Pronouncing ‘Kamala’

I've been thinking it wrong for years.

Like many others, I’ve been pronouncing the first name of the presumptive Democratic vice presidential nominee wrong.

CNN informs us,

Sen. Kamala Harris is no stranger to people mispronouncing her name.

When Harris, the newly announced vice presidential pick of the 2020 Democratic ticket, was running for the US Senate in 2016, she posted a campaign video that showed kids explaining how to pronounce her first name correctly.”It’s not CAM-EL-UH. It’s not KUH-MAHL-UH. It’s not KARMEL-UH,” the kids said in the video. Each incorrect variation was spelled out and crossed off on screen.

Kamala is pronounced “‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark,” according to the California senator. Harris wrote in the preface of her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” “First, my name is pronounced ‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark. It means ‘lotus flower,’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.”

Because I know her almost entirely from the written word, I was internally pronouncing it “kuh-MAHL-uh.” Oddly, from the couple of times I heard her name during the debates, I had gathered that it might actually be “CAM-el-uh.”

Such a mistake on a name that’s exceedingly uncommon in a given culture is understandable, I think, and I doubt Harris would have been particularly offended by either of those good faith attempts.

What’s inexcusable, however, is this reaction:

Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night lashed out at a guest who corrected his pronunciation of Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) name after she was named presumptive Democrat nominee Joe Biden’s running mate.

Richard Goodstein, a Democratic strategist and former adviser to Hillary Clinton, appeared on Carlson’s show and offered up advice for the Fox News host and his colleagues.

“Her name is pronounced ‘Comma’ — like the punctuation mark — ‘la,'” Goodstein said. “Seriously, I’ve heard every sort of bastardization of that. That’s how it is. ‘Comma-la.'”

“OK,” Carlson said with a knitted brow. “So what?”

“I think out of respect for somebody who’s going to be on the national ticket,” Goldstein responded. “Pronouncing her name right is actually kind of a bare minimum.”

“So I’m disrespecting her by mispronouncing her name unintentionally? So it begins,” Carlson said with a grin before mispronouncing the senator’s first name two more times. “You’re not allowed to criticize ‘Ka-MAL-a’ or ‘KAM-a-la’ or whatever it is—“

“No, no, no. It’s not ‘whatever,'” Goodstein fired back.

“Look, I unintentionally mispronounced her name,” Carlson said, before claiming that Harris is not “immune from criticism.”

“On this show,” he added, “nobody in power is immune from criticism. Our political leaders must be held to account — that’s our job.”

That a guy who makes a good living talking about national politics on television doesn’t know the name of a major party running mate is problematic to begin with. Unlike me, who gathers information on these things almost entirely from reading, he’s having conversations on these issues for hours a day. At the very least, it’s lazy show prep.

Having been confronted with the mistake, one could understand being embarrased. Defensive, even. “Are you sure?”

But “So what?” At the very least, that’s incredibly disrespectful. And, yes, racially and culturally insensitive, if not worse.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Kamala Harris, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. JohnMcC says:

    I vote for ‘if not worse’.

    9
  2. SKI says:

    Expecting any sense of humankindness or respectful behavior from Tucker Carlson is foolish. He is a bigot.

    17
  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Seriously?
    Trump is repeatedly promising to end Social Security if re-elected.
    He is openly admitting to sabotaging the USPS in order to get re-elected.
    He is illegally cooperating with Kanye West to bleed votes from Biden in hopes of being re-elected.
    Kudlow calls voting rights something found on liberal wish-lists.
    Trump is lying about solving Mid-East Peace.
    I mean…I get that it’s your sand-box and you can do what you want.
    But really?

    2
  4. CSK says:

    My sister once knew a Kamala–a person of entirely Caucasian ancestry–who pronounced her own name Kuh-MAHL-a.

    Like you, I get nearly all of my information from my reading: I was pronouncing Ms. Harris’s name as KAH-ma-la.

    I’m happy to stand corrected.

    1
  5. SKI says:

    As an aside, the fact that her stepchildren call her “Mamaleh” is freaking adorable.

    (For those that don’t know, it is a yiddish word that translates as “little mama” – an affectionate diminutive that is often used towards girls and is especially appropriate given her 5’2″ stature).

    6
  6. Kylopod says:

    In Jim Dale’s reading of the audiobook versions of Harry Potter, for the first few books he pronounced Hermione’s name as “her-MAH-nee.” Then Rowling publicly explained how the name was pronounced and even had the character explaining it (with the pronunciation transcribed) in the fourth book (which came out before the first movie). When that moment arrives in the audiobook, Dale briefly says it correctly: her-MY-oh-nee–then immediately goes back to saying her-MAH-nee. This was strange to me because the name Hermione isn’t exactly unheard of in the real world.

