India Uncut

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005


Varun Singh, Krishna Moorthy, Shiva Pennathur, Indraneel Kanaglekar, Vikrum Sequeira, Ammani, Swati Sonee and Jitendra Mohan responded to my plea for enlightenment on why girls' names in India end so often with vowels. Indraneel wrote:
The reason girls’ names end in vowels [in India] is because in Sanskrit you can’t find a "Streelingi noun" not ending in a vowel. If it doesn’t end in a vowel it can’t have a female gender. Sanskrit has very strict rules about how a noun operates. It's called “Vibhakti Pratyays", and I don’t think for a female-gender noun not ending with a vowel, there are any definitions. It's a very structured language.”

Shiva has more:
In Sanskrit, as a rule, nouns ending with the short “a” and short “i” are male and the long “a” and long “i” are female. So Rama, actually Ramah, is male and gets shortened in the North to Ram. The long “a” like in Maya is female. So female names end up with a vowel as in male names it is omitted. In Bengali Subrata pronounced ending in “a” becomes female, and pronounced to end with “o” becomes male. In Tamizh these rules sort of apply. A number of female names end with the “i” and male names end with a consonant. In Telugu every noun can be made to end with a vowel by the addition of one of the following suffixes - mu, vu, du, lu.

Krishna and Vikrum point out that this is a trend seen in Western languages as well. Krishna writes:
[I]t’s a western nomenclature principle. As an example, John/Johann and therefore, Johanna. The vowel at the end makes the word softer and by association, less manly, I suppose? Very few first names for men end in vowels. I can only think of some European names like Nikolai that end in a vowel.

I know this theory is somewhat right because most of the junk mail I receive at home is addressed to a "Ms Krishna".

Krishna, it turns out, is male. Vikrum writes:
You mentioned that most Indian girls' names ended in vowels. My explanation: have you noticed that they almost always end in the letter "a" (sometimes in "i"). I think this is due to the fact that in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Polish, French, and other languauges, a name ending in "a" is feminine and a name ending in "o" is masculine. Thus we have female names like Isabella, Donatella, Cristina, Lina, Patricia, Alberta, Olga, Rosa, Sonia, Sofia, Marisa, Elena, Paloma, Alma, Natalia, etc. And we have male names like Octavio, Donatello, Alberto, Antonio, Leonardo, Roberto, Paulo, Pablo, Diego, Frederico, etc.

Due to the fact that there are many Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, etc. names in the United States, I think there is a prevalent idea that female names end with "a" and that is one reason why Indian Americans name their daughters with names that end in "a".

In Sanskrit many feminine words/names end in "i" (in addition to "a"). For example, the names Gayatri and Kranti both end in 'i". But in the United States most Americans would not know if Gayatri or Kranti were male or female. Yet Tara, Maya, and Radha are all feminine for most Americans.

Jitendra then wakes us up with the observation that “[the] names of typical Punjabi girls might be an exception (eg: Gurinder, Arvinder, Gurpreet, Harpreet, Manpreet to name a few).” And Ammani and Swati both make the same comment, that girls’ names end in vowels because they are easier to call out. Swati writes:
It's very hard to yell at a kid whose name ends in a consonant. Imagine a mad mother yelling “Shreyaaaaa” to harangue a daughter. Conversely, the best you can vent on a boy is a “Raahul”.

Unless, of course, his name is Krishna. Thanks to all the respondents, I wish I had gift hampers I could send you, but sadly, the day has not yet come when one can break even from blogging. Not for me, at least.

Update: Here's an old post by The Learner on gender-neutral names.
amit varma, 10:46 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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