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Saturday, June 11, 2011

The pronunciation of pronunciation

“The pronunciation of the word pronunciation is not pronounciation but pr-nun-see-ayshun”, so would quip the smart-ass in our class. It was sometime in the high school that I heard this first.

Conversing in English was rare in my school or college days. We could read and write decent English, but whether you studied in English medium or Malayalam medium, spoken English wasn’t that easy for the urban – impossible for the rural – Malayalee children of the 60s and 70s. In those days there wasn’t any school that would punish students if they talked in any language other than English while at school. BBC and News in English from AIR were the only way we could listen to good spoken English; and of course the occasional English movies.

One of the reasons for the oft ridiculed ‘Mallu- English’, is the emphasis on clear enunciation in Malayalam. Clarity and accentuation of syllables is very important in good Malayalam; this is why most non-Malayalis say that Malayalam is the most difficult language to learn. With Sanskrit as the root of grammatical Malayalam literature and Tamil as the root of spoken Malayalam, the potpourri of Malayalam vocabulary and the diction is beyond the ken of aliens.

But it pains to listen to Malayalam TV newsreaders and anchors. For example they’d pronounce Bhaarya as Baarya or Khedam as Kedam. Worse are the young things with fake anglicized Malayalam accent and the snobbish Valluvanadan ( Trichur and beyond till Palakkad) accents.

I personally have difficulties with the subtleties of ‘O’. God, dog. Love, cloak, poke, spot, sport, joke, rock, mock - K has often tried to correct me, but in vain. And the more I am conscious of my ‘O’, the worse it turns out to be!

Therefore all I could do to console myself was to – write a poem!

O, dear!

Mind your Ps and Qs!”
But I always had a mind of my own!
I never did get my Os all right,
My phonetics was always trite.

The O in love, like O in lost? Or O in loath?
Like O in loin? Or O in lonely?
LOud? LOusy? Or lOnging in the heart?
I never got the hang of love at all.

My Ts were quite all right.
Like the T in trust.
Like the T in true,
Trundling along, trudging alone.

Never did I ever, fuck up my Fs.
The F in faith, F in freedom,
F in fair and fun.
Weren’t I a fool, though, to let the girl go?
******************* Trivandrum 09.09.2004

Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 11-06-2011


  1. A poetic take on the English language.

    I have always admired Malayalam. The way the words are pronounced. Its poetic I think, at the same time difficult for a non-Mallu as mentioned in my recent post - the rhythm and the tone that comes along with it.

    And yeah, each of us carry our vernacular influence with us when it comes to spoken English. I recall ony of my teacher would always say "roll your r's and bite your v's". Some of us learnt, many didnt

    the poem captures what you wanted to convey in a humorous way Balan :)

  2. You just called my accent(???) as snobbish! Why? Trichur and Palakkad are quite different spoken Malayalam. I think Palakaadan is the closest to written Malayalam. Correct me if I am wrong. :)

  3. Nice post with such a 'meanigful'poem.

    What I feel horrible about is the news readers and reporters always repeating'vidyabhyasam' instead of vidyaabhyaasam.

    But one thing I have noticed is that,the so called real Malayalam lovers in Kerala always has a tendency to ridicule other languages like 'gosayi' and all..One of my room mates used to even fight with me for listening hindi songs like a routine.

    On thrissur-palakkad slang,it's all dramatic presentation of the same by film makers that did the mistake I think.During my Trivandrum days,whenever I travel in an auto,the drivers used to confirm their anxiety if am a Thrissurite.That was never coz of the valluvanadan mechanical' or made up slang,the original thrissur usages like 'tta' in almost everything we say.To sum up,most of our popular media's like films and televisions have won in 'made up' language versions.

  4. Lovely take.

    It might yet be possible to trace in reverse the genesis of the native language in the manner a native language speaker will speak or pronounce another language.

    Literature is the key to ensuring that languages survive the depradations of globalisation.

