My name is Sravya. It’s not “Shravya” or “Suravya” or “Stravya.” It’s simply Sravya, a smoothly flowing Telugu name that means melody.
Since I can remember, my name has been butchered by almost every single person I’m introduced to. Every day I learn a new way to say my name, whether it’s through an additional letter, a stressed syllable or outright simplification to a name like Stacy (yes, it has happened before).
Growing up in America has strengthened my will to preserve my cultural identity and roots, but sometimes it feels as if the day-to-day alteration of my name puts me even farther from my culture. In a way, it is Anglicized – the pronunciation changed so as to accommodate for others even if it means altering the thousands of years of meaning behind it.
On a campus as diverse as UCLA, there are hundreds of other students who go through the same experience.
Second-year bioengineering student Shakthi Visagan alters his name whenever introducing himself. Shakthi, which means “power” in many languages, is properly pronounced “shek-thee.” But Visagan usually goes by “shock-thee” to make it easier for others.
Visagan began introducing himself differently around sixth grade, out of annoyance at the amount of time it would take people to pronounce his name, and a feeling of indifference when he knew he wouldn’t have a long-term interaction with that person.
The pronunciation of his name is not something that Visagan is picky about.
“The meaning only holds importance to those who can understand it,” he said.
From a linguistics standpoint, Visagan can be categorized as a descriptivist. Descriptivists value comprehension over meaning. He fully understands the cultural significance behind his name and it is important to him. Visagan goes a step further to point out that the meaning and cultural background of a name doesn’t need to apply to everyone.
“People shouldn’t get into a fit if people who don’t understand their language and their name don’t pronounce it correctly, and mess up the meaning,” he said.
Second-year undeclared student Will Yoo holds a similar viewpoint. Yoo’s original name is Kyung Seok Yoo, but he prefers to go by his English name, Will.
“People often find it difficult to pronounce Kyung, and I like my English name that I have given to myself,” he said.
Yoo is not bothered by completely altering his name. Although the background and heritage behind the name is important to him, going by Will is simply easier. He said he prefers saving time and avoiding the strain of explaining his name to others.
On the other hand, second-year neuroscience student Vinay Sharma can be categorized as a prescriptivist. Prescriptivists value meaning over comprehension. Sharma understands the meaning and significance behind his name and believes it should be preserved.
The pronunciation of Sharma’s first name is “Veen-ay,” which is what he prefers to go by. Sharma’s first name means “humble” and “good-mannered” in many languages, such as Telugu and Punjabi. Sharma’s situation is in fact the opposite of Visagan’s. Although he has a fairly simple name, another common Indian pronunciation of Sharma’s name is “Vin-ay,” with no stress on the first syllable of his name. Many Indian people think Sharma Anglicized his name to “Veen-ay,” and thus proceed to call him “Vin-ay” instead.
Sharma enjoys that Indian names are tangibly Indian. He admitted it makes him feel a bit awkward when people alter the pronunciation of their names. He said he thinks people should be proud of their names and that the cultural identity behind a name should be carried over in its pronunciation as well.
Although Sharma holds differing opinions to those of Visagan and Yoo, to me, one is not more right than the other. My attitude was always similar to that of Sharma’s – the personal bond and cultural link one has to one’s name was being violated and Anglicized against one’s will.
Visagan and Yoo, however, open up a different point of view. The meaning of a name may only be important to those who are able to comprehend that specific language and the thousands-of-years-old cultural significance the name possesses.
I think both sides of the discussion can agree that a name cannot generalize the bond one has with one’s culture as a whole. Cultural identity is something that can be controlled, regardless of whether your name is pronounced “Stacy” or “Sravya.”