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Browsing through the display at Berlin’s Black Box museum (depicting the impact of the Berlin Wall on the history of Germany), I happened upon a reference to T. N. Zutshi, an Indian, who traveled to East Berlin in 1960 wearing a placard proclaiming, “The first step toward freedom: Get rid of your fear and speak the truth!” The picture of Zutshi with the crude German signboard slung around his neck standing in front of barbed wire was particularly stark and greatly inspiring, for I’d heard about this man, who considered himself a “citizen of the world,” and had courted arrest and fought for those he had no real affiliation to, other than that they were, like him, humans.

In the picture, Zutshi was standing along with Carl-Wolfgang Holzapfel, both of whom were arrested by the East Berlin police for five days, according to the little information bulletin alongside the pictures.

Both men were described as followers of “Ghandi.” And, what’s more, as I skimmed through the texts of other languages, I noticed that our Mahatma’s name was spelt correctly in all but the English translation!

This was not the first time I have come across this misspelling of Gandhi’s name and it has never failed to irk me.

But, standing there in a dimly lit museum passageway in Berlin, peering at the English massacre of Gandhi’s name, it seemed more than a sloppy error.

Surely, there were editors involved? Surely one of them knew the correct spelling of one of history’s greats? And then there was the curious behavior of the Germans, who did know what the correct spelling of Gandhi was, but yet had not elected to correct the English version.

So what compels our English speaking brains to substitute a gh for a dh?

In most English dialects, there is a digraph for gh, which is either silent as in “fright,” pronounced as an “f,” as in “cough,” or said with a slight exhalation for the “h” as in “ghost.” So yes, there is a phoneme for gh. And, too, there is a marked difference from the way that phoneme is used and the way Gandhi is pronounced.

Though the common English word “bathing” is a close enough comparison to the way Gandhi is uttered, there is no English phoneme for dh.

For sure, spelling mistakes are easy to make and so are typos. Much depends on how we phonetically sound them out.

To me, learning the spelling of words is a product of reading—a process of capturing the spellings of words like images onto my brain. The more you encounter the word or name in books and publications the more it is likely to leave a spelling impression.

In fact, Catherine Snow, an expert on language and literacy development in children, says that “Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word.”

When it comes to foreign names that we rarely come across, careful research and attention must be allocated to get the spelling right. Many proper nouns do not adhere to typical orthographic constructs, like Schwarzenegger or Dmitry Medvedev.

Errors with names that we see or read frequently are rather revealing. I feel compelled to make assumptions: like perhaps the person hasn’t read anything since Stuart Little; perhaps he lives buried under broken up bedrock; perhaps his tv remote is embedded into his hand.

When museums, articles, books and public forums misspell certain famous names it is a consequential error. It can result in reinforcing and perpetuating the mistake.

And it’s pretty egregious that Wiktionary, UrbanDictionary, Wikiquote and RaceandHistory have entries for “Ghandi!”

The argument to be made is that those who misspell Gandhi’s name rarely mean him any disrespect. So, perhaps, the Black Box museum wasn’t being disrespectful. It’s a matter of precision and attention to detail: touted German qualities.

Gandhi is quoted as much as Martin Luther King is, but I have not encountered anyone spelling Luther as Lhuter, have you? When we make the effort to spell people’s names right, we show that we care. Take the time and get it right, folks!

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....