  5. @Insignia: Though slightly humorous on the surface, the poem has has tragic undertones of lost love. 'Love', Lost, lonely, loathe etc are indicative.

    @Juxta: The 'fake' Trichur Hindu ( upper caste/ Menon) accent has been raised to snobbish levels by, as Melange pointed out, the cine makers and actresses. They tout it as the 'aristocratic' accent. It is funny to listen to actors from other parts of Kerala struggling to imitate the 'Trichur Hindu' accent.

    I have been married to one from Trichur side. And the way her relatives mock other accents such as Trivandrum as kind of uncultured and barbaric - believe me, I know, because I have lived all over Kerala and can speak in most of the varieties except maybe deep north.

    I would say, from my experience, the most beautiful Malayalam to listen to are Palakkadan and Onattukara ( Mavelikkara, Kayamkulam), which are polite and kind. I am in no way demeaning Trichur Hindu accent; only pointing out that all those 'Illya, atheyo, ttuo' etc have been touted baselessly as the 'best' accent.

    And J, please don't be offended by what I said. Each to his/her language. Only, one should respect others'.

    @Melange: You said it!

  6. Loved the poem :)I never noticed your Os before .This time i will when we talk .lol.
    Have a great Sunday.

  7. @Anil P: In the last two centuries, the development of education in Kerala had a major contribution from British missionaries, many of them from Scotland. A few years ago I watched an English movie based on a Scottish background and was amazed to note the similarities between Scottish accent and Malayalam English. The rolling of 'R's and the open mouthed 'a' in hAppy were so reminiscent of Central Kerala English.

  8. He he... No offense taken. Infact I am smiling! I am from Palakkad. :)

  9. "The 'fake' Trichur Hindu ( upper caste/ Menon) accent has been raised to snobbish levels ..."? I liked and agree the observation. Great literary men like M.T.Vasudevan Nair are responsible for this state. Palghat/Trichur Malayalm is certainly regional-ised expressions. And as you observed the chaste simple Malayalam is from the central Travancore.No offence meant.
    I guess Trichur malayalam is like Geoff Boycott speaking English.

    All said and done , the unforgivable ones are those mallus' with preference for the Anglican language and deriding their mother tongue. The fact is such ones are neither proficient in Malayalam or in English.

    Both "kurachu kurachu..."

  10. Balan , ha I forgot to mention,'interesting poem'.

  11. ha ha..
    that was excellent

    expecting the next one on the 'numbers'

  12. Anil,

    such unforgivable ones are there everywhere - esp in southern india.

  13. I can relate with you very much about words with 'o' like joke, hole/hall etc. I can't find what is exactly wrong in my pronunciation of these words even after multiple corrections from my husband :(

  14. ha ha..some one said..the chaste accent is cental travencore..kottaaym etc? the speak Phaarya for Bharya? hmmnn..i dont know why many people have a problem with our valluvanaadan language which is humble and filled with love.I can agree on anything except on Kottayam oolan slang is chaste.

  15. The Valluvanadan accent spreads from juts a wee bit beyond Trichur (on the Shoranur road) to a wee bit beyond Ottappalam (upto Mankara (on the Palakkad road). In the case of the former, the Trichur lilt vanishes and accents get regularised and less musical, and in the cas eof the latter, just after this town, Tamil words start creeping in (like 'Kooda' for 'Kotta' meaning Basket, and 'PooLa' (as in pooLAkazhangu) starts to mean something rude) changes to Marichini.
    Westwards from Shoranur, the Valluvanadan accent extends beyond Pattambi upto Shukapuram, Edappal, and especially on both sides of the NiLa river, MT's hometown included. The seashores are not Valluvanadan. On the north, the Thootha river is considered the historical boundary of Vallunvanadan bhasha.
    My take!

    A great blog, by the way!

