The English Language: Gateway to Snobbery?

“Go up to the gate and talk to me in English from there and come back smartly”, my grandmother would tell me when I was in grade two or three. She was so proud of her English speaking grand children that she wanted to show them off to the neighbours! It was embarrassing, so the older kids would not oblige but I usually did, for it made her happy and I found it hilarious. There wasn’t much you could say from that distance anyway! 

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The English language and all things Western is seen through rose coloured glasses in India. Years under the British rule have led us to undermine our own culture and language, our skin colour and much more (for further clarifications consult Mr. Tharoor) and it is only now, that we are beginning to regain confidence in all things “Desi”(National-read Indian). I plead guilty myself.

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A little earlier, as I was making chapatis, a task I dislike, I let my mind wander-that way the chapatis get made, albeit not perfect ones, without complaint. I forget what I was dreaming of but it got stuck at how to pronounce Maldives. Is it “Maal-dives” or “Mall-dives”? I went blank and then the chapatis got done so I brushed aside the pronunciation and went on to ponder about the English language and its pronunciation. It does not really matter to me anymore how words, especially proper nouns, are pronounced, which is probably why I could brush it off. No, I am in no way suggesting that one should not aim to get the pronunciation correct. My whole point is that we need not be snobbish about our language, dialect, accent or pronunciation as though it were a matter of life and death. After all, language is and ought to be treated as a medium of communication. 

As a child I was enamoured by the accented culture of the west and all my dolls had Christian names; Diana, Nancy, Anne, Kitty and many more. My stories and letters in school had names like Katherine, John, Jessica, Veronica in them. During summer break, apart from the lengthy holiday homework we would get from school, my father used to have his own requirements. The one pertaining to English, which I quite liked, was to write an essay or short story or paragraph and show it to him every afternoon when he came home for lunch. This was to improve my language and handwriting. After a few days he asked me why I never used a Gopalakrishnan or Charulata or Amminikutty in my stories. I was horrified. He told me to write about people with names we came across (believe me, I am yet to come across Charulata) not Jennifer or Timothy. “I like Christian names Daddy”, I persisted. “Then use Jincymol or Chacko”, said he, to the not so amused me! 

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A few years later, while sitting with my father for the mandatory news on Doordarshan (no cable TV then; in fact, the TV had also just come in to our home that year) I was not paying attention to what was being said as usual but was observing the news reader to imitate her afterwards. I also looked at the way she covered herself with the sari and the necklace she wore. My father was aware of this just as he was aware of the number of yawns I was stifling. Suddenly I hear an angry, “This is what happens when we anglicize everything.” Shaken out of my boredom, I got alert and quickly tried to catch what this was all about. 
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 The news reader Rini Simon (of Kerala), who spoke immaculate English in her deep voice pronounced Kozhikode (also known as Calicut, is a city in Kerala) as “Kozy koday” which at once riled my father for she pronounced  French words to perfection then how dare she read this out in such an obnoxious manner! Worse still because she, Neethi Ravindran and Komal GB Singh were some of my father’s favourite News readers, who spoke articulately without faking accents! Had it been a North Indian reader it was excusable as “zh” is seldom used in other languages. It isn’t all that difficult to say but most people couldn’t care less and would rather use a “d” sound for it. But then, she was a News reader and hailed from the very same state, so it was unpardonable. Then my father looked at me and said, “This is what happens when you refuse to use Kadambari instead of Rosemary” and I didn’t really know how to respond!


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He is right though. I realize that today. We are so particular about pronouncing a brand name correctly, be it Yves Saint Laurent or Versace and we’d rather be caught dead than faced with the memory of having pronounced Grand Prix as Grand Pricks (where the grand and the prix were not French at all)! That would be so down market or LS (low society, if you please)! Yet, if you goofed up pronouncing the places in your country or the various delicacies here in the most hideous fashion, you don’t care. I do admit some of these are complicated but French is no less! 

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Again, we do guffaw when someone speaks in an unbearable North Indian or South Indian or Bengali accent and are quick to come up with a volley of jokes at their expense (and I don’t come clean here either) but when a foreigner of any nation speaks in his irritating pidgin English, we go from anything between “Aww, so cute to OMG, so sexy” (I come clean here though in that I used to find that offensive too- no partiality!).



Today, I am embarrassed at my erstwhile intolerