How to pronounce “Kyi”

My last name, “Kyi”, can be a tricky name to pronounce, despite it only being three letters and one syllable long. Oftentimes, people pronounce it like “Key” and “Kai”. I don't mind because the Burmese way to pronounce it is not obvious to non-Burmese speakers, and Burmese is not spoken widely enough that I would expect others to understand the pronunciation (in contrast to many in the West knowing that “c” usually makes a “ch” sound in Italian, or that “ll” makes a “y” sound in French).

The Burmese pronunciation of “Kyi” is more like “Cheeh”. In Burmese, “ky” makes a “ch” sound, so for example, their national currency, a kyat, is kind of pronounced like "cheht".

I used to insist that others pronounce my last name like “Cheeh”, however, Burmese is a tonal language. In a tonal language, different tones can cause a word to mean something completely different, and oftentimes, these different tones are difficult to detect unless one has learned the language during their critical period for language acquisition.

In the case of my last name, people were very accommodating and tried pronouncing “Kyi” the Burmese way, but these (mis)pronunciations often translated my name to other words, such as: clear, sister, look, or sometimes, poop. A Canadian author, Tanya Lloyd Kyi, also shared her family's experience with this name.

To be clear, mispronouncing my name is not a problem for me; I mispronounce names all the time and appreciate when people correct me. But in tonal languages, pronouncing a part of a word incorrectly can change the meaning of a word, and in my case, changes it into something unflattering.

So now, I just prefer my last name to be pronounced like “Key”. It’s simpler, and there’s less of a chance of it being mispronounced.