    I remember one of my colleagues from Kottayam, who insisted that his Malayalam was the most chaste, and was closest to the AIR-bhasha.
    He also insisted that Kottayam was the geographical centre of Kerala, which I argued, (succesfully by showing him a map) only belonged to Ottappalam.

  16. English words murdered by Keralites (Malayalees) and other Indians:

    kangaroo (the worst offended word, Malayalees/Indians pronounce as “kanGAROO” instead of “KANgroo”)

    mixed, fixed (pronounced as 'miksed', 'fiksed' instead of 'miksd', 'fiksd')

    bear, pear, wear (pronounced as ‘biyar’, ‘piyar’, 'wiyer' instead of ‘beye’, ‘peye’, 'weye')

    beer (pronounced as "biiir" instead of "biye")

    auto (pronounced as "aaato" instead of "otto")

    Queen (prounounced as “kyuun” instead of “kween”)

    form (pronounced as ‘farum’ instead of “fom”)

    biennale (pronounced as “binale” instead of “bienale”)

    place names – Ohio, Seattle, Utah (pronounced as “ohiyo, seetl, ootha” instead of “ohayo, siyatl, yuta”)

    Tortoise (pronounced as ‘tortois’ instead of “totis” )

    turtle (pronounced as ‘turrrtil’ instead of “tutl” )

    Mascot Hotel (pronounced as “muskut HOtel” instead of “MAScot hoTEL”)

    heart (pronounced as ‘hurrt’ instead of “haat”)

    bass (pronounced as ‘baas’ instead of “beis”)

    twitter (pronounced as “tyooter” instead of “twiter”)

    birthday (pronounced as “birthaday” instead of “buthdei”)

    garage (pronounced as “garej” instead of “gaRAZH/gaRAJ”)

    chassis (pronounced as “chasis” instead of “shasi”)

    divorce (pronounced as "daiverse" instead of "divors")

    February (pronounced as “fibruari” instead of “februari”)

    November (pronuonced as "NOVember" instead of "noVEMber"

    one (pronounced as "onn" instead of "wun")

    pizza (pronounced as "pisa" instead of "pitza")

    our (pronounced as "avar" instead of "aue")

    flour (pronounced as "flower" instead of "flaue")

    alarm (prounced as "alarum" instead of "alaam")

    volume (books) (pronounced as "vaalyoom' instead of "volyum")

    1. Mr Tata, You underline what I have said - that spoken Malayalam lays a lot of emphasis on clear enunciation; we speak the language as it is written with the subtle tonal variations of the consonants. The list of mispronounced English words you have given - you would notice that we pronounce them as is written. If the English want to pronounce 'Tortoise' as Totis, fine, but you can't expect a Malayalee agreeing to that - the English could very well spell it as Totis instead of Tortoise. And don't say that we 'murder' English language - there are many other different accents like a dozens in America, Jamaica, Austraila and elsewhere. You can't expect people on whom English was forced upon to imitate Queen's English. And why, the cockney accent is the worst of all!

    2. Mr Balachandran,
      I cannot agree with "we pronounce them as is written" fully. Please look at the words: biennale, Mascot, twitter, birthday, divorce, our, flour, volume. They are not pronounced the same way it is written. The problem is with the English teaching in Malayalam medium schools. I wrote to all the leading newspaper requesting them to have correct pronunciation while writing English words in Malayalam, but they are reluctant to do so.

  17. Mr Tata,

    It is quite amusing that we Malayalees have such a complex about the pronunciation of a foreign language. Actually, I was more concerned about the way we pronounce Malayalam words. It is so jarring to listen to the newsreaders in the TV and other media. Also, there would be hardly one sentence that is fully in Malayalam; we have to interject it with English words; it is a pity that the modern Malayalee cannot express fully in his/her mother tongue, don't you think so?

    And like I mentioned in my earlier e-mail - I do not think a Scot or a Cockney or Australian or any other innumerable English -speaking people are bothered about their accents. You can't expect the whole world to speak Queen's English.

