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
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 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.