Working in podcasts has forced me to think more deeply about the impact of names and pronunciations — including my own. So I went on a journey with a dialect coach and native Arabic speakers to learn more about a name I grew too comfortable subjecting to slight edits so it’s easier to pronounce.
As an audio producer, beyond the usual stresses of finding unique stories and characters, there’s something else that keeps me up at night. It’s botching up the pronunciation of a guest’s name. No kidding. It’s something that makes me get out of bed in the middle of the night to replay an interview.
I had that experience recently.
I spent a chunk of the last year producing Teamistry, a show about how teams work together to accomplish something phenomenal. In the episode “Saving An Indian Cricket League From Itself,” we told the story of how the Indian Premier League rose from the disgrace of corruption to hold one of the most successful sporting events anywhere in the world during the pandemic. One of the guests we interviewed was Prakash Wakankar, an erudite cricket expert and broadcaster based in India.
People who write scripts usually add pronouncers to guide the host. But when I wrote the episode, I missed it.
The pronouncer should’ve read: Pruh-KASH WAH-concur
I relayed the pronouncer to the host just in time for her recording. Crisis averted.
This may not sound like a big deal. I’ve yet to hear of a lawsuit stemming from an incorrect pronunciation and I’m sure my bosses at Pacific Content don’t want a world’s first on their hands.
But think about it. I’m the only Indian on the production team so I should know better. I should support my host better. And just imagine what would happen if Prakash hit play on an episode he participated in, only to hear his name botched up. This, despite being interviewed by his countryman. And for whatever it’s worth, Prakash lives in the same city in India (Pune) where I spent three formative years of my life while studying for an undergraduate degree.
That would be a bad, bad look.
But even beyond the cosmetics of this situation and having to save face, there’s another reason why pronunciations of names matter. Why Prakash’s name matters. Why your name matters. This part gets a bit philosophical, so bear with me.
When guests appear on podcasts, they see a reflection of themselves in the stories we craft. Bits and pieces of their lives, their histories, their insights, their memories are what help co-create an episode. In podcasting, that reflection happens through the power of the spoken word and sound. And if someone’s name is the most personal, distinctive, and inextricable part of their lived experience, it’s only fair we try to pronounce their names right.
It’s important to me because I’ve had a journey of sorts with the pronunciation of my name. ‘Rehmatullah’ is a mouthful. It’s long, wavy, twisty, and throws up unexpected responses.
But it’s a name I love. And it’s a journey that’s special to me.
What’s in a name? For starters, there’s God.
My parents tell me a distant uncle chose my name. In retrospect, this must be the most personal decision a parent could outsource to an obscure relative. But hey, I’m not complaining. What my uncle landed on — Rehmatullah — is one of the more loaded ones out there: in meaning, in usage, and religious and cultural significance. Oh, and in pronunciation too. But more on that in a bit.
My name has its roots in Arabic and means “mercy of God.” (The “Allah” part might sound familiar to most because it’s a direct reference to God in Arabic.)
I’ve always been quite proud of my name. Growing up in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), greeting with my name would usually solicit smiles and compliments. [As-salāmuʽalaykum! Iss-mee Rehmatullah.] The U.A.E is a predominantly Islamic country and my name comes up during prayers. At least five times a day, every day. Add those prayers up, and someone’s uttering my name on a microphone a few dozen times. I joke that much of my demeanor and behavioural traits are a little too edgy for a name so solemn and religious.
I’ve also been a bit cocky about my name. Whenever I traveled somewhere in the Middle East where Arabic is the lingua franca of society, I’d purposely invoke intrigue by introducing myself with my full name. And, often, I’d mimic a thick and deep Arabic accent by engaging my epiglottis and other parts of my vocal cords that I didn’t know existed. And almost every time, they’d repeat my name back to me in visible admiration.
A brown guy from South Asia, with an Arabic name, stringing together this religiously-loaded name with near-perfect pronunciation?
It was a crowd-pleaser.
But that cockiness didn’t last too long. For every person who pronounced my name correctly, there was an unimaginably large number of tongues that butchered it. Think of combinations in which the 11 letters of my name could be jumbled together — I’ve heard them all. My name became the shortest tongue-twister. In my high school in Dubai, my name stirred up a higher-than-average level of wincing and false starts. This was around the same time we learned to say words like MITOCHONDRIA.
