x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

What's in a name? For Arabs, everything

Our Arabic names tell the story of where we came from and where we belong.

The quotation "I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right" can be traced back to the American entertainer and businessman PT Barnum in the late 19th century. If around today, I'm sure Barnum would have added "and pronounce it correctly in the radio and TV news".

As a public speaker, I know how difficult it can be to pronounce names in a foreign language correctly. I recall moderating a panel once and twisting my tongue when introducing some participants with German names.

Moreover, I was greatly touched when a very well-known British organisation in Abu Dhabi sought my help. It asked me to ensure that all the Arabic names and terms in a video it was producing for a significant anniversary were pronounced correctly to avoid offending anyone. I found this was a thoughtful gesture and was happy to help out as well as I could.

In Article 7 of our constitution it states that the official language of the Union is Arabic. We accept English as the commonly spoken language and almost everything we encounter is written in two languages. I can just imagine the chaos if we were to use only Arabic as the language to deal with all governmental and administrative issues. It is fine the way it is and I also think the UAE is making it reasonably easy for non-Arabic speakers to get by.

Unfortunately, I shake my head in disbelief when I turn the radio on and tune in to some of the English-speaking local stations. Do most of the moderators and producers of commercial radio really have no clue? Or do they simply not give a fig about it? For me, the British, Irish and Australian pronunciations of Arabic names offend me. Dear moderators, speakers and presenters: we don't ask you to learn fluent Arabic. We know it might be too much to ask you to learn the language of the country you live in. Don't worry, you are welcome in our country and we learn your language to make you feel welcome. And you see even I became an English language columnist, and try to get it right. But please get one thing straight: stop making a fool of us and what is dear to us; pronounce our names and places correctly.

Our names say who we are. Our Arabic names tell the story of where we came from and where we belong. Our names have the names of our fathers, ancestors and tribes in them. We are proud of them, and that they reflect our identity.