I guess I should be embarrassed. How many mothers have trouble remembering how to spell their son’s name? Probably just one. Me. I’m close enough to the origins to shift some of the blame to cultural transcription. But still.

Helmi and Hilmi

My son’s name didn’t go through a transcription from Arabic to English. He was born in this country, and the names he carries are just as we spelled them out on his birth certificate. His middle name is the same as his grandfather’s first name, the same as his dad’s middle name… almost. I mean… just one letter off: Hilmi versus Helmi. They sort of sound the same, right? Or do they?

Let’s compare the “e” and “i” sounds in dead / did and fell / fill. Surely no one will be confused if I say: He fill on a rock and now he’s didAnyone would understand that I mean: He fell on a rock and now he’s dead.

I remember when my mother-in-law transcribed my name from English to Arabic, she said the “P” was a challenge. It’s not a sound in Arabic, which is why you might hear Bebsi instead of Pepsi in some countries. But close enough, right?  /p/ and /b/ are bilabial sisters, lips-come-together sounds. They’re practically the same but they’re not. The /p/ is voiceless and aspirated, while the /b/ is a voiced stop. My name is Pennie. Would I want to answer to Bennie instead? Probably not.

I’m sure the Pattis, Jackies, Kathys, Mims, and Jims in my life would be put off if I started calling them Batty, Shackie, Kazi, Mem, and Dim.


Then, there’s the last name that all my children carry: Alem. Their last name continues to be brutally misspelled and mispronounced.

“Alem, a-elle-e-em as in Mary” but the listener will write Allen 90% of the time.

But that’s not the whole story. Alem has a sound that can’t be transcribed into English: the argh sound at the beginning of the name. Arabic speakers will use “3” at the beginning to express it in English: 3Alem. Mostly, it’s dropped from the spelling, and, honestly, very few English speakers will hear it when it’s pronounced.

No biggee, right? A nuance, barely a grunt.

But is it barely? And is it just?

My children don’t pronounce their own name correctly. They’ve dropped the argh. I’d put money on this: their father when speaking to English speakers drops it, too.

I know I’m obsessing with the letters and sounds (I sat on all the front rows for phonetics and phonology classes), but I’m getting to a broader point. The lost argh is a loss that reflects greater losses: cultural practices and traditions.

Cultural Transcription

Some examples of the tangible losses:

  • In Beirut, I know my children’s relatives enjoy Nescafe with family or friends who stop by in the afternoon. Anyone in my family would be flustered if folks just dropped in for afternoon tea or coffee.
  • Also in Beirut, Kibbeh Nayeh is freshly available every day. In my state, even the finest Middle Eastern restaurants don’t serve it, and my children didn’t taste it until they went to Beirut at the ages of 21, 18, and 16.
  • A Spaniard’s body rhythm might never adapt to the small early lunch and large evening meal. Their body craves the large 2:00 p.m. almuerzo followed by a siesta, then a light, late dinner.
  • How many Indian and Pakistani women choose to leave their sarees in the closet even though the fabrics and colors bring them more joy than drab western wear?

These are easy to detect, but there are nuanced losses, cultural bits that can’t be transcribed because there’s no letter for it, no place to hold it.

Deficits and Grief

It’s no one’s fault, really. But I remind myself to stay curious, to be aware when I interact with someone from another culture —whether from another state or another continent —because chances are I’ll never hear or see parts of that person’s identity. Chances are they probably experience micro-griefs for the pieces that stay invisible to their adopted culture, not to mention the grief as their children grow up oblivious to the cultural deficits in their day-to-day.

My children have dual citizenship, but that doesn’t mean their internal cultural expression is completely dual. It’s okay, but still, micro-grief?

Back to what brought me here: my children’s names. I wish I could pronounce their last name well (I try). My son’s middle name? It’s with i: Hilmi, which means “my dream.” Maybe I’ll remember how to spell it for a while since I wrote about it today.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2023