Opinion: Mind your P'S & Q's, tomahtos-tomaytos

A few Sundays ago, upon reading a column that appeared on this page (‘The Sycophant in the Room: The World Is Even Flatterer Than It Seems,’ bit.ly/3xZX9gn), I learnt then that I had, all this while, been mispronouncing the word sycophancy. Instead of ‘see-co-fancy, I had been saying ‘sy-co-fancy’ – like psychology. The discovery was mildly amusing in the sense of, ‘Huh, I wonder how no one noticed it till now?’

In my younger years, something like this would have been calamitous. Pronunciation was a weapon in high school — used to attack the lack of sophistication of any poor soul that uttered an English word incorrectly. With the benefit of all the intervening years, and with exposure to many non-English speakers who have attained distinction in their chosen profession in English-speaking countries, I understand now that improper pronunciation is not really a reflection of anything – other than the inability to remember the confusing rules, or the unwillingness to conform to the demands of the language.

In most instances, it lays bare the inconsistent structure of the language. ‘It’s not me, it’s you,’ seems to be an apt response to the English Language at every pronunciation stumble, a turnaround of the classic relationship-ender line. Another tangential validation comes from William Strunk Jr, a Cornell University English professor whose claim to fame is his 1920 textbook, The Elements of Style. Strunk is remembered for exhorting his students: ‘If you don’t know how to say a word, say it out loud!’

Any missive about the inconsistencies in English spelling and pronunciation is incomplete – at least for a Hindi movie fan – without reference to the immortal dialogue from the 1975 Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie Chupke Chupke. In that unforgettable scene, the multiple-degree-wielding rich old man is made hapless by this question from the young professor who is masquerading as an uneducated driver: ‘If T-O is pronounced as ‘too’ and if D-O is pronounced as ‘doo’ then why isn’t G-O pronounced as ‘goo’?’ – which is, of course, ‘poo’ in Hindi.

The absurdity of the English language is recognised even by its keeper of its rules — the dictionary. The Guide to Pronunciation section (online version) of the Merriam-Webster dictionary has this to say: ‘For some languages, such as Spanish, Swahili, and Finnish, the correspondence between orthography and pronunciation is so close that a dictionary need only spell a word correctly to indicate its pronunciation. Modern English, however, displays no such consistency in sound and spelling, and so a dictionary of English must devote considerable attention to the pronunciation of the language.’

It does acknowledge the frustration of the user: ‘[T]his disparity between sound and spelling is just a continual nuisance at school or work.’ One marvels at the amount of energy the keepers of the English language must expend to prop up all the contradictions in pronunciation with labyrinthine rules that require the good graces of the brain’s memory centre as much as its seat of language.

The one segment that benefits is the industry that makes money off ‘teaching’ the proper use of English — ‘spoken English’ centres, writing guides, grammar-checking services. There’s even a kid’s competition in the US which is considered a national institution: the annual Spelling Bee. The first prize is $50,000, and the past 20 out of the 25 winners have been of Indian origin. Do immigrant parents, carrying with them the burden of memories of their own high-school pronunciation mishaps, train their kids to be perfect spellers the way others make their children pursue music or sports?

Experts on communication extol the virtues of clarity, brevity, and conviction. What irony that the tool most sought after to achieve these ideals is as unwieldy as the English language. Recently, a friend loaned me Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which argues that one major cause of western Europe’s dominion over the globe was its long history of complex societal structures that were necessitated by the agrarian economy. Could the ability to hold a civilisation together with a language that has head-scratching rules be one of the reasons as well?

The writer is managing director, Laboratories, Bengaluru


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