    My real-life first name is unusual and I’ve gone through life watching people stumble over it, sometimes in humorous fashion. (In fact much of the time I don’t even bother correcting people.) I don’t judge, because I’ve butchered plenty of other people’s names myself. But I think there’s a general principle that you don’t have to be a dick about it when corrected.

    7
  7. EddieInCA says:

    @Dr.Joyner

    That a guy who makes a good living talking about national politics on television doesn’t know the name of a major party running mate is problematic to begin with. Unlike me, who gathers information on these things almost entirely from reading, he’s having conversations on these issues for hours a day. At the very least, it’s lazy show prep.

    What made it worse is that he continued to mispronounce it, even after he was corrected. And last night, he did it again. It’s not unintentional.

    13
  8. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    I probably have been reading her name more or less right, but my native tongue is a Romance Language, so, it’s definitely easier to me. 😛

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Carlson said with a grin before mispronouncing the senator’s first name two more times.

    At the very least, that’s incredibly disrespectful. And, yes, racially and culturally insensitive, if not worse.

    He is being purposefully insulting in the whitest possible way, wearing his privilege like a robe.

    ETA ftr, I have been mispronouncing her name as CAM-a-la, because like you I get 98% of my news via the written word. Working hard on the COMMA-la.

    5
  10. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Another thing…this is an entirely sexist discussion.
    If you refer to Trump as President Trump, then you better be referring to Harris as Senator Harris. If you are going to call her Kamala, then you better call him Donnie.

    But again…there are far more important things facing this country at this very moment.

    6
  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: If you want to talk about those things, the open thread is < way.

    1
  12. Jen says:

    A friend of mine was an early supporter of hers and taught me the COMMA-la pronunciation. I have had people try and correct me, which is hilarious.

    I didn’t realize that Kamala was 5’2″–she’s taller than I am, but not by much!

    2
  13. gVOR08 says:

    I hadn’t really noticed how other personalities pronounced it, or even Biden, but don’t networks have pronunciation guides for their on-air people? Can’t help but assume Carlson was mispronouncing it deliberately.

    1
  14. Sleeping Dog says:

    During the primary, I came across the correct pronunciation, but before that was Kuh-ma-la.

    Regarding Carlson and Fox, consider the source. Goodstein’s response should have been, Carlson your an ass.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    If you refer to Trump as President Trump, then you better be referring to Harris as Senator Harris. If you are going to call her Kamala, then you better call him Donnie.

    I tend to insist on “President Trump” on first mention, for reasons I’ve explained previously, but just full names on first mention for other officials. I only use first names or variants in cases where confusion might exist (Hillary Clinton is often “Hillary” because of Bill and I frequently used Dubya for Bush “Jr.”). The weird exception is Bernie Sanders, who I almost always refer to as “Bernie” for whatever reason.

  16. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: I don’t think it’s deliberate, as in he knows the correct pronunciation and doesn’t do it, but more of a “she isn’t worth my time to learn how to pronounce her name”

    I’m not sure which is worse actually.

    And it’s not like it’s a name in a language that has sounds we don’t hear or make in English. It’s comma-la, the shangri-la of modest pauses in punctuation. It’s easy.

    3
  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    I get that…but the open forum is not the same as the other posts for focusing on an issue.
    Again…It’s James site. Not mine.

    1
  18. mattbernius says:

    @EddieInCA:

    What made it worse is that he continued to mispronounce it, even after he was corrected. And last night, he did it again. It’s not unintentional.

    100%. It’s not lazy show prep.

    Tucker’s brand is literally broadcast friendly racism.

    Tucker is intentionally hosting a thinly veiled enthonationalist show. They just stop right at the edge of using direct slurs. And then they act shocked when their writers, under the guise of anonymity, finally go that extra step and say exactly the same things online, just with the slurs left in.

    So much for no capitalist future for polite racism.

    7
  19. @mattbernius:

    Tucker’s brand is literally broadcast friendly racism.

    Tucker is intentionally hosting a thinly veiled enthonationalist show. They just stop right at the edge of using direct slurs. And then they act shocked when their writers, under the guise of anonymity, finally go that extra step and say exactly the same things online, just with the slurs left in.

    So much for no capitalist future for polite racism.

    This.

    And, also, this is why this matters is not some sideshow post of no importance.

    11
  20. Mu Yixiao says:

    Linguistic nit-pick:

    All polysyllabic words in English (and hence, any pronounced by English speakers) have one syllable with greater emphasis*. For words with more than 3 syllables, this is usually on the third from the end. The word “comma” is pronounced “KAH-mah”, so the pronunciation of her name would be “KAH-mah-lah”. The emphasis may be minor, but it would be there. This, of course, says nothing about the original Indian** pronunciation.

    * As native speakers, we often don’t notice it. But it’s very apparent when you look at noun-verb homonyms: SUB-ject vs, sub-JECT, IN-tern vs. in-TERN, etc.

