I know this isn’t a uniquely Indian phenomenon, and I’m sure most people don’t mean to offend, and that is why Indians usually just accept whatever name people offer, just to get past that same conversation yet again. Instead, this is intended to help those of you who would actually like to get Indian pronunciations right but just don’t have a handy-dandy guide to help you.
I can’t speak for every language on the Indian subcontinent, but I do know Hindi. And here’s what I can tell you. Hindi is a phonetic alphabet. Which means that the way it is spelled (in Hindi) is how it is pronounced. If I’m ever in doubt about a pronunciation, I look up the Hindi spelling. Sure, that’s handy if you know the language, but not so much for the rest of the world. So here’s a quick primer on the Hindi language. It is broken down into 33 consonants and 11 vowels (though one—ri—contains both a consonant and vowel sound).
In researching this post, I came across this great wikiHow post on how to learn Hindi, so if you’re interested in going further, check it out.
But for the purposes of learning names, there are some key points about the Hindi alphabet that need to be considered.
Transliterating Indian names into English can be difficult. You will find names that seem similar that are spelled differently because parents translated (or rather, transliterated) the original differently. The English language, after all, has 5 (sometimes 6) vowels doing the work of 11. So the confusion is understandable. Often, mispronunciations come from choosing the longer vowel sound in the pair rather than the shorter:
A – uh (bug, rug, snug)
Aa – aah (flan, emBArgo, bar)
I – i (sit, pick, lick)
Ee – ee (see, me, flea, glee)
U – oo (book, look, took)
Oo – ooo (glue, clue, rude, food)
E – eh (friend, bend, men, fend)
Ai – ai (play, hail, cane, main)
O – o (bored, more, floor)
Au – oh or aw (so, slow, snow OR fault, mall, crawl)
Ri – this one’s got a consonant and vowel in one! How convenient is that?!
And for now, I won’t even get into the silent “a” at the end of many Hindi words, beyond saying it’s Shiv not Shee-vaa.
There are a fair number of consonants, and they sometimes seem similar. The difference in many cases is aspiration. Meaning, some letters sound like you can say them while holding your breath, while their pairs sound the same but with an exhale. Oftentimes, we don’t realize that we do exhale as we make the consonant sound, but there is a difference. If you can recognize the slight difference, it can help your pronunciation. I’m not going to go into detail over all consonants, but I believe the following ones are the ones that are most frequently mispronounced:
K – lactose (the c, where no breath is taken)
Kh – cake (either c or k), Mikhail (as opposed to Michael)
T – tell, television, talk
Th – thank, thought, thumb
D – door, dollar
Dh – this, though
So I’ll just go through some common Indian names and write out the pronunciations. The ‘ symbol represents the stressed syllable.
Alok – Uh-loke’ (“Cola. But backwards” – Alok)
Anjali – Un’-jlee
Dilip – Dhi’-lip (Di is pronounced like this)
Divya – Dhiv’-ya (soft Dh like ‘th’is, as opposed to d like doctor)
Gautam – Go’-thum OR Gau’-thum, either is legit so be sure to ask.
Ketan – Ke’-thun (where the ‘th’ is like in think or throughput, not t as in tank)
Lalit – Luh’-lith
Manisha – Mu-Nee’-sha (mumble – need – Shop)
Nalini – nu’-lee-nee (number-lean-need)
Neeharika – Nee-haa’-ri-kaa (need-hard-rip-cards) (pronouncewiki.com pronounces it Ni-hairika, which is wrong)
Nirmala – Nir’-muh-laa
Padmaja – Pudh’-muh-jaa (dh as in this)
Prema – Pray’-ma
Raj – Raaj (like Roger without the er, not Razh)
Ranjana – Run’-juh-naa
Ravi – Ruh’-vee (first syllable is from ‘rug’, not ‘have’ or ‘log’)
Rishi – Ri’-shee (Ri rhymes with wish)
Salil – Suh-Lil’
Sanjay – Sun’-Jay. Not Sawn-jay, or San(rhymes with pan)-jay. Sun Jay.
Sapana – Suhp’-naa
Siddhartha – silent a. Sidh-haarth’ (dh=this, not dot)
Sujata – Sue-jaa’-thaa (thought)
Vaishali – Vay-shaa’-lee
Desai – dhe-sai’ (then-simon)
Jain – rhymes with plan, not rain
Kulkarni – Kool-cur’-nee
Kuthrapali – Ku’-thruh-paa’-lee
Rajendran – Ruh-jen’-dhrun (Ruh as in rough – Jen – dh as in this + run)
For a large number of the examples above, the stress is on the first syllable. This is not universally true, but often is the case. Many three-syllable names stress the middle syllable, but not all. Nirmala is an exception.
Remember, just because you knew someone else with that same name, doesn’t mean you got it right back then. And just because someone responds to a name, doesn’t mean it’s right; it might just mean they’ve given up.
I read an interview by actress Uzo Aduba, who wanted to shorten her full name when she was in grade school, asking her mother if she could be called Zoe because her classmates couldn’t pronounce her full name. Her mother’s response? “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
If there are any Indian names that you’ve had trouble pronouncing, I’m happy to help in the comments below.
30 thoughts on “Learn to Pronounce Indian Names”
Okay, I’ll bite! I have a family at my library named Bhave. They’re wonderful regular patrons and they were even my neighbors for a few years so it’s embarrassing to admit I don’t know how to pronounce their name, but I’m just not sure of that “Bh” nor whether the final e is silent or what….
