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Travel Tips: Mind how they spell your name

India is a vast country with 29 states and 7 union territories. More than 20 official languages are spoken around the country. If you are Indian, your name is either an ancient Sanskrit, Urdu or Persian word. It may even have a regional etimology, like say names specific to Tamil Nadu, names of Burmese kings or names of deities of regional tribes. The Roman script was introduced to India only in the 15th century, by the Portuguese, who were the first to colonise a large swath of the western part of the country. The English language, that also uses the Roman script, also called alphabets, was only introduced in early 17th century. The world’s most widely spoken language has its roots in European languages like ancient French and Latin. Its system of writing and pronunciation is widely different from and often inadequate for Sanskrit or Urdu. However, with an attempt to standardise English as a business / official language across India and for opportunities abroad, India has widespread English education. Most government documents in India whether online or in paper form are in English in addition to the regional language. English is the most widely used language to fill up forms for procuring government documents. Forms from private enterprises, especially those with a business online, are almost exclusively in English.

Over the last 100 years or so, Indians have comfortably adopted English spellings for their names. Attempts have been made to use a combination of English letters to represent regional sounds not available in English. While most states agree upon almost standard spellings for a lot of names, a whole bunch of names have ambiguous spellings, with all the forms seeming and sounding correct. Add to it the regional differences in pronunciation and your name may have 20 to 30 different English spellings which are lexically correct.

Why you should care

For some sadistic reason, bureaucratics, both in government and private organisations of India, never copy your name exactly as you write in on a paper form. Also, they never copy-paste your name from one computerised form to another. They derive pleasure in re-writing and re-typing your name from scratch, along with their own regional tweaks. Don’t ask us why. As natives of this country, we too are puzzled. It suffices to say that your name will never be reproduced in a bureaucratic document exactly as you submitted it.

The stakes of a most spelling mismatches are low. A bus conductor or a train ticket examiner will let you off the hook, understanding that regional spelling differences are common in India. But when you approach areas with police or army, you may be questioned. Although unlikely that your entry is denied, the job of the police and the army is to be paranoid rather than be accomodative. You don’t want to take chances. After all, you do not want to miss an opportunity to visit exotic places just because a bureaucrat was careless and spelt your name differently on a permit from what your identity proof says.

It pays to check, double-check, even triple-check. You have been warned!

Some unspoken standards

Some combinations and substitutions are nearly standard. All of India agrees upon certain combinations of letters for certain sounds. E.g. the letter ‘c’ is almost never used other than to represent a ‘ch’ pronunciation. To represent the ‘k’-like sound, the letter ‘k’ is always used. You always spell ‘Kumar’ and not ‘Cumar’. Likewise, letter ‘c’ is never used for the the ‘s’-like sound that it brings to the word ‘centre’. Lord Rama’s wife’s name may be spelt as ‘Seeta’ or ‘Sita’, but never as ‘Ceeta’.

Other unspoken standards are: It’s always Jigna and never Gigna. It is always Fahad, never Phahad.

Let’s look at some forms of spelling mismatches that can occur in different regions in India and why they occur.

Western India: Maharashtra, Gujarat and Goa

Convention: There is a symbol ऋ in Devnagari script that the above-mentioned states pronounce and spell as ‘ru’. This letter combination is the closer to the classical Sanskrit pronunciation of that symbol than the way the rest of India spells it, i.e. ‘ri’.
Effect: If you are from the north of India with a name such as Rishikesh, Tripti or Rishabh, your name will be spelt in western India as Rushikesh, Trupti and Rushabh.

Convention: If a Devanagari name has a consonant as a standalone, rather than being joined with another consonant, then an extra letter ‘a’ is added to the English spelling. This is a rather complicated concept, but an example will clarify.
Effect: A north Indian name that is spelt as Mansi (मानसी in Devnagari) or Janki (जानकी) in north India, will be spelt as Manasi and Janaki in western India. Think of it as the way English language distinguishes the name Drake from Derek. You need the ‘e’ after ‘d’ to denote that the ‘d’ and ‘r’ sounds shouldn’t run into each other.