    Our inferiority complex about Mallu-English is unwarranted . If you can learn the 'correct' ( Queen's or BBC's) pronunciation or accent, fine. Otherwise it is much ado about nothing. What we should feel bad about is how we abuse our mother tongue.

  18. Mr Balachandran,

    Oh! So you are in the other group who says that we should have Malayalam in all walks of life. Malayalam can be given such a status only if all the politicians, especially communists, can give a promise that they can employ Malayalees in Kerala. Else, this is detrimentary to the existance of Malayalees. Today about 10% of Malayalees are forced to go abroad for livelihood, simply because they cannot get the required jobs as per their qualification. And, it is these malayalees which contribute to 20% of the state's income. If it were not for them, Kerala would have been as backward as Bihar. Kerala Govt is not giving much jobs to its people if you look at the number of youth who remain unemployed. Most of the jobs are in the private sector which need English. Hence, we need to give more importance to English and it is not a big deal even if newsreaders speak some English words in news. We need to have more English medium schools, and the English taught in these schools should be taught with the correct accent and pronunciation. Malayalam news readers should pronounce English words correctly. If we have the same attitude as Tamilians, I'm afraid we will be left far behind, simply because Kerala govt cannot provide enough jobs.

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  20. Mr Tata, You are really amusing! :-) I am not part of any group like you said. Communist - that is uproarious!! I repeat - I am concerned about the way Malayalees speak Malayalam. I don't give two hoots about how they pronounce English. I repeat - if Malayalees can speak better English, fine, I have no objections to that. But to have complexes about spoken English, to hold such notions as you do ( that Tamilians have an attitude problem), to ignore that more than half of the world gets along much better without English as their adopted language, to believe that the 'development' and 'progress' in Kerala is due to expat Malayalees - well, Mr. Tata, fine, go on believing that, no problemo!

    But as a Malayalee, who finds it easier to express in English rather than Malayalam, who is ashamed that he can write English poems and articles much better than in Malayalam, who is more knowledgeable about English literature than that of Malayalam - I hold the view that unless one respect his own culture and his own self, whatever he achieves is worth nothing.

    Before going off on a tangent again, I request you to read my post once again and note that I have said nothing derogatory about English. It is a great language, I love it, my library has more than 80% books in English. But that does not mean that I should besmirch my mother tongue or feel embarrassed about my English pronunciation.

    And about the anchors and newsreaders in Malayalam TV who find it so difficult to speak proper Malayalam ( there is even an English accent too, ha ha ha!) and have to resort to English for every other word - they don't know who their parents are! They end up not knowing either good English or good Malayalam. Let them speak in chaste English for programmes in English, but do not MURDER their own selves.

    Good luck, Mr Tata! :-) No offense, but I am quite familiar with the 'group' you identify yourself with. I have no intention to continue this discussion, basically because we have totally veered off from the original topic of the post. Bye.

  21. The versification part is commendable.I have gone through the discussion.I feel that Malayalees should speak at least the prominent and commonly -used words with proper pronunciation.It looks odd when the channel people pronounce numerous words wrongly ( Eg.Vidhyaarthi for Vidyardhi). As far as English is concerned many people use more of American pronunciation after falling into W W W.And a good many like me may not know the correct pronunciation of all the words.Referring dictionary and all is not feasible always. So why can't we have our own English since all other countries do not have the same pattern of using English.I ain't a scholar so what I spoke may not be of the norms.Anyway I liked your poem. Anilkurup has directed me to you.

  22. Indians have their own English. And Malayalees their own too.
    Americans don't pronounce the way British or Auzzies of Kiwis to. They why not Punbjabis celebrate their own English while we relish own our Manglish.
    English is no more the language of Britishers of Americans. It is a universal language nourished by the contributions made by other languages.
    Naturally non-englishers have a say in how to pronounce each word.

    so let us have many Englishes as much as we have Many Malayalams in Kerala itself. OK?

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