Pronounce Your Name Correctly, Please

The Muslim families in my community want to build a mosque. They are tired of driving thirty minutes to the central mosque downtown; they want a mosque in their neighborhood. They convened and bought a piece of land, drew plans and submitted the project to the city for a conditional use permit. Naturally, some of the surrounding non-Muslim families objected.

Tonight I attended a City Hall meeting regarding whether the project should be granted its permit. Several hundred people attended, many of whom stood at the podium for as long as three minutes each, voicing their support or objection. For two hours, the people took turns speaking their minds. Three local television stations swung their cameras around to catch the action.

I sat in the middle of the room and listened. I was pleased to hear nearly ninety percent of speakers urge for approval of the permit. Most speakers were Muslims, but of the non-Muslims, most of them, too, voiced approval and even welcome of the addition of a mosque to the neighborhood.

Two people gave strong objections. Those two were featured on the television news broadcasts later.

Watching TV, one would think that a mosque on the magnitude of the Grand Mosque in Mecca was being considered. In reality, the mosque will be small, with only 114 prayer spaces (including the women’s section). Our community has 100 Muslim families that would use the facility. Many of those families were in attendance tonight. Each person who spoke introduced him or herself.

I was appalled to hear some of them mispronounce their own names. Men named Ahmed called themselves Amed. One named Hassan called himself Hassahn (accent on the last syllable.) A woman named Suhair became Sue Hair. Khalid became Kalid, Iman became Eye Man, and Quraishi became Kereshi. My poor ears nearly curled up and folded over!

Several years ago, I met the wife of one of the Ahmeds, and even she pronounced her husband’s name, “Amed.” I asked her why, and she gave me the predictable answer, “Americans cannot pronounce Ahmed.”  I wanted to say, “But you can pronounce it!” I wanted to tell her not to cave in to poor pronunciation simply because the majority of people in this country cannot pronounce the names. I wanted to tell her that many people here can, indeed, pronounce the names correctly, especially if they want to do so. They need a little tutoring, and then they’ll pronounce just fine! As a native-born American who did not pronounce my first Arabic word til the age of thirty-six, I disagree that most Americans cannot pronounce Muslim names, or  any names in a language other than English. A name is just a short sound that can be learned in a matter of minutes.

Well, I didn’t tell her all of this; that would have been impolite. I’m telling it to you now, you who read this and might have a name you think,  “Americans can’t pronounce.” You may be right. Some non-Muslims, non-Arabic speakers may never be able to pronounce your name, but you must make them try. They’ll respect you for it, and you’ll respect them because they will try. Some of them will actually learn their first non-English word– your name!

Learning names is a first step in forming relationship. Muslims are missing out on an important step in building relationship when, in their eagerness for acceptance, they do not teach their names, but instead pick up the incorrect pronunciation of native English speakers. I wonder whether the people who objected to the mosque in question had ever met a Muslim person, let alone been taught a Muslim name.

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10 responses

  1. I agree, don’t give in. My people went through some hurdles as the goyish were unable to pronounce their last names or slang, but today even Michele Bachmann is trying to use Yiddish (though failing).

  2. Thanks for your comment, joesix, and welcome!

    While one’s neighbor can be coached, people in the public spotlight have a responsibility to learn the correct pronunciation of unfamiliar names. Politicians and television newscasters have coaches and resource people who also carry the responsibilty. I lose respect when I hear someone mispronouncing a non-English name in public.

  3. I try to pronounce Arabic names correctly. I don’t think I always succeed because there are certain sounds that my American mouth can’t seem to form! Also I think maybe my ears can’t always pick up sounds so I think I’m saying it right when to a native speaker I’m not. But I do try! I was so happy when I finally started saying my Syrian friend’s name correctly. I used to joke that it was tragic that I could not say my best friend’s name right, but after hearing it enough, I finally got it! Yay! :)

    I enjoyed this post!