Reading names on the airwaves
When I moved to Canada — journeying from East to the West — the pronunciation of my name spilled further all over the map. An Arabic name never rolled off the tongue that easily anyway. So to expect that in Canada would be a long shot, maybe even slightly cruel to Canadians.
So I made some edits to my name, more out of genuine empathy than out of embarrassment. I offered “Rehmat,” even accepted “Rehm,” slicing it down to just one syllable.
It was like a transaction and I thought: ‘Heck, what do I have to lose?’ I was aware of the broader consequences. I’d heard of Mohammeds becoming Mo in the white heartlands of America and Canada — all to assimilate and fit in. But I was confident I wouldn’t cross that line. I was just trying to be flexible and considerate.
And then I started a career in radio broadcasting, where everyone cultivates a degree of respect while naming names. As a producer, you prep your hosts to nail the pronunciation of names, or at the very least, get very close. This becomes especially important when a name is racially or ethnically identifiable and carries a responsibility to a certain community.
Now, as a story producer at Pacific Content, honouring correct pronunciations isn’t just a polite request. It’s a responsibility — an expectation of the highest order from us storytellers. We know there’s a history in news, film, and television where communities of colour have either been largely ignored or their stories have been marred by tropes, stereotypes, and other subliminal or overt indignities.
Podcasting is a relatively newer medium. There’s an opportunity to do things right. And pronouncing names correctly is just one of them. It may seem like low-hanging fruit, but I think if we get this right, it pays emotional dividends.
And, as a story producer who can wax lyrical about getting names right, I wanted to start honouring the pronunciation of my name. It’s only fair I take a slightly more nuanced, maybe an inquisitive look into what goes into pronouncing my tongue-twister of a name. And maybe, just maybe, answer the question: how the heck should people pronounce my name?
So I set out on a journey to dig a little deeper. I want to understand if my tactics to shorten my name resonates with native Arabic speakers. And, I want to understand how I could educate others to pronounce my name, whilst retaining a level of flexibility and chill I like to provide.
And by the end of that journey, I’ll have to make a very personal decision — what should I let others call me? And how would I introduce myself to people?
Helping me in this are three people spread across the globe: Ahmed Mohy El-Din, an Arabic tutor based in Cairo; Salma Shahawy, an online content creator who teaches English to native Arabic speakers; and Erik Singer, a dialect expert and accent coach who works in film and television.
‘Walking on words’
Ahmed Mohy El-Din is based out of Cairo. He’s been an online Arabic tutor for close to ten years, and his students hail from pretty much all over the globe. I was one of his students. Early in the pandemic, I thought I’d upskill my rudimentary Arabic. (Lots of things fell by the wayside since early-2020, and my classes were one of them.)
As a native Arabic speaker (of the Egyptian dialect), Mohy El Din’s ears are attuned to picking up false starts or incorrect pronunciation of Arabic words. But here’s the thing: he’s a teacher. And teachers are patient. When I asked him how I should go about approaching my name, he advocated for a little bit of that patience.
He contrasts the different pacing in speaking English versus Arabic. In English, fluency encapsulates both the pronunciation and the speed at which we string together sentences. Fluency in Arabic tends to have more modest expectations. You go slow, you enunciate, you pronounce right. And nobody judges you for taking your time.
Mohy El-Din paints a picture: “In English, when you say a phrase like, “I want to go,” you go through the words quickly. You are seeing [those four words] appear quickly one after another. You link the words together. And the faster you are, the better you are,”
“But in Arabic — no. That’s not how we do it. We don’t just go through the words in Arabic. We walk on them.”
In breaking down the pronunciation of ‘Rehmatullah’, Mohy El-Din encourages a similar approach. There are a few … how else do I put this … ‘pain-points’ when non-Native Arabic speakers say my name.
The first of which is in the initial syllable itself. The ‘trill’ of the R in Reh; then there’s the ‘h’ at the end of the same syllable — these are uncommon occurrences in spoken English. Speaking to Mohy El-Din, I realized that I don’t exercise my vocal cords enough to pronounce my name. Nor do my parents.
