By Jagath Asoka –
Recently, I have read several articles—on Colombo Telegraph—related to mispronunciation. I have something to say about this subject. Here is a small dose of my opinion, even though I know that you are not eager to have me opine about this stentorian topic; even though I am not qualified to make pronouncements about pronunciation, I believe that self-deprecation is an admirable quality, and I am not embarrassed to share my experience; I invite you to share your own experience with us.
Every day, I struggle with my accent and pronunciation: a double whammy. My son Rocco is the only person who can clearly understand me; with others, now and then, I have to repeat or paraphrase, especially over the phone. Probably that is why I prefer writing instead of talking to people, because if you chose to read what I have written, I do not have to pronounce, repeat, or paraphrase. There is another side to this double whammy; once I was a consultant for an American company that did business with a Chinese company: My job was to paraphrase and translate Chinese English into American English without making it obvious to our Chinese partners; this is the only time I ever felt proud of my oral language skills; I felt like I was the mediator, facilitating a conversation between a blind and a deaf person.
When it comes to pronunciation, there are people who do not give the subject a second thought. Their attitude is: Say it the way you want it; no one cares about your pronunciation; it is inarticulateness, not pronunciation that matters. Would you say to your own children, “There are no mistakes; don’t worry about diction, syntax, grammar, spelling, and pronunciation because they are useless and boring.” Here is my question to you: Do you easily swallow this nonsense, an invitation to disaster?
You can become a millionaire or President of the United States, even with your beastly mispronunciation, but still you may be ridiculed.
I do not know about you, but when I do not know how to pronounce a word, I usually consult a dictionary; however, here is the problem: Most of the time, I think—but I am wrong most of the time—my pronunciation is not that beastly. Then there is another inherent problem: consult various leading American dictionaries to find out how to pronounce W, the only letter in the English alphabet that commands more than one syllable; you will find four variants, but it deserves only one pronunciation— clear and dignified: DUHB-ul-YOO (like double you). Now, you know how to pronounce “George W. Bush.”
When I was a kid—growing up in Sri Lanka—most people in my neighborhood spoke English. So, I was a listener, not a talker. In my neighborhood, if you were to mispronounce a word, that mispronunciation would become your first name, and you would be known by that name for the rest of your life in that circle. One of my friends inherited the sobriquet Charlie Choplin because he mispronounced Charlie Chaplin. Afterwards, facetiously, we used the pronunciation Charlie Choplin so often that when someone said “Charlie Chaplin,” we would laugh at them. Now, here is the rest of the story: It has been almost forty years since I initially left Sri Lanka. Those who ridiculed others were unaware of their own beastly mispronunciations; I learned some of these beastly mispronunciations from the Sri Lankan elite, and I am still struggling to unlearn them; here are some simple examples:
Even though Sri Lankans do not say “lice” instead of “rice,” yegg instead of egg, or pee instead of be, they say flim instead of film. Before we talk about pronunciation, let me ask you a simple question: how do you pronounce the word “pronunciation?” Is it pro-noun-ciation or pro-nun-ciation? Listen to the people around you: some say pro-noun-ciation instead of pro-nun-ciation. There is no pronoun in pronunciation.
Most Sri Lankans pronounce zoo in zoology, zoologist, and zoological. There is no zoo in zoology (Zoh-AHL-uh-jee), zoologist (Zoh-AHL-uh-jist), and zoological (ZOH-uh-LAHJ-i-kul).
I can list so many other words where I am still trying to unlearn my Sri Lankan pronunciations, but I do not think that is apposite.
If you do not care about your diction and pronunciation, read the following two stories about mumpsimus and malapropism.
According to an apocryphal story, a poorly educated Catholic priest during a Latin mass wanted to say, “Quod ore sumpsimus, Domine (What we have received orally, Lord),” instead of sumpsimus (we have received), he said the non-word mumpsimus. He kept repeating his erroneous usage even after being made aware of. Now, both sumpsimus and mumpsimus are real English words: mumpsimus, adherence to or persistence in an erroneous use of language, out of habit or obstinacy (opposed to sumpsimus, adherence to or persistence in using a strictly correct term).
In Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop often mistakenly uses a word that sounds like another word but that has a very different meaning. Here is an example: “Sure, if I reprehend anything in this world it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs! Here is the corrected version: “If I apprehend anything in this world, it is the use of my vernacular tongue, and a nice arrangement of epithets.”
Here is my naked truth: I am guilty of mispronunciation, malapropism, and mumpsimus.
I am certain that some of you would say, “We are not guilty.” I would say, “Yes, I agree. I am pretty sure that you have seen unicorns, too.”
All of us make beastly mistakes, but if you keep denying them, you will end up being Mrs. Mumpsimus Malaprop.