North and central India: Delhi, Chandigarh, U.P., Himachal, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, M.P., Jammu

It is easier to call this the native Hindi-speaking belt of India, primarily using Devnagari script. But they do not use English spelling rules that Maharashtra and Goa (also Devnagari using states) do. Note that I have included only Jammu and not Kashmir and Leh. Those two regions have different scripts and rules. So do the Spiti and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh. Also not included is Punjab, who share some similarities with the Hindi-speaking belt, but not necessarily the same spelling rules.

Convention: Based on the Persian and Urdu rules of Mughals, most consonant sounds in Hindi are combined with the sound of the next consonant, when they appear in the middle of words. Didn’t understand? Well, an example will help.
Effect: A name like Nataraj will be pronounced and spelt as simply Natraj. The sound  ‘t’ is combined with the ‘r’ that follows. Devaki becomes simply Devki. Parashuram becomes Parshuram. Note that this is the opposite of what happens in western India.

Convention: Male names usually end with a consonant. An ‘a’ sound at the end of a name is dropped.
Effect: If your name is Ameya, it will be spelt as simply Amey. Rama becomes Ram and Karna becomes just Karn. Note that this is done only to male names. Female names like Sangeeta and Vijaya do not become Sangeet or Vijay.

Convention: Some northern regions are unable to pronounce and spell an ‘r’ that immediately follows a consonant. In this case, the vowel that follows the ‘r’ is pronounced before the ‘r’. Here are some examples.
Effect: Dharmendra and Jeetendra become Dharmendar and Jeetendar. Prakash becomes Parkash. Karna is adapted as Karan. Even a simple 5-letter name like Priya becomes Pirya! So be very careful in these regions when they spell your name on an important document!

Western and northern India: a common mismatch

Since both western and northern India use Devnagari script which is used to write Sanskrit-origin names, there is a set of name mismatches that happens in both regions over south Indian names.

Convention: Sanskrit has a letter ट that sounds like ‘t’ in ‘tea’ and another one त that sounds like ‘th’ in ‘thesis’. But for both sounds they use the English letter ‘t’. For example, in the name ‘Nataraj’, the letter ‘t’ is pronounced like in the word ‘tea’. But in the name ‘Tara’, letter ‘t’ is pronounced like the word ‘thesis’. Why in the world? Well, that’s because Sanskrit has another form of these letters that are pronounced harder. In the name ‘Thackeray’, the combination ‘th’ (representing ठ) is actually pronounced like the ‘t’ in ‘tea’, but a bit harder. In the name ‘Navnath’, the combination ‘th’ (representing थ) is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘thesis’, but a bit harder. It is hard to explain this concept to a south Indian or to a westerner, because as far as they are concerned, there is only one ‘t’ sound and one ‘th’ sound. The confusion also extends to ‘d’ and ‘dh’. So what are the effects?
Effects: A south Indian with the name ‘Ajith’, where the ‘th’ is pronounced like the ‘th’ in ‘thesis’, will find his name spelt as ‘Ajit’ in north India. As far as a north Indian is concerned, it is the softer form of the ‘th’ pronunciation, so only a ‘t’ is required in the spelling. A south Indian Gayathri will see her name written as Gayatri. Likewise ‘Adhithya’ from south will become ‘Aditya’ in north, an example where both the ‘h’s are removed.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu has a culture very distinct from the Sanskrit-based states. Tamil language flourished seperately from the rest of India among the Dravidian race of people. Pure Tamil shares nothing in common with Sanskrit. All the letters look different. The grammar rules are different. And so, the English spelling rules are adopted from Tamil rules too.

