Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Opinion: Mind your P’S & Q’s, tomahtos-tomaytos
In my younger years, something like that would have been disastrous. Pronunciation was a weapon in high school – used to attack the lack of sophistication of any poor soul who pronounced an English word incorrectly. With the benefit of all the years that have passed, and with exposure to many non-English speakers who have achieved distinction in their chosen profession in English-speaking countries, I now understand that poor pronunciation is not really a reflection of anything – other than the inability to remember confusing rules or the reluctance to conform to the demands of the language.
In most cases, it exposes the inconsistent structure of the language. “It’s not me, it’s you” seems like an appropriate English-language response to every pronunciation stumble, a reversal of the classic relationship ending line. Another tangential validation comes from William Strunk Jr, a Cornell University English professor whose fame is his 1920 textbook, The Elements of Style. Strunk is remembered for urging his students, “If you can’t say a word, say it out loud!”
Any missive about inconsistencies in English spelling and pronunciation is incomplete – at least for a fan of Hindi films – without reference to the immortal dialogue from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1975 film Chupke Chupke. In this unforgettable scene, the wealthy old man with multiple diplomas is made unhappy by this question from the young teacher who pretends to be an uneducated driver: “If TO is pronounced ‘too’ and if DO is pronounced ‘doo’ then why is GO not pronounced like ‘ goo’?’ – which is, of course, “poo” in Hindi.
The absurdity of the English language is recognized even by its guardian of its rules – the dictionary. The Pronunciation Guide (online version) section of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary says: “For some languages, such as Spanish, Swahili, and Finnish, the spelling and pronunciation matches so closely that a dictionary need only spell a word correctly to indicate its pronunciation. Modern English, however, does not display such consistency in sound and spelling, and so an English dictionary must devote considerable attention to the pronunciation of the language.
He acknowledges the user’s frustration: ‘[T]his disparity between sound and spelling is just a continual nuisance at school or work. One marvels at the amount of energy the guardians of the English language must expend to shore up all the contradictions of pronunciation with labyrinthine rules that demand the good graces of the brain’s memory center as much as its seat of language. .
The only segment that benefits is the industry that makes money by “teaching” the correct use of English – “spoken English” centers, writing guides, grammar checking services. There’s even a children’s pageant in the United States that’s considered a national institution: the annual Spelling Bee. The first prize is $50,000 and the last 20 of the 25 winners are of Indian origin. Do immigrant parents, carrying with them the burden of memories of their own high school pronunciation misadventures, train their children to be perfect spellers the way others force their children to play music or sports?
Communication experts praise the virtues of clarity, brevity and conviction. How ironic that the most sought-after tool for achieving these ideals is as cumbersome as the English language. Recently, a friend lent me Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which argues that one of the main causes of Western European domination of the world was its long history of complex societal structures rendered needed by the agrarian economy. Could the ability to maintain a civilization with a language that has cringe-worthy rules also be one of the reasons?
The author is Managing Director, Laboratories, Bangalore