Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth. He can be contacted at noriftin@gmail.com.

When Mainers struggle to pronounce my name correctly, some might assume I’m annoyed by it. The truth is, I’m not annoyed at all. If anything, I occasionally find amusement in how people react when they accidentally mispronounce my name. In those moments, I try to put on a smile to reassure them that it’s perfectly OK and they shouldn’t stress over pronouncing the somewhat unfamiliar name “Abdi” correctly.

I have my own challenges with pronouncing certain non-Arabic and non-Somali names accurately. For instance, when I say “Chuck,” it sometimes comes out sounding like “Jack,” and I’m sure you’d have a good chuckle if you heard how I pronounce “Courtney,” “Patricia” and “Aaron.” Also, since the Somali alphabet lacks the letter “P,” when I address my friends Peter and Patrick, the names I say come out as “Batrick” and “Beter,” even though I’ve practiced “P” a few times to avoid that mistake.

Living in the current climate of heightened sensitivity, it’s understandable that mispronouncing or misspelling names can cause discomfort. However, it’s essential to recognize that we are most fluent in saying things correctly in our native languages. As we traverse cultural boundaries and engage with various communities – particularly in a diverse society like the U.S. – we need to find ways to connect, learn from one another, and let go of things we may not fully grasp or are not familiar with.

I’ve noticed that younger native Mainers often exhibit nervousness when it comes to correctly pronouncing my name. There’s an underlying concern: What might occur if someone mispronounces the name of a Black man? Could it potentially lead to frustration and the situation going viral? These are valid thoughts, given the current landscape in our society. While we can navigate these situations by politely and kindly correcting one another, without coming across as upset or irritated, we can make these corrections somewhat fun and entertaining.

For example, a common mistake I often encounter is the use of the term “Somalians” to describe the Somali community in Maine. This is incorrect and can be somewhat irksome to native Somalis, including myself. Most international media use “Somalian,” but the accurate phrasing should be “Somali” or “Somalis” when referring to the Somali people. During a speaking session with high schoolers here in Maine I recall them using the term “Somalian.” In response, I playfully mentioned that I was not familiar with that word. With laughter they learned we are Somalis.

However, the pronunciation of individual names can differ based on personal preferences. I have several friends named Mohammad, yet each one spells their name differently – Mohamed, Mohammad and Muhammad – all pronounced the same way. These variations are the Westernized versions of the name Mohammad. In Somali or Arabic, it’s consistently spelled and pronounced as Maxamed.

Certain pronunciations, like those in Arabic, may remain elusive to native English speakers unless they have some exposure to the language. My name, for instance, starts with the Arabic letter ع which has no equivalent pronunciation sound in the English alphabet. But ع when attached to my name is written as “Cabdi” in Somali. The native pronunciation differs significantly from “Abdi.” When the letter ع is pronounced in “Abdi,” it sounds like the vocalization someone might make when they accidentally hit their knee against a table’s edge: “Ahhhh.”

For those of us who are multilingual, we understand the intricacies of adjusting names based on the languages we speak. This adaptation is enjoyable, and I wholeheartedly embrace it. While I find delight in discovering new names, their meanings and their pronunciation, I also take pleasure in educating others about my own name. It’s crucial for me to share its pronunciation and emphasize that, given its foreign nature in the U.S., nobody should feel ashamed about any misspelling or mispronunciation.

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