Convention: The sounds ‘s’, ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ are interchangeable in Tamil. In fact the sound ‘sh’ doesn’t exist in pure Tamil. An extended script named ‘Grantham’ was created with some symbols made specially to represent the sounds ‘sh’, ‘h’ and a couple of others that don’t exist in Tamil. This was done to properly represent Sanskrit words in Tamil, so that knowledge could be exchanged between the Tamil and Sanskrit speaking regions without loss of pronunciation. That said, if a bureaucrat is following pure Tamil rules, here’s what it will do to your name.
Effect: A name Sharanya can be ambiguously spelt as Saranya or Charanya. To a Tamilian, these name variations are exactly the same, but it will obviously create a significant mismatch among your identity documents.

Convention: Consonant sounds are always followed by vowel sounds. Two consonants cannot follow each other, unless the second consonant is ‘y’. Within Tamil spelling rules, Sanskrit names like Tridev (‘t’ and ‘r’ follow each other), Saptarshi (‘p’ and ‘t’ follow each other and ‘r’ and ‘sh’ follow each other) are not possible. Hence such names may take a hit.
Effect: A name like Trimurti will turn into Thirumuruthi. Lakshmi will become Lakshimi or Lakshumi.

Convention: An extra ‘n’ or an ‘m’ is added to the end of male Sanskrit names that end with ‘a’
Effect: Krishna becomes Krishnan, Ratna may become Rathinam. Combining all the three rules above, the name Shravana becomes Saravanan.

Convention: Like in English, Tamil has only one ‘t’ sound (like the ‘t’ in ‘tea’) and one ‘th’ sound (like the ‘th’ in ‘thesis’). This is unlike the adaptation for soft and hard forms of those sounds in Sanskrit names. Likewise there is only one ‘d’ sound and one ‘dh’ sound.
Effect: If your name is Amit Sethi, it will be spelt as Amith Seti in Tamil nadu. Sangeeta Thakur will be Sangeetha Takur.

Eastern India: West Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Sikkim

Just like the north, west and south, the east brings its own cultural and linguistic identity to English spelling.

Convention: There is no ‘v’ or ‘w’ sound in Bengali, Assamese and Nepali. They substitute it with ‘b’.
Effect: If your name is Shiva, expect it to be spelt as Shiba. Vasanti will be Basanti and Vikram may become Bikrom. Hang on, did I just use ‘o’ as in ‘Bikrom’ and not ‘Bikram’? Yes. Check out the next convention.

Convention: The short ‘a’ sound is pronounced as a short ‘o’ sound.
Effect: ‘Chakra’ becomes ‘Chokra’. Ravindra becomes Robindra. This is why the capital city of West Bengal is pronounced and spelt in English as Kolkata, whereas the Bengali spelling simply says Kalkata, with no attempt to add the ‘o’ extension to the ‘k’ letter of Bengali script. A short ‘a’ is habitually pronounced as a short ‘o’.

Some common ambiguities across the country

  1. Use of ‘ksh’ / ‘x’: Names like Laxmi / Lakshmi, Baxi / Bakshi, etc.
  2. Use of ‘a’ / ‘aa’ or ‘i’ / ‘ee’ or ‘u’ / ‘oo’ interchangeably: Meera or Mira? Moorthy or Murthy? Akash or Aakash?

The effects of numerology and astrology

Converting a Sanskrit name to English is ambiguous enough. Add to this the fact that a lot of Indians believe in numerology and astrology. If a numerologist or astrologer tells a person that it is inauspicious to have 6 letters in a name or that one cannot have a name starting with a ‘k’, then the person obliges. Non-standard spellings like Kkhurana (with double k) and Akshataa (with double a in the end) can crop up. These persons need to check their spellings in every document they make.

Conclusion

A diverse country like India, while using a writing system which is not its own, can form a lot of ambiguities when transliterating from one of its many writing systems. Instead of expecting the native bureaucrats to get the spelling of your name to match your identity proof, take charge of it yourself. Ensure that you check all your documents and don’t settle for a mismatch. You will thank yourself later.

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