As American and European software developers, we are increasingly exposed
to people from "low cost countries" such as India, China, and
various places in Eastern Europe. As I say in the wrap-up to My Job Went
to India
, love it or hate it, working with people from around the world
is a skill that serious software developers need to cultivate.

I happen to know a lot about India. I speak Hindi. My wife and I lived in Bangalore for a year
and a half. We enjoy Indian movies, we love Indian food, and we
listen to a lot of Indian music. And, most relevant here, I know how to
work with Indian software developers. It’s fair to say that, by US
standards, I am an expert when it comes to Indian culture.

Cultural understanding is the backbone of a good working relationship with
anyone (even understanding corporate vs. hacker culture). So I
thought I’d try to help out with some fundamentals.

Imagine a new person showing up to work on your team and asking where he or
she needed to FPT a file to or which version of
Serversion you were using for version control. How impressed would
you be? How much confidence would you have in the person? This is the kind
of person that ends up being lampooned on the web.

If working with India is an important job skill, then horribly
mispronouncing the name "Chandra" or "Rohit" is as bad
a transgression as mispronouncing "Subversion" or constantly
referring to the Web as "The Dub Dub Dub". It’s probably
worse, considering that many (most?) Indian names are based on the names of
gods. It’s one thing to potentially insult someone by mispronouncing
their name. It’s another altogether to butcher the name of
their god.

In this post I won’t give you enough to make you 100% accurate, but I
can give you a few rules of thumb that will cover the vast majority of
problems that I’ve seen Americans have:

  • More often than you’d think, Indian names have the emphasis on the
    first syllable. This is the number one mistake I hear Americans making with
    Indian names. Even when you hear someone saying a name with the emphasis
    the right way, it somehow feels natural to us to emphasize the second (or
    later) syllable.
  • Don’t assume a long "a" sound. Over time, we Americans have
    taught ourselves to at least attempt to pronounce European names
    correctly. We naturally try to apply the same rules to Indian names. If you
    see a "a", it will either have the sound of "cut" (most
    common) or "a" as in "father"—NEVER "a"
    as in "bake".
  • "e" is always as in a cross between "leg" and
    "lay" and never as in "Steve" or the second syllable of
    "clever". So "Suresh" would be pronounced "Soo
    Raysh"
  • "i" is always as in "hit" or the vowel sound of
    "clean". Never "i" as in "life".
  • "u" is always like "foot" or "brute". Never
    like "cut".
  • "o" is always like "flow". Never like "hot".
  • There aren’t many "special" rules. In English,
    "ch" can mean "sh" in some cases. When you see Indian
    names with "ch" in them, the "ch" is always as in
    "Chair".
  • There is no "th" sound like we have in English. "th"
    makes an aspirated (harder and breathier) "t" sound. If you
    can’t hear and/or reproduce the aspiration, it’s better to err
    on the side of "t" as in "Tom" as opposed to
    "th" as in "the". "th" as in "the"
    will always be wrong.
  • "j" is pronounced like an English "j". Don’t try
    to Spanishize it into "h".
  • When you meet someone from another country, take the time to ask them how
    to pronounce their name. Then try it and have them correct you. They
    won’t be offended. They will appreciate the fact that you actually
    tried.

Some examples:

  • "Rohit Thakur" – Row hit Tah koor
  • "Ramesh" – Ruh mesh
  • "Chandra" – Chun druh
  • "Venkatesh" – Ven kah tesh
  • "Rashmi" – Rush me
  • "Uday" – oo day (not "You day")
  • "Ramana" – Rah muh nuh (Don’t emphasize the second
    syllable, making it sound like "Ramada (inn)")

Please send
corrections and/or suggestions if you have them.

Updates (thanks!):

  • Austin Ziegler helped make my language
    less ambiguous, Fred LeMaster suggests
  • Fred LeMaster suggests watching English-language Indian movies (there are
    some really good ones!) to help learn the pronunciation. Some suggestions
    (his and mine) are Monsoon
    Wedding
    , Bandit Queen,
    Earth, and Fire.
  • Chandrakant Gopalan
    wrote in with an excellent addition to the "e" section.
  • Stephanie Booth pointed out that
    "what" isn’t pronounced the same everywhere, so I changed
    the example to use "cut"