So knowing these ‘limitations’, how can we go about teaching someone how to pronounce my name? I asked that to Mohy El-Din, and it’s only fair we listen to the answer:
Mohy El-Din says the journey to getting someone to pronounce my name correctly really begins with me. This sounds pretty obvious, but often, we rely on the listener’s hearing range and generosity to try and get it correct in the first attempt. That, I think, is a high bar that’s setting me up for failure and disappointment.
Mohy El-Din says it’s up to me to introduce myself loud and clear. If I botch up or even subdue my name in the introduction, it’s likely people mishear, then add their errors along the way. And what we end up with is a version that’s nowhere close to the accurate pronunciation.
And here’s where I had a startling revelation. I’ve always shortened my name to make it more palatable. ‘Rehmat’ is an easy bite-sized snack, Rehmatullah feels like a painfully-long buffet. So I’ve resorted to ‘Rehmat’ under the assumption that it still retains a little bit of the meaning in Arabic: mercy. It’s a bit watered down compared to ‘Mercy of God’ but it still sounds kinda poetic.
Moreover, ‘Rehmat’ appears in some mellifluous Bollywood songs.
And that further validated my theory that ‘Rehmat’ on its own is still pregnant with meaning. If it can be the lyrics to a song, surely, it has enough meaning to identify me?
Turns out I was wrong. Mohy El-Din explained to me that ‘Rehmat’ translates to ‘mercy of’. It’s like I’ve left the listener on an incomplete sentence. On a cliffhanger. I know we’re getting nit-picky here, but well, I’m talking to a language teacher after all.
Here’s Mohy El-Din in his own words:
Mohy El-Din suggested that I don’t shorten my name at all. And there’s another layer to his caution. It’s the over-Americanization of names I referred to earlier — when racialized people have to go so far in a bid to compromise that they almost entirely lose their names in the process.
He tells me about some of his friends and students with Arabic names who’ve moved to North America and changed their names to easily-recognizable English names.
“Everybody has their circumstances that I’m very far from to judge. [But] I won’t lie that it’s a bad thing,” says Mohy El-Din.
“I wish they never immigrated.”
English phonemes to the rescue
This left me at a crossroads: should I give up my decades-long strategy of soft-balling my name, and offering an easier pronunciation with ‘Rehmat’? Or should I go all out, enunciate the full ‘Rehmatullah’, and create a teaching moment for listeners… however long this takes?
I parked that thought aside to instead focus on the nuances of accents and pronunciations. I defaulted to accent expert and coach Erik Singer, who specializes in working with actors who have to play characters and adopt accent profiles that are foreign to them. In his YouTube videos produced by Wired, Singer analyzes and rates how well actors perform their character’s accents.
“My expertise is in the human vocal tract, and all of the sounds that are involved in the languages that ever have been, will be or could be spoken — and how to acquire those and get it to the point where it’s embodied in [a person or actor’s] second nature,” explains Singer.
In short, if an actor’s on-screen accent sticks out to the audience, they’ve done a poor job and could’ve used Singer by their side as they practiced their lines.
But the question I had for Singer played out in the theater of life. In real life, we are far more forgiving of an accent done incorrectly, or a pronunciation gone awry. Sometimes the convenience of letting things slide is more tempting than the effort to correct someone.
So why can’t non-native speakers of Arabic (including myself) pronounce my name correctly? The answer seems obvious but it’s worth tapping into Singer’s explanation.
The world of “phonemes” is crucial here. A phoneme is a unit of sound that distinguishes one word from another in a language. It’s the sound of speech.
For English, think of the sound you make when you pronounce the letter “A”. The letter A by itself can be used to make nine sounds, one of the common ones being ‘ay’ (As in ‘agent’). [Here, the phoneme is represented as /ā/, and the indicative sound ‘ay’ is called a Grapheme.]
The English language has approximately 44 phonemes in total, split into consonants (b, m, l) and vowels (a, o, u) — distinguished by whether airflow is cut off or let go when voicing the letter.
Singer says a list of 20 vowel phonemes (where airflow is unobstructed) makes English somewhat of an outlier. The average number of phonemes in other languages is roughly half of this.
