Person of Color Column: My mission to say my name correctly

My name is Diti. 

It is short and sweet—four basic letters that, despite their simplicity, are curiously foreign to most Americans. I’m Indian, and because lengthy names are common in my culture, people often assume my name is short for something. And of course, during introductions, attendance calls, and interviews, my name is mispronounced, and I’m called “dee-tee,” “die-ty,” or the like. 

When I speak up to correct anyone, I always offer them a convenient yet incorrect alternative: “dih-tee.” To some, I reference the pronunciation of Sean Combs’ rapper persona, P. Diddy, for guidance, and it usually gets a laugh. However, in Punjabi, the North Indian language spoken by my family from which my name originates, Diti is said with a heavier “h” in each syllable and a lighter touch on the tip of the tongue than the westernized pronunciation warrants. In English, “dhi-thee” is the closest way to spell it phonetically. 

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Growing up, I never introduced myself correctly to people I met at school, in extracurriculars, or even over the phone. English utilizes an array of sounds that exclude some of the thicker and throatier vowels and consonants that exist in Punjabi. I assumed, as a child, that the culturally appropriate version of my name was too far out of my peers’ vocabulary. Out of either ignorance or convenience, I thought asking anyone to dive into a world of new sounds from across the world would be too much to ask. So I defaulted to an easy and understandable option that is picked up more quickly.  

In an opinion piece for The Guardian, writer Sadia Latifi shared my struggle to leverage the “real” and “fake” versions of her name. These feelings of fear and imbalance are presumably mirrored by a subsect of the 20 million second-generation immigrants in the United States. 

“I haven’t pronounced my name correctly in the last 27 years, and I’m afraid to start now,” Latifi wrote. “Pronouncing my name the way my mother intended is more foreign to me now than the other way around.”

This summer, after 18 years mispronouncing my own name, I began saying it the way my parents intended. 

I do not expect others to change the way my name flows out of their mouths. The Americanized pronunciation lacks the cultural intensity and breadth my name intends. But, the version spoken by someone outside of Indian origin is not inherently incorrect—it is different. I’m simply correcting myself. 

My parents, whose names are far longer and more complicated than mine, are native Punjabi speakers who were born and bred in the heart of Delhi, India. Throughout my childhood, they conversed in a melded language of Punjabi, Hindi, and English. As someone raised amidst a family of native speakers and who is bilingual herself, I’ve realized that it is a disservice to myself and my culture for me to mispronounce my name when I can say it correctly. 

Other than a wary look or two, my parents never commented on my Anglicized pronunciation and acknowledged that I was more familiar with the dynamics of American culture and identity politics than them. But I knew my actions were a way in which I quietly surrendered to a whitewashed understanding of my identity. I cowered away from the name my parents had gifted me with careful consideration—a name that translates to “given by God” in Punjabi. I avoided the true pronunciation of my name to evade a conversation that would inherently separate me from anyone else. 

In largely white environments and especially at Emerson, this separation is evident regardless of how I say my name. I look brown. I reference my family’s religion, Sikhism, which is largely comprised of Indian people. I speak about my history doing Kathak, a footwork-heavy Indian classical dance. I speak in Hindi or Punjabi when someone’s curiosity is piqued and they ask me to. 

I am proud of who I am. It’s time my name reflects this feeling.

The transition is odd, to say the least. In college, I am surrounded by a largely English-speaking environment where my mouth is subtly trained to resonate westernized vowels. It has almost become instinctual to say my name a certain way around Indian people and another way to everyone else. Sometimes I can’t shake my American accent fast enough to adopt the authenticity my name and its native pronunciation requires. The process calls for a toned-down version of code-switching, the practice of alternating between languages in conversation. 

I’ve been taking notes on the way to approach my name from celebrities who make appearances in American media. Hasan Minhaj, the Indian-American host of the political talk show Patriot Act, starts each episode with a breeze of cultural reality and charisma by saying his name the way it was intended. Bollywood actress and model Deepika Padukone frequently appears in videos on Vogue’s Youtube channel where she pronounces her name correctly. I hope to adopt their confidence. 

Occasionally, saying my own name correctly makes me feel out of my depth since I was raised here, deep in the Chicago suburbs rather than in India. But then I realize I hold power over my own identity, and my name is a fundamental part of that—down to the last letter.

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