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The Trouble With Indian Names

by Vikas (or is it Wikas?) Kamat
Last Updated: April 04, 2014

Writers who use the English language to write about India are always faced with a dilemma on how best to spell the Indian names.  The Indian languages use a number of letters that have no equivalents in English and even within India, the way they are represented varies from region to region. I have tried to summarize the common problems of writing and pronouncing the Indian names below.

Too Many 'H' s

Indian languages have the concept of long and short consonants (alpa and deergha). So, 'sh' and  'shh' are different. (as in  Prakash and Usha  respectively.) To avoid the confusion, some people eliminate the 'h's altogether, as in 'Siva', and 'Srinivasan', which has only added to the diversity of usage. 

Siva and Shiva are pronounced in the same way, although spelled differently in English.

Compound Consonants

Compound consonants are formed by combination of two or more consonants used together as in Jyotsna or Maharashtra.. Two of the compound consonants Ksha and Jnya are in fact, single consonants!

Too Many 'T' s and 'D's

There are four derivatives of the consonants 't' often transliterated as 'th', 'Th', 't', and 'T'  The same is true of the consonant 'd'. Add to it, the compound consonants of 'tt', 'thth', 'ThTh', and 'TT' and you are completely stumped. Of course, to us Indians they are all poles apart and there is no confusion!

Too Many Vowels

Indian languages also have the long and short vowels for a, e, i, o, u (and then some). So Räma and Ramä, although written the same way, are pronounced in different ways and most importantly mean different -- the former is a male name, and the latter feminine.

'Ru' , 'Um' and "Aha' Vowels

These vowels neither have equivalents in English, nor can they be adequately represented. So people write either 'ri' as in Krishna or 'ru' as in Mrudula, both of which render imperfect phonetics. 

Similarly the pronunciation of 'um' falls in between 'un' and 'um', and is often mispronounced. For example, Sanskrit,  Samskrit (or even Sanskrut) all refer to the same name, the ancient language of India.

English Names and Indian Names

The hundreds of years of foreign rule has given way to new pronunciations and spellings of old names. The river Ganga became the Ganges and Kolkata became Calcutta.  Although Indians have mastered the appropriate use of these nouns  -- while referring to geography for instance, the name Ganges may be used, but while referring to her cleansing qualities, the name Ganga is used --  they can totally confuse those not familiar with the Indian culture. Kashi, Varanasi, and Banaras is another example, referring to the same holy city.

Lack of a transliteration standard for Indian languages is causing much confusion in India. Some folks have started the use of two successive 'a's to represent the the longer (ä as in car; example: Lagaan). I get complaints all the time that I have misspelled a proper name, because the system they are familiar with uses a different transliteration convention than one we use.

While editing Kamat's Potpourri, I am guilty of not using a standard convention myself -- sometimes I write Ramayan and sometimes [Ramayana. But I do that deliberately to represent the diversity of use of a proper name, as well as so that people using different spellings on search engines can find our content.

Joins or the Sandhis

The Joins are one of the reasons why Indian literature is so rich and complex. In most languages, one can combine two words to yield a third word (thus, Krishna + Anand = Krishnanand, notice how one 'a' disappeared). What is confusing about the joins are the substitution rules and the syllable on which the emphasis lies. This inherent complexity has enabled the great poets and writers of India to write some of the magnificent works humanity has known, but it is difficult to explain to a foreigner.

Trouble within India

There are problems with Indian names within India also. Some of the languages lack some of the consonants available in other languages (like 'ch' is invariably substituted for 'sh' in Tamil Nadu, as is 'g' for 'h'). So poet Ravindranath is known in his home state of Bengal as Rabindranath (substitute 'b' for 'v') Tagore.

An interesting pattern of writing has been practiced in Tamil Nadu to represent the 'LL' (say Lu but with the tongue making a complete trip from the ceiling of the mouth to its relaxing position; as in Kerala, elagola etc). Since it is different than the conventional 'l' or 'LL' sound, it is written as 'zh'. So now you know the correct way to pronounce the name of our Tamil section, Tamizhakam.

Missing 'W' in Indian Languages

Indian languages typically lack the 'W' sound, and do not distinguish between 'w' and 'v'. So my name is written as Vikas, although Wikas would have been more appropriate.

 

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