People across virtually every ethnic group have had to deal with others struggling to get their names right. And the problem seems to persist no matter how powerful or visible a person becomes.
Despite the fact that Pichai runs one of the world’s most powerful companies and that he had testified on Capitol Hill before, senators still couldn’t seem to pronounce his name correctly — instead calling him variations of “Mr. Pick Eye” and Mr. Pish Eye.” (It’s pronounced “pih-chai,” like the spiced beverage.)
(Harris has served in the US Senate for almost four years and pronounces her name “COMMA-la,” like the punctuation mark.)
Ultimately, expert say, the issue boils down to power and respect.
Botched names are often tied to race
Encountering unfamiliar-sounding names is inevitable in a country as multicultural as the US, and stumbling a few times at first is normal.
Non-English names, naturally, employ stress patterns or sounds that aren’t used in English, and remembering those sequences can be challenging, says Megha Sundara, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The issue, though, isn’t unintentional mistakes, but rather how people recover from them.
“You can double down out of embarrassment, or apologize and fix it,” Sundara wrote in an email to CNN. “Because ‘say my name’ is perhaps the most basic way in which we ask others to acknowledge our existence.”
So when someone doesn’t take the time to learn the proper way to pronounce another person’s name — or worse, intentionally mocks it for being “too hard” to pronounce — it can come across as malicious.
It also evokes the nation’s history of dominant groups forcing new names on people of oppressed groups, such as enslaved Africans and indigenous children in government schools, says Rita Kohli, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Riverside.
“There is a longstanding history of forcible assimilation in this country as a way to maintain the power structure,” she wrote in an email to CNN. “To ensure that White Anglo Saxon, English, Protestantism stayed dominant, those who did not fit were made to change things such as their language, their names. It has created a culture where those who are dominant have not had to engage in reciprocal relationships of learning.”
That dominant groups dismiss certain names as too hard to get right is tied to racism and other forms of oppression, Kohli added.
Perdue’s derisive mocking of his fellow senator’s name amounted to “disrespecting and deprofessionalizing a Black and woman of color vice presidential candidate,” Kohli said. (A spokesperson for Perdue’s campaign has said that he simply mispronounced the name and didn’t mean anything by it.)
“One thing is for sure, if you have known somebody for a long time, and are still saying their name wrong, guess who has power in that relationship?” Sundara added. “It’s not the person who can neither correct you nor make it stick.”
Some children of immigrants adapted their names to make them ‘easier’
Having others constantly mess up your name can be so exhausting that some people with non-English names decide to adapt or change them.
One way is by adopting an Anglicized pronunciation.
For example, many South Asians pronounce Kamala, a common Indian name, as “come-lah” or “come-uh-lah.”
Others, like Mindy Kaling, shorten their given names.
“It’s bittersweet, but I have to say, it was such a help to my career to have a name that people could pronounce,” she said in the interview.
And then there are some who choose to go by a different name altogether, like former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.
But some people are pushing back
But many people of color are no longer willing to accommodate the dominant, White culture at the expense of their own heritage.
Last year, comedian Hasan Minhaj appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show and refused to move on during a segment until the TV host pronounced his name correctly.
“When I first started doing comedy, people were like, ‘You should change your name,'” he said on the show. “I’m like, ‘I’m not going to change my name. If you can pronounce Ansel Elgort, you can pronounce Hasan Minhaj.'”
Harris, too, has insisted that people get her name right, tying her experiences to what so many others go through.