  4. Thank you , Susanne. You brought up some good points. One’s ears and tongue are not always capable of learning certain non-native sounds, but with enough exposure and practice, a reasonable approximation can be achieved, if not near fluency.

    I am critical of newscasters, teachers, and others to whom the general public looks up to, with respect to “getting things right”. These people need to focus on getting pronunciation right, even if it means taking a few coaching sessions.

    I’m sure your Syrian friend is honored that you can now pronounce his name.

  5. I teach Sunday School and I recently saw “Mike” written on my student Mohammad’s folder. I said, “who’s Mike?” He replied he uses the name Mike because no one can say Mohammad. Another student, Mikael, is “Micky” in both his school and at home :(

    And the shoe fits both feet: some of the foreigners can’t pronounce our names either, lol.

  6. Hi, Safiyyah, I brought the clock from Saudi Arabia, but I am sure you can buy them here in the States, somewhere, maybe on-line. I’ll help you find one.

  7. I’m sorry but I disagree. People should keep an open mind and understand that every culture has their own nomenclature when it comes to names. This is usually defined by their surroundings and what they hear/adapt to during the course of their lives.

    I don’t think there is any disrespect, or even respect for that matter, intended when somebody pronounces my name. Names have had a history of being pronounced differently in different regions of the world. In my opinion, the revolution of the pronunciation largely occurs because it uses syllables that are natural to the most common language. This becomes easier for people to pronounce and pick up quickly.

    You can’t possibly assume I’m just imagining all this. Clearly I have first hand experience in understanding how names can be pronounced… or like you would say “mispronounced.” My mother calls me Ahmed one way, my father another, my best friend another and my colleagues choose whichever they’re comfortable with. I myself have heard 9 possible pronunciations of my name, Ahmed. Each of those is considered the ‘right’ version in their respective geographical presences. But in the global world we live in today, who is right? Everybody.

    So I am comfortable with anyone referring to me in whichever way. I have no preference on the pronunciation. If asked, I respond based on my best judgement of what someone would prefer to call me.

    I believe that teaching people how to ‘say my name right’ or to tell them my God’s name is Allah, where their’s is something else are things that create the division amongst US. Instead I share with them stories of my childhood, or cultural foods, music, sports, and of course language. There are more important things for me to discuss to have and give respect than demanding someone use syllables they’ve never used.

    One more thing: A name is a proper noun, meaning it can be pronounced in any which way.

    Thank You,
    Ahmed

    • Thank you, Ahmed, for an interesting rebuttal. Your points are well taken, and I’m sure that many people would agree with you. I, too, agree with you in that names can accually cause divisions amongst people, as in your example of the name of Allah, who English- speaking people call God. The pronunciation of a name is not as important as the communication that underlies it. Pronunciation should not hinder communication, but of course it does, in ways other than name-calling.

      Consider the Arabic word “hamaam”– I can’t even write in English the subtle difference in pronunciation that indicates either “pidgeon” or “bathroom.” Proper nouns are definitely subject to rules of pronunciation.

      However, let’s stick to names. You cite the importance of sharing your culture, and I would hold that correct name pronunciation is part of sharing that culture. Of course, not all people are capable of correct pronunciation of foreign sounds, and that would not be punishable in any way, but at least let them hear the sounds, teach them what they can learn, as a way of sharing. They might even get a sense of accomplishment if they were to learn how to correctly pronounce a foreign name.

      Some people respond more positively when their names are pronounced correctly. I work in a hospital with people from other countries. One of the doctors, who is from Poland, has a long and difficult name. When I asked him how to pronunce his name, he said, “Just call me Dr. Bob.”

      I said no, I wanted to pronounce his name correctly, so he taught me, and I always address him by his proper name. Our working relationship is excellent because of it, and my colleagues actually tease me because they think he prefers my help to theirs when he needs the services of our department.

      You are lucky enough– or unlucky enough– to have a name that cannot be pronounced easily by foreigners. You are mature enough to realize that pronunciation is a means to an end, not necessarily an end. Thank you for contributing your ideas!

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