That’s plain ridiculous. Even if some North American devotee had actually gone into an infinite looped pronunciation of ‘Nandananda..’ that still would’ve been understandable.

    Take my name for example. Most of my friends find ‘Samadrita’ to be quite a mouthful hence they’ve shortened it down to Sammy or Sam completely disregarding my feelings. And this is India we’re talking about. *sigh*

    Great post.

    • Samadrita, that is a nice name. Often it helps to point out common words in English that sound the same. Have you tried Margarita?

      🙂

      Jokes, aside, I think our spelling confusion compounds the problem. Rituparna is female, but Rituparno is male (and I don’t want to get into existential arguments on this one).

      But what about the spelling Subrata, couldn’t it be male like Subroto and female like Subrotaa?

      Take care.

  9. You got it easy. Americans take one look at my name and give up. Even in India no one other than Bongs can pronounce my name correctly; the whole juktakhor at the th-w stumps them.

    In US, I have been asked if they can call me Prit, which I absolutely refuse to do kicking and screaming. Finally they settle on Pete, in which case I say, fine – I’ll just call all of you guys Mike.

    The ultimate trophy must however go to MCI phone company(#youremember, who took down my name as Priwich Pierre. Not that I minded being mistaken for a Frenchman, but did not appreciate my phone line being cutoff since no bills arrived to my address for me to pay.

  10. One post all Bengalis will understand and appreciate. I suppose it happens with all of us- anywhere in India or abroad. My classmates can’t pronounce my name Paushali so they turned it a shed ‘hep and happening’ and made it sound like Victoria Beckham’s poor cousin.
    Also, I remember a Prof. once calling out my name as Poshla, then Panchali and in the end asking what does my name mean 😛

  11. Bengali’s mess up pronunciation as well.

    When I was in Calcutta, my last name Narasimhan was always Noro-shimon. Initially, I thought it was just a few friends playing pranks with my name, but later, even random people would read Narasimhan as Noro-shimo. My sister was always Bidda (Vidya). I understand that you don’t have ‘V’ in your alphabet or something like that, but how difficult is it to say Vidya. And, replacing ‘a’ with ‘o’ is common. Do you have the vowel ‘o’ in your script like in Hindi?

    • Haha… thanks for sharing those stories.

      I will not offer a defense. Okay, maybe a very weak one.

      The problem is that all the letters that you’d find in Hindi are there in Bangla. Let me elaborate. The letters are there, but they sound different. Consequently, a Bengali whose name might be spelled Vidya would be pronounced Bidda. If you swap the exact Devanagari letters of Madhuri Dixit to Bangla it sounds like Madhuri Dikkhit.

      That is because Bengali owes a lot in terms of pronunciation to Pali which it is often considered closer to than to Sanskrit.

      Personally, I have no problems with close approximations. Look, I am not going to get Eyjafjallajökull right. But with long names, I’ll break it down and try it. I won’t reorder the syllables.

      Best wishes.

  12. Hee Hee….it’s funny! Though ‘Anirban’is much easier to pronounce than my name. One of my American friend call me ‘Ari’ and he pronounces it like Harry with a silent H! 😉

  13. Ha ha ha …. going by what Betty said, there could be a release – “Anirban” Nights. 😛 Best Seller !! 😆 Sorry, but the “Arabian” just found me kayalaofying my daant at full capacity !! 😛 My wife cannot get over the fact how Bengalis convert every V to a B. So it is Bidiya Balan, Robeena Tandon and Sreedebi !! But getting your Hindu name twisted to Middle Eastern flavors,I feel for you Ani. Though a lot of people would probably pronounce that too as On E !!

  14. Being a southie(Tam) and having a name like Yogesh makes people wonder if I’m gujarati… I guess there is reason enough for that.

    I’m not picky about how my name is pronounced, but if you can pronounce Rajesh and Mahesh, Yogesh should not be too far off.

    On Bengali names, I used to have a class mate called Sudhosathya, which most South Indians corrupted to ‘Ch***tiya’. I tell you.. these engineering kids can be pretty cruel.

    Flashforward to the work place. A colleague called Sulagno had a lot of trouble getting Americans to call him properly. Luckily enough for him, they used his last name properly. Paul.

    Good post, once again

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Yogesh.

      If if you hadn’t mentioned that you were a Tam, your spelling “SudhosatHya” gave it away.

      Unfortunately for me, I have a pretty tough last name too.

      Hope you have a great week. 🙂

  15. To be completely honest, I’m not even sure HOW my name is supposed to be pronounced ideally. I don’t even try. I turn my head towards any sound that remotely has the sounds of the letters G, R, D and a random T thrown somewhere near the end.

    Gurdit has become:

    Grrrdit (with hard d and hard t, by non-Indians)
    Gurdeeeeet (by some Indians)
    Gurudutt (by other Indians)
    Gurdeep (because apparently that’s a more acceptably common Sikh name)
    Gurdip (WHY CAN’T YOU JUST ACCEPT MY T FOR WHAT IT IS DAMMIT?)

  16. Chaitanya goes by Chai in the US. Even that they find hard to pronounce. Only when I tell them, Chai – like the tea – like “Chai-tea” do they go “Oh! Chai-tea!” and promptly believe that my name is Chaitea instead of the already adultered Chai.

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