The ABC of English

Lalee’s hilarious take on the misuse and abuse of English language by Bengalis is refreshing. Her prognosis of the problem and possible solutions gives a serious undertone to this humorous piece. Mind your language when you read her, it’s not just a laughing matter.

Did I just speak English?

At the risk of sounding parochial, I thought of penning my thoughts on a topic that I feel passionately about, a dreadful disease deemed by some as Mother Tongue Influence, affectionately termed by others as MTI. I have heard such phrases hurled several times at speakers from India, especially in call centres and BPOs: “may I please speak to someone who speaks English”. Wake up call! Did we speak some alien language in an incomprehensible accent?

When I set foot on South African soil or for that matter any other soil apart from my native one, I have heard comments ranging from “you have a different and distinct accent” to “that accent is so sweet” and “you strangely don’t sound like an Indian”. What do I sound like then? I recall months and years of professional practice to neutralise my accent in order to sound globally comprehensible. I even had to take up phonetics at a much later stage to be able to learn the nuances of the spoken language. As a matter of interest, I used to observe the common features that can be termed as strongly regional influences, affecting our speech patterns.

As Bengali is commonly considered a very sweet language, we tend to round off pronunciations more than what is required, almost like the iconic Bengali sweet Rasogollah. Either we open our mouths too wide or we tend to prolong the vowels rather affectionately, hence the short vowel and the long vowel lose their identity and assume an original flavor of the soil altogether: so “the sheep are gazing at the ship” more often than not becomes “the ship are gazing at the sheep”. Similarly “v” and “w” sound (or biting the lower lip in “V” and kissing the “w”) cannot be so easily reinforced to the lulled tongue of “Dasbabu’s bhulture culture” (vulture culture), where “phresh bhegetables are now a greem reality and the biiiskey especially seengel malts cannot be touched with a barge pole” (fresh vegetables are a grim reality and whiskey, especially single malts). To most of us, the concept of aspirated voiceless consonants at the word – initial like pen, tin or Ken are a sign of flaunting a newly acquired call centre accent almost like a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Little did we know that the consonant “kh” in Ken if not aspirated can actually sound like Gen to a listener. Phonetics is not something that is widely taught in schools in India, hence the regional flavour lingers, long after we leave the precincts of school. Words like ‘measure’, ‘pleasure’, ‘treasure’ are oft pronounced as ‘meayure’, ‘pleayure’, ‘treayure’ or the “aitch” in HSBC as “hetch,” giving it a rather unique recognisable geographical touch.

As Indians we tend to think in our mother tongue and transliterate in English. This leads to several complications predominantly widening the dissonance between the thought process and communication. Hence question tags are inappropriately used as extensively as “You are coming, no? Sit, no?” or much a bolt from the blue “Say yes, no?”(actually nuh). Convenience is the rule of the game as we convert mere statements to questions with a rising tone: Coming huh?

Going to school? Yes, no? Sometimes even questions are converted to asserted statements like “where you are going now” leaving the listener oblivious as to the intention of the message. The riotous listening pleasure derives from direct translation from mother tongue or other local languages to English.

Mr. Chatterjee once wished to compliment Mrs. Guha on her cooking prowess and without much ado said, “Your hand tastes beautiful” literally translated from a phrase that would imply “the food is indeed tasty and of course the dexterity of the hands that artfully prepared it”. Another common phrase is “I will take my food now” rather than “I will have lunch or dinner now”, deriving its origin directly from the mother tongue. Similarly, “rain is coming or shy is coming” are quite uproarious versions of direct translations rather than “it will rain” or “I am shy.” When I was first asked or “aksed” what my “good” name was, I wondered lonely as a cloud for a minute, wondering did my parents ever think of a “bad” name? It took me a little while to comprehend that “shubhnam” (good name) has a direct translation after all.

While speaking, Present Continuous Tense is of course our favourite, cause Simple Present is not assertive enough, hence “she is knowing the answer or I am understanding it,” is necessary to reaffirm that this is happening now and we cannot afford to lose the essence of the moment.

In commonplace expressions, our natural emotional fervour makes up for all the paucity of our pockets hence “thank you so very very much” is as much a common phrase as “I will revert you back soon.”

Cultural orientation to language, little do we realise, plays an important role in our expressions. Before I came to work in South Africa, I had communicated to an acquaintance that I had sprained my ankle, to get a response “Aww Shame!” Really of all expressions, shame? It took me an actual physical journey and few months of exposure to realise that shame is not really ‘to be shameful about’, but merely a sweet expression of solidarity and empathetic sadness. Hence, on one of my periodic visits to India, when I heard a response hurled at me, “let me go and get fresh,” I took it with stoic unfazed calmness.

More often than not, we tend to forget that English is a foreign language and it takes a while to learn it well. As learners, we need to think in English or for that matter any language that we choose to learn, if we do not wish to make scandalous statements like “I can give it to you on the phone” and the obvious reply “no you cannot, even if you try.” This was a very simple and more often than not, an unconscious use of pronoun without a precedence that however had quite a lewd connotation.

English is an evolving language and quite intriguing at times in pronunciation cause of its non-phonetic nature, as well as the fact, that several words are borrowed from French, Latin, German, Spanish, Italian to name a few. So “an heir to the throne has a hair that is pink, that flew in thin air,” has both “heir” and “air” pronounced the same and yet spelt differently.

“We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control”… While blissfully humming these lines in oblivious comfort, realisation is yet to dawn that while Pink Floyd may have had the poetic license, we mere mortals struggling to speak correct English, do not. Did we not just use double negatives in that sentence?

©Lalee Chatterjee

Pix from Net.

Lalee Chatterjee

Lalee Chatterjee

Anindita writes under her pet name Lalee. As a curious and forever intrigued observer of life, she notices nuances and intricacies around her as a source of entertainment and education. Her observations are personal and not intended at any linguistic group. Anindita lives and works in Johannesburg South Africa in the minerals commodities sector.
Lalee Chatterjee

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