    ** And that’s probably a matter of perspective, as there are more than 100 languages and over 1,300 dialects in India.

    1
  21. @James Joyner:

    I tend to insist on “President Trump” on first mention, for reasons I’ve explained previously, but just full names on first mention for other officials. I only use first names or variants in cases where confusion might exist (Hillary Clinton is often “Hillary” because of Bill and I frequently used Dubya for Bush “Jr.”). The weird exception is Bernie Sanders, who I almost always refer to as “Bernie” for whatever reason.

    I am going to admit that I have frequently, and deliberately, referred to Trump as just Trump when in the past I would have at least used the title in the initial reference (this is not universally the case as sometimes emphasizing the title is needed).

    There are some weird unwritten rules about this, as while I would call Sanders, “Sanders” I concur that calling him Bernie was common as well in a way that calling Biden “Joe” doesn’t resonant. I often went HRC to differentiate from Bill, but Hillary was also a common go-to.

    In some cases, @Daryl and his brother Darryl charge of sexism, I think there is some general truth to this, but while I might have been prone to call Hillary by her first name, which seemed her brand, I was not so inclined with Warren or Klobuchar.

    And, of course, Jeb was often Jeb for the same reason Hillary was often Hillary.

    3
  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    It’s James site. Not mine.

    I have to admit it’s a peeve of mine. I understand the desire for posts about specific subjects, I often have the same feeling, but it gets under my skin when somebody says something along the lines of “Why don’t you write about the things I want to talk about?” I try not to get too sarcastic and I don’t want to insult anyone or get into a pissing match about it, but I feel the need to say something.

    You get it, that’s enough for me.

    1
  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mu Yixiao: * As native speakers, we often don’t notice it. But it’s very apparent when you look at noun-verb homonyms: SUB-ject vs, sub-JECT, IN-tern vs. in-TERN, etc.

    Huh, I’ve been speaking this stupid language for almost 62 years and I had never noticed the noun/verb difference in syllabic emphasis. Thanx.

    1
  24. Mu Yixiao says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I learned more about English during my first four years in China than I had in the previous 40.

    ETA: Nouns get emphasis on the first syllable, verbs on the second (not the last): EN-vel-ope / en-VEL-op (and a slight pronunciation change).

    2
  25. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner:

    The weird exception is Bernie Sanders, who I almost always refer to as “Bernie” for whatever reason.

    I think it’s because it’s less common of a name than his last name, and thus harder to confuse with someone else in politics (e.g. Sarah Huckabee Sanders–which has caused me to do double-takes when reading certain headlines). I also think some politicians prefer to be known by their first name in order to project a folksy image. But it’s easier to do with some names than others. I think part of the reason for the “Mayor Pete” moniker was that it’s more memorable than simply Pete, while avoiding the minefield of his surname.

    3
  26. The man in black says:

    (with appologies to Johnny)

    Well, my daddy left home when I was three
    And he didn’t leave much to ma and me
    Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze

    Now, I don’t blame him cause he run and hid
    But the meanest thing that he ever did
    Was before he left, he went and VOTED FOR TRUMP

    Well, he must o’ thought that is quite a joke
    And it got a lot of laughs from a’ lots of folk
    It seems I had to fight my whole life through

    Some gal would giggle and I’d get red
    And some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head,
    I tell ya, life ain’t easy for DEMOCRAT.

    Well, I grew up quick and I grew up mean
    My fist got hard and my wits got keen
    I’d roam from town to town to COMMUNITY ORGANIZE

    But I made a vow to the moon and stars
    That I’d search the honky-tonks and bars
    And kill that man who VOTED for that awful TRUMP

    Well, it was Gatlinburg in mid-July
    And I just hit town and my throat was dry
    I thought I’d stop and have myself a brew

    At an old saloon on a street of mud
    There at a table, dealing stud
    Sat the dirty, mangy dog that VOTED TRUMP

    Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad
    From a worn-out picture that my mother’d had
    And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye

    He was big and bent and gray and old
    And I looked at him and my blood ran cold
    And I said, “YOU VOTED TRUMP, how do you do
    Now you’re gonna die”

    (yeah, that’s what I told him)

    Well, I hit him hard right between the eyes
    And he went down, but to my surprise
    He come up with a knife and cut off a piece of my ear

    But I busted a chair right across his teeth
    And we crashed through the wall and into the street
    Kicking and a’ gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer

    I tell ya, I’ve fought tougher men
    But I really can’t remember when
    He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile

    I heard him laugh and then I heard him cuss
    He went for his gun and I pulled mine first
    He stood there lookin’ at me and I saw him smile

    And he said, “Son, this world is rough
    And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
    And I knew I wouldn’t be there to help ya along

    So I VOTED FOR TRUMP and I said goodbye
    I knew you’d have to get tough or die
    And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”

    He said, “Now you just fought one hell of a fight
    And I know you hate me, and you got the right
    To kill me now, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do

    But ya ought to thank me, before I die
    For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
    ‘Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that VOTED TRUMP”

    Well what could I do? What could I do?

