Well, West Bengal recently renamed itself to Poshchim Bongo (পশ্চিমবঙ্গ; pronounced [poʃtʃim bɔŋɡo]). Inhabitants of a place should have the first say about what their place is called, so I don’t see any problem there. And a community can choose whatever pronunciation they want, as I had discussed in a previous post. Of course, one would expect that it is worth the millions in taxpayer money that would be spent in the re-branding. Either way, since this is Linguistrix and not SocioPolitrix, the political undertones and overtones that surround this issue are the least of my concerns.
What caught my attention when I was reading about the change is the spelling of the new name. Quite a few articles called it ‘Pashchim Banga’ while Wiki now says ‘Poshchim Bongo’ and this is the version I find in most places now.
You see, English spelling (or orthography, since you are reading a Linguistics blog and I want you to feel that your time was well-spent) is a mess. Things are already bad enough considering that most people blame the Roman Script for this problem (oblivious to the fact that the same script does a pretty decent job representing the pronunciation of words of many other languages). But when we use the Roman script to represent sounds of Indian languages, we are already venturing into troubled waters.
There are various levels to this mess. Usually, when people see some text written in a particular script, they try to read it as if it were a word of a language they know, in our case, English. This leads to common complaints, almost all of which follow the same template—that the spelling system of X is dumb, where X could be French, or German, or Finnish, or whatever. Never mind the irony of an English speaker calling any other spelling system dumb.
But since we are already used to the transliteration system followed for Hindi or other Indian languages, we largely use our knowledge of the language to pronounce Hindi names written in English. If we were to really look at the transliteration system we use, there are loads of inconsistencies, which are simply ignored because we know what the word is supposed to mean. But try to see a guy pronounce names/surnames not familiar to him, and you will know what chaos ensues.
It is usual in European languages to modify Biblical names—Michael becomes Miguel in Spanish, Joseph becomes Giuseppe in Italian and so on, usually as per the phonological rules of the new language. This happens in India too, to a certain extent. Arvind (अरविंद) becomes Aurobindo (অরবিন্দ) in Bengali, the spelling matching one-to-one, more or less, while the pronunciation is the way one would pronounce a Bengali word with that spelling. The advantage of writing Aurobindo is that when I pronounce it, I would pronounce it more or less in the Bengali way, which sounds fair enough. But more often that not, Bengalis use the Hindi version when spelling their name in English, with the effect that most non-Bengali speakers mispronounce it.
Both approaches have their pros and cons. Spelling it phonetically preserves the native pronunciation, while spelling it the same way across languages helps in preserving the fact that Arvind and Aurobindo represent the same concept. For instance, I didn’t realize for many years that Kajol was actually the Bengali way of saying Kajal. Also, when I have what is essentially the same name/surname spelt in a number of ways, any statistical analysis I do has to begin with a way to normalize the spellings. Agrawal is sometimes spelt as Agarwal, the reason being that those people pronounce it as Agarwal, which I would readily accept if they agreed to spell it as अगरवाल in Hindi, but that would never happen, of course. Chaudhary is sometimes spelt Choudhary and sometimes Chaudhari but Tiwari is seldom Tiwary. Mayur has a ‘bade u ki maatra’, so it should have been Mayoor, but it isn’t. X is sometimes used for क्ष as in Laxmi or Xitij, which is unusual, considering that in English, and in most other Hindi words, X corresponds to [ks]. And when you bring South Indian names into the fray, you add to the hilarity. While the North Indian system uses the letter ‘h’ after stop consonants to denote aspiration, the usual norm in South India is to use the ‘h’ to denote change of place of articulation from retroflex to dental (t is ट and th is त, likewise for d and dh). North Indians, not familiar with this system, laugh at what they feel is चैथन्य or श्वेथा. My father’s name was spelt by his South Indian colleagues as Vinodh, perfectly consistent with their transliteration system, but funny for North-Indians nonetheless.
Solutions? Erm, nothing much. We have been managing pretty fine, frankly. But yeah, I am tempted to suggest using the IPA. Now that would be real cute and über-geeky, but I know it’s never going to pull off… sigh.