Image:
Instagram/@jessiesohpaul

My commitment to the Punjabi language

By:
Harpo Mander/@harpomander

I shared this public proclamation in the midst of a realization that all my life, I’d been mispronouncing Punjabi words and names.

It wasn’t that I was simply mispronouncing them, but I was anglicizing Punjabi words and names so much that they failed to sound the way they were intended to sound. 

When I was in high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to take Punjabi as a language for credit. In this course, I was able to learn how to read and write Gurmukhi. I had the opportunity to learn all thirty five letters of Gurmukhi and spent days on end learning how to get the pronunciation of every single one of the letters right. I spent two years of high school learning the different sounds of each letter and when to use a “chu-cha” over a “chhu-chha”.

And yet, still, I was unable to pronounce the names of my Punjabi siblings in the way they were meant to be written in Gurmukhi. I even felt shame around pronouncing my first and last name in the way my ancestors did.

I tried to trace back when this began for me and I realized it happened at a very young age.

It started in the classrooms, where most of my non-racialized teachers were unable to pronounce our names and made absolutely no effort in learning how to do so. What came out of their mouths was an anglicized version of a non-anglicized name and when met with non-resistance, the anglicized version continued.

It continued to happen every time I placed an order at coffee shops and gave the barista my name, only to get a cup with a misspelt name along the side and a mispronunciation of my name shouted out in front of all the guests.

It continued every time I didn’t take the extra few seconds to teach the barista how to actually say my name so that that didn’t happen.

Many times in my life, I found myself feeling embarrassed at pronouncing Punjabi words the way they were intended to be pronounced even around my own Punjabi peers.

I distinctly remember going to a non-Indian restaurant with a bunch of my Punjabi friends and seeing “pakoray”, a very common Punjabi dish on the menu and asking the Punjabi waitress to bring me “phuk-O-raas”. I felt ashamed of saying the word the way it was meant to be said. 

The reason behind my public proclamation is my fearless willingness to get uncomfortable in acknowledging my own complicity in internalized racism. I’ve come to acknowledge that, while it may not have been a conscious choice on my part, many of my daily actions contribute to an erasure of my identity and culture. 

I’ve also made this public and internal commitment to the Punjabi language because of just how incredibly important it is to honour people in their truest, authentic form. 

Names are important. Our names are often the first understanding or consciousness that we gain about ourselves.

Names can be self-fulfilling prophecies, as the meaning of our names fold into our identities. Allowing our names to be mispronounced or mispronouncing our own names is doing a disservice to our embodiment. 

More than anything, pronouncing words and names in their truest forms is a form of radical activism. Whether it’s Punjabi or another non-Western language, choosing to let words roll off our tongues in the exact way they were originally conceptualized is a big middle finger to the ways in which colonization displaced our communities. It’s a way of staying grounded in who we truly and having strong boundaries. It’s a form of reclamation, resistance, and resiliency. 

Continuing to pronounce the name of my racialized siblings, whether it’s names in Punjabi, Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu, Tagalog, or Cantonese is my commitment to dismantling systems of oppression. 

Pronouncing my full name “Harpreet” the way “Harpreet” has always meant to be pronounced is my own revolution, and I invite you all to do the same.

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