According to JE Joseph’s “Identity work and face work across linguistic and cultural boundaries,” “a person’s awareness of his or her identity may lie below the surface until a particular contact creates a tension that brings it to the fore;” This would be an accurate explanation of how I perceive my experience of introducing myself to people who can’t speak Indian languages in the UK. My name, — a typical, slightly uncommon but traditional Sanskrit word — which translates, perhaps fittingly, to ‘self-esteem’ is not easy to explain to people, the sound-systems of whose mother tongue or the languages that they’re most proficient in do not have the dental t, which forms the coda of the last syllable of my name. Along with this, different stress patterns in European languages compared to Hindi and other Indian languages result in them not being able to place the syllable’s final stress in my name. In such a circumstance, I have the much simpler option of anglicising my name, or coming up with a shorter, more international sounding version, which would mean that I don’t have to repeat my name at least four times on an average to settle for a slightly less butchered alternative. It was only recently that I discovered that I don’t alter my name in any form, and without fail, pronounce it in all its Indian glory, guaranteeing going down the cumbersome “I’m sorry can you say that again” avenue.
This essay looks into introspective reasons for my refusal to mispronounce my name while introducing myself while being a resident of the UK, and how this practice fosters a sense of social identity, tying me back to my mother-tongue, my family and my culture; all of which I miss dearly when I’m away. First, I will look into how my usage of my name is a manifestation of my identity. Second, I will explore the negative and positive faces I portray in the process. Third, building up on the previous points, I will look into how my positive face is related to the periphery-scale that India and its inhabitants occupy in the world, being a developing country and that I am in as an out-group member as an immigrant; how it helps me feel like the interest in my name is an act of breaking away from this periphery position. Finally, I will explore negative stereotypes about Indian emigrants in Indian, and specifically Punjabi society, and how my behaviour with my name is an act of saving face while distancing myself from those.
When it comes to situational, difficult names, my mother has found herself in a similar scenario all her life, where her father gave her an English name when he saw her pale-skin and light hair as a newborn child. While the story behind her name likely bears some attributes to post-colonial reverence to colonializing cultures and peoples, especially found among Indians, where ironically a more brown looking person would socially be considered less desirable than a paler person. I have watched the familiar scenario play out countless times, where my mother struggles to get someone she just met to pronounce her name right, all the while refusing to resort to using the more Indian sounding options available to her. Once, as a child, I remembered asking her if she ever disliked her name because of the general inconvenience that it was.
“Not at all, because my father gave it to me,” she replied.
According to Differentiation between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations’ “Social categorization, social identity and social comparison” by Henri Tajfel, “Social identity is that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his membership of a social group-or groups together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership.” There seems to be a link between me as a child watching my mother hold her own and forging a unique, unconventional identity especially in a society where it wasn’t respected if women chose to stand out, where every time she had the opportunity to use her name with a new person and me, as an adult, insisting on holding on to what I think my name stands for. Applying Tajfel’s definition, this reflects my membership of social groups such as Indian, feminist and my family which all bear a heavy, emotional significance for me.
Going back to the fact that all the interactions relevant to this essay do not take place where my origin groups are placed, this leads to how I project my face. According to Face on the Language in Conflict website, “there are two distinct kinds of face, positive and negative, where our positive face reflects our desire to be accepted and liked by others, while our negative face reflects our wish to have the freedom to do what we want and to have independence.”
My negative face stems from my desire to not have to modify my name, an integral part of my self-concept, which reiterates my association with my family, my mother’s story, my feminist principles, and my culture. My positive face, on the other hand, is my understanding that I am in a social situation, meeting someone for the first time and that it would not be rational to blame them for not being able to pronounce my name the way I’d like them to.
Additionally when someone repeats my name uncertainly or asks for clarification from me as an out-group member and an immigrant from a developing country, it also shows a genuine interest in my culture, my story, and thus, my identity and stems from my positive face. This relates to the social-periphery model, which is expressed through ‘central accents’ such as British or American English and ‘peripheral accents such as Indian or Nigerian English, which is derived from the concept of scale. In Jan Blommaert and Jie Dong’s analysis of scale in “Space, Scale and Accents: Constructing Migrant Identity in Beijing,” they talk about how Central accents project central identities, whereas peripheral accents project peripheral identities, and people are seen as more likely to work towards acquiring central accents. Thus, even though I’m deeply conscious of my periphery-accent and how when I’m meeting someone for the first time, my Indian name instantly attaches me to it and to a place on the periphery scale, I perceive an interest in my name as an act of breaking away from the conventional disinterest in or one-dimensional ideas about the countries and their peoples which sit on the semi-periphery or periphery of the world system.
Talking about Indian culture in this analysis would lack some context without mentioning how the idea of a homogenous Indian culture doesn’t go too far, considering how many diverse cultures and sub-cultures exist within the umbrella of the Indian state and beyond in the South Asian space. My heritage as someone hailing from Punjab — the northern, agricultural state —, which has an astounding amount of emigrants meant that I was always exposed to negative stereotypes about them. Ideas such as the disdain about someone who has acquired an American accent after moving abroad, and how that’s perceived as being pretentious and/or an attempt to appear modern have been explored by Claire Cowie in her study of Indian call-centre employees and their accent modification, called “The Accents of Outsourcing: The Meanings of ‘Neutral’ in the Indian Call Centre Industry.”
According to K Halls and M Bucholtz’s “Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach,” “the indexical connection between a given linguistic form and a particular social identity is not direct. Rather, linguistic forms that index identity are more basically associated with interactional stances such as forcefulness, uncertainty, and so on, which in turn may come to be associated with particular social categories, such as gender.” Growing up, I witnessed countless ways in which these perceptions and labels permeate conversations about a “newly turned western” acquaintance who has settled on foreign shores or how this is a trademark of someone who is desperately trying to fit in into a culture that does not belong to them, and in a society that may be more advanced than theirs.
This is reiterated by Inoue, stating that Indexical associations are also prescribed from the top down by cultural authority figures such as intellectuals and such an imposed tie of indexing may create ideological expectations among speakers and likely have an effect on linguistic practice.
Hall and Bucholtz also explain how identities — especially their social component — are not independent but they acquire social meaning in relation to other available positions of identity and other social actors. Owing to the negative stereotyping of the traditional Indian emigrant group, which I grew up picturing and still witness family and friends back home talk about, the act of introducing myself with the correct pronunciation of my name is an act of deliberately distancing myself from being associated with that particular image. My close connection to my Indian identity — evident in what better way than sticking to my very Indian name? — aids me in saving face when interacting with my extended family, or anyone who I associate with having a similar heritage and exposure to such authoritative ideas about accents as me.
My social-identity finds coherent expression in the way I behave with my name.
Asmita Sood is a student of Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. She likes reading, writing, and eating an obscene amount of blueberries, amongst other things. She can be reached at twitter.com/asmita_sood