    I got all choked up and I threw down my gun
    And I called him my Pa, and he called me his son
    And I came away with a different point of view

    And I think about him, now and then
    Every time I try and every time I win
    And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna TELL HIM…
    VOTE FOR HILLARY, BILL, BENNET, BOOKER, BUTTIGIEG, BiDEN, COMMA-LA or TARZAN!
    Any-damn-thing but TRUMP!

    1
  27. Mu Yixiao says:

    @James Joyner:

    The weird exception is Bernie Sanders, who I almost always refer to as “Bernie” for whatever reason.

    Nothing weird about it. It’s part of his brand. He markets himself as “Bernie”, just like HRC brands herself as “Hillary”.

    3
  28. Jax says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa: Andre, glad to see ya! I was thinking the other day I hadn’t seen you commenting in a while and was hoping things were ok in your neck of the woods! 🙂

    2
  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mu Yixiao: I love learning new shit, even obvious stuff that is right in front of my nose. So again, thanx.

    1
  30. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    just like HRC brands herself as “Hillary”.

    I always try to refer to her as Clinton, to quietly point out how irrelevant her husband now is… Clinton has totally eclipsed her husband Bill.

    (I never liked Bill Clinton… Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is just so much more likable and relatable, despite her questionable taste in men)

    2
  31. An Interested Party says:

    I wonder if Tucker Carlson knows how the pronounce the word “douchebag”…

    2
  32. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Not noticing these features is not all that significant in that we’re taught the differences by rote rather than by linguistic theory. The reason that we have to teach standard formal written English to students in composition is because we don’t speak it to any great degree.

    And when we write exactly what we would say… [eye roll emoji goes here]

  33. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    And when we write exactly what we would say… [eye roll emoji goes here]

    T’aint nuthin’ wrong with writin’ vernacular–y’all can go ask ol’ Mister Twain ’bout that.

    It’s about knowing the spectrum of speech–written and spoken–and the when it’s appropriate to be where on that spectrum.

  34. CSK says:

    Here we go again. Trump says he has “no idea” if Kamala Harris is qualified to be vp, but a “very talented lawyer” named James Eastman says she isn’t. Even though she was born in Oakland, she’s not a “natural born citizen.”

  35. An Interested Party says:

    Here we go again. Trump says he has “no idea” if Kamala Harris is qualified to be vp…

    Who is he to judge? At this point, he’s not qualified to be a human being…

  36. DrDaveT says:

    Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Tuesday night lashed out at a guest who corrected his pronunciation of Sen. Kamala Harris’s (D-Calif.) name

    When the entire non-insane world starts calling him Tuchas Carlson, he’ll appreciate the value of having one’s name pronounced with respect.

  37. Teve says:

    @mattbernius:

    100%. It’s not lazy show prep.

    Tucker’s brand is literally broadcast friendly racism.

    didn’t it come out a while back that white supremacists like Tucker’s show?

  38. Kylopod says:

    @Teve:

    didn’t it come out a while back that white supremacists like Tucker’s show?

    That’s old news. What’s a bit more recent is that his top writer was one.

    Understand, also (and many liberals don’t), that racism and white supremacy aren’t synonyms. Racism in some form has been common among conservative pundits for decades. Tucker has gone way beyond the usual devices, and appropriated much of the rhetoric of bona fide white supremacist groups–his promotion of the “white genocide” conspiracy theory, talks about immigrants being dirty, the slogan “they will not replace us,” his calling white supremacy a “hoax,” even something as seemingly banal as his claim that Jared Kushner is “subverting” Trump–all those directly echo claims that outright white nationalists like David Duke and Richard Spencer have been saying for years. Tucker has promoted all these claims, but also has tried to mainstreamize them and pretend he isn’t talking about race or color.

    1
  39. de stijl says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    That’s “JEB!”, thank you.

    Actually, I have no clue why folks always said JEB! Was it like a campaign affectation. No clue.

    It was amusing because Jeb was so milquetoast as a campaigner.

  40. de stijl says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    My brain is trying to cope with tonality now.

    I am utterly ignoring all but the simplest of ideograms.

    I wish I had a younger, more neuroplastic brain.

  41. de stijl says:

    @Kylopod:

    It’s easy to dismiss a little prick like Carlson, but he is a vector of infection.

    That little odious prick is contagious. I hate his smug playacting like he is so put out by pronouncing Kamala correctly. It is his job.

    His perturbed pretend ignorance is his tell. Whenever he is flabbergasted that folks would react like “that” means he is blatantly pushing against.