One could argue that a larger repository of phonemes at an English speaker’s disposal means they can voice more sounds. And by that logic, they should have fewer problems pronouncing names like mine. All they have to do is tap into the extensive phoneme reserves and say it fluently. Right?
Well, it’s not that simple.
Although English does provide the possibility of many sounds, it’s still an uphill task when the phoneme is from a different language altogether. There’s nothing in that list of 44 sounds, for instance, that captures the trill of the R and epiglottis of the H in Rehmatullah.
This also goes the other way around. When native Arabic speakers learn English, they’re coming up against 44 sonic possibilities. In Modern Standard Arabic, there are approximately 34 phonemes, with some variations depending on the dialect. The lack of the ‘p’ [/p/] sound in Arabic, for instance, makes it hard to pronounce words like ‘possible’. When you contrast that with an Arabic speaker’s immaculate ability to trill the ‘r’ and produce the deep ‘h’ sounds effortlessly, you can’t help but feel humbled by your vocal strengths and limitations.
“You can’t expect somebody to master a phoneme or get closer to it that isn’t there in the native inventory… otherwise you’re just going to be disappointed, right? I mean, you can’t expect somebody to make a sound they’ve never made before,” says Singer.
Singer also explains why even if an English speaker were to be able to adapt to phonemes from a different language to make that split-second switch and pronounce a foreign-sounding name, it might just come off as pretentious.
Here’s Singer demonstrating with an example:
So, what do I do? How do I get someone to pronounce my name correctly, whilst still retaining that bit of chill and flexibility.
Eric’s suggestion: give them the closest approximation of the English phoneme that mimics the foreign phoneme, and instead of nailing the pronunciation, try to get the “stress pattern” in the name right.
So in my name, if I were to mark the syllable with the longer stress pattern by spelling it in uppercase, it would be: REH-muh-tull-LA.
The first syllable has the trilling of the R and the heavy H. But it also has an emphasis. The same goes for the last syllable, where the name of God has an emphasis.
So if the sonic parts of my name don’t offer the kind of clarity, perhaps, the stress pattern will. It’s a subtle negotiation, but one where no one loses. And importantly, for me, no one’s left embarrassed or fatigued.
Put in the context of racialized people who’ve changed their names wholesale, shortened it drastically (Mohammed→ Mo), or had to anglicize or ‘Americanify’ it to a degree that they’re virtually unrecognizable, I think this is a pretty sweet deal. I think I’m getting somewhere.
There’s another thing Singer tells me that sticks with me. Beyond all the linguistic and phoneme labyrinth, he reminds me: “there’s only one person who can say what the correct way of pronouncing your name is… And that’s you.”
As I mentioned before, I thought I’d done a pretty decent job of taking ownership of my name. Shortening my name to “Rehmat” was my happy compromise. It was also easier to focus someone’s pronunciation on just two syllables instead of four.
But Mohy El-Din, the Arabic tutor in Cairo, pointed out that it’s incomplete. Technically, if I wanted to retain the meaning of “mercy” whilst also shortening my name, I’d have to go with ‘Rehma’. But I wasn’t comfortable with this switch. Years of introducing myself with ‘Rehmat’ as well as the songs had given me an emotional attachment to it. ‘Rehmat’ was an inroad into my world — it was a point of comfort for myself as much as it was for others.
Settling the Rehmat vs Rehma debate
I reached out to Salma Shahawy, an online content creator who teaches English to native Arabic speakers—an Instagram and YouTube audience of over 70,000. I feel her vantage point helps her cultivate deeper empathy for people who can’t pronounce names like mine.
She helped me settle the Rehmat vs Rehma conundrum. According to Shahawy, the name I’ve used all along (Rehmat) helps distinguish genders, especially if I’m introducing myself to someone from the Middle East and North Africa. Here’s Shahawy in her voice:
Shahawy also says the degree of flexibility I allow in pronouncing my name comes down to my relationship and proximity to people. If it’s a friend I expect to meet regularly, then I should go the extra mile to teach them some tricks and hacks to pronounce my name correctly — whether that’s the shortened or full version of the name. Tapping into the English phoneme list for the closest approximation would be handy here.
But — and here’s where Mohy El Din’s and Shahawy’s views converge — I must always introduce myself with my full name first. And then volunteer to shorten it for ease. Salma suggests I also volunteer to tell the meaning of my full name, as word associations make it easier for names to stick to memory.
After living in an impasse for over two decades — all in the name of being flexible and considerate without falling into the tropes of assimilation — I feel my name saga was coming to a resolution. A pleasing one at that too.
The resolution—for others’ names and my own
Speaking with Mohy El-Din and Shahawy helped me reconnect with the spiritual significance of my name. Ironically, but maybe not surprisingly so, both Arabic speakers encouraged me to hold on tight to its religious legacy, but be a little more gentle with my expectations of how people may or may not pronounce it. Singer shed light on limitations, and importantly, the possibilities that the English language has to offer in pronouncing names from other languages. He also introduced me to the English phoneme repository, and how it can become a useful tool to help people get closer to accurate pronunciation.
Ultimately, what united them all was the idea that a person’s name is indispensable to one’s sense of being. That the long, at times awkward journey of arriving at a pronunciation is a cause worth taking up. Talking to them was a reminder to not take my name, or anyone’s name for that matter, for granted.
“I mean, what could be more personal than your name? You’re either feeling recognized and seen … validated and legitimated [when somebody gets it right]. Like, somebody cares enough to get it right.” says Eric.
In Eric’s line of work, which is mostly film and television, there’s a global dimension to getting names right. He makes a distinction between pronouncing names correctly and coaching actors to get accents right to read a script. But what unites them both, says Eric, is a commitment to giving respect. It’s also appreciating the fact that your content is reaching far corners of the world.
“Anything that we’re filming these days is liable to be seen anywhere in the world at any time in the future. The distribution is so global, that … if an actor who is not Swedish is doing a Swedish accent, that thing that they do is going to be seen in Sweden,” explains Eric.
He continues: “There’s not a horrendous history of deeply offensive misrepresentations of Swedes the way there is with many other communities and speakers and cultures and languages. Nevertheless, if you butcher that … if you don’t put everything into it to get that right, I think they [the audience] have every right to be incredibly offended.”
This holds in podcasting too. And thinking back to the pronunciation scare of Prakash’s name, that’s another reason why I was fretting over getting it right. It’s this very real possibility that someone, somewhere in India, would be listening to that episode of Teamistry and would feel deeply disrespected by the botching up of an Indian name. So much for a story and a medium that goes beyond borders!
But going forward, I want my commitment to pronouncing names correctly to stem out of care and appreciation rather than fear. I want to think of correct pronunciations not just as a way to avoid offending guests or potential listeners, but as a means to elevate the storytelling. It should be an attempt to give guests the license to be comfortable, be their authentic selves, and see themselves a little more clearly and more fully in the stories they tell us. It should be a cause that’s worth taking up even if nobody was listening to the show.
I recently had that inner breakthrough when on another show I produce called Home. Made., a guest spoke about how she grew up in her home in Tehran listening to Hayedeh, who she described as the Aretha Franklin of Iran. I had to double back with the guest to get the right pronunciation of Hayedeh [HI-yeh-they].
But this felt a bit different. I wanted to get the pronunciation correct not because I thought the artist would be upset (Hayedeh passed away in 1990) or because Farsi speakers would get turned off (well, they probably would). I wanted to get this right because the way our guest took that name and reflected on the singer’s significance moved me. The name ‘Hayedeh’ sounded serene, somewhat lyrical. And getting that pronunciation right would be to honour the guest’s story and her attachment to the memories of her childhood, family, and home. It was an effort driven by excitement to get the pronunciation right, rather than the fear of getting it wrong. And boy, it felt good.
[The host of this show … not a Farsi speaker … did a couple of takes on this name unprompted and landed on a pronunciation that was pretty close.]
I want to take that energy into this next phase of my life as I introduce myself to people.
Hello, my name is Rehmatullah. It means “mercy of God.” It’s a mouthful but I promise it’s worth learning to pronounce it in full. And you might enjoy its beautiful and poetic ring just as I do. But hey, we can take it easy as we get to know each other. So in the meantime, just call me Rehmat!
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