My maiden name was a tangle of Carpatho-russin letters, I usually just listened for “Amy Mat…” and jumped up with “that’s me!” before they bothered to attempt to butcher the rest! Your last name is interesting, too– I found it funny that with all the actual engineers on GeekMom, you, in fact, AREN’T one. But I’m guessing it came about like names like “Smith” or “Farmer” or “Tailor,” but more recently?
I listened to what I thought were native speakers but there still seems to be confusion on my part.
First name Madhu..Should stress be on the first or last? Mu-DOO or MU-doo?
First name Jayan – Jhaa-Yaen or JHAA-Yaen. (For some reason I always seem to want to stress the last syllable so I find the stress very tricky.)
Also, if a family is very Americanized, when they are saying words beginning with a P like puri or Parle-G. Would this be a more Americanized plosive P or softer p that is closer to a b?
JA-yaen (actually want to eliminate the h sound, since that’s a whole different letter, as Hindi separates the plosives from the *what’s the word for the opposite of plosive? expiritive?*)
The P in both would be plosive.
Saravanan. I say it and he “corrects” me but it sounds exactly the same to me! I don’t hear a difference. I’m currently trying “suh-ruh-vuh-nun” which seems to be as close as I get but still not right.
The basic problem with getting people to pronounce Indian names properly stems from the fact that English is not a phonetic language. To make matters worse, English has forced use of a transliteration system that is itself not phonetic.
My wife’s name is “Tej” (rhymes with “page”” ) short for “Tejwant”. She gets called everything from “Taj” as in Taj Mahal; “Teg” (??): or “Ted” because someone thinks it’s spelled wrong! The “j” in “Tejwant is often cautiously omitted.
Here maiden name was “Tiwana”. People are either afraid to attempt it or call her the Spanish name of Tijuana.
A properly designed transliteration system would eliminate most errors and minimize others.
There are no short “a” sounds in Hindi for one thing. And it you want people to enunciate an “a” sound as in “ay” don’t use an “e”.
While a perfect transliteration system would be ideal, Hindi’s not the only language with this problem.
However, as far as Hindi names misusing the e, as I mentioned, there are 5 (and sometimes y) English vowels to cover 11 Hindi vowels.
Could you phonetically pronounce the name Ravindranathan so that I can get them to pronounce it right for my son’s graduation ceremony
Ruh as in Run
VIN as in Vin Diesel
Dhruh, where dh is pronounced like ‘the’, ruh as in run
Naa as in nominate
thhun as in marathon but with an added exhale (like you’re closer to mile 26)
could you please help me with the last name Chatprapachai?
CHUT’ PRUP’ uh CHAI’
CHUT rhymes with Hut
PRUP rhymes with Cup
uh (as in up)
CHAI like the drink (rhymes with fly)
Please help me with Rajadhyaksha.
RAAJ’ uh DHYUKSH’
3 syllables, stress on 1st and 3rd.
RAAJ with a long a like in car
uh (like the u in much or rug)
the vowel sound is the u of much or rug, surrounded by a pair of consonants
DHY = DH (like in this or these) + Y
KSH = K (like in bookmark) + SH
Can you help me with the names Megha and Meghna?
So sorry for the delay!
ME like Met
ghhaa (ghh like in ‘leghorn’ and ‘aa’ with a long a like in car)
ME like Me
NAA (with long A like in car)
From what I understand by reading in multiple guide and via Indian IPA, “th” and “dh” is *never* pronounced like English /th/ in “think” and “this”, but more like T and D with aspiration.
It really depends on the word. There are words in Hindi that use those sounds. It’s just that there are separate letters for:
T = t-non aspirated
T(h) = t-aspirated
Th = th non-aspirated (like in Lithuania)
Thh = th aspirated (finish your maTH Homework)
D = d non-aspirated (dog)
D(h) = d aspirated (like in shoulD Have)
Dh = soft th (like in ‘this’, ‘that’, and leather)
Dhh = soft th aspirated (you can baTHE Here)
I am trying to pronounce Seshadri as a first name, but can’t figure it out. Thank you!
SHAA (with a long a like in car)
dh – like in this and that, non-aspirated
ree – like reed.
You say you “look up how it’s spelled in hindi”. Could you say how you do that? I have a lot of coworkers from India, so I’d much rather learn how to figure it out than come here and ask you all the time. 🙂
I hear you, and I like that approach. Understanding that Indian languages are phonetic, and learning to hear the distinction between sounds, are the way to go. I know it’s possible, because I myself learned by going through Hindi school. My husband could never hear the distinction between K and Kh, because in English there was no real distinction.
One possibility is learning the Hindi script, since it is phonetic, and then learning to determine pronunciations from the Hindi spelling.
This is soooo helpful!! Can you tell give me correct pronunciation for Jayshri?
the correct pronunciation for Srivastava please?
and for the digraph “sh”, is it the same sound as in English?
I try to pronounce:
How is it correct? Thanks
Help with. Vikas Dua
How to say Kisan?
How to say Vinitha?
I have a Hindi friend (female) whose name transliterates Vassutha.
Will you please tell me how to pronounce her name in Hindi?
How about the place name Sherghati? A meteorite landed near there in 1865, and it turned out to be special (probably came from Mars), so that type of meteorite now has that name (though misspelled as Shergotty). I’d love to be able to pronounce it correctly. Thanks!
Hey could you help with my name Poornima. I cant seem to explain to people properly. It always comes our as POOR nima. Or Pur ni ma. How do I get them to pronounce poornima ? Is it like P-OOR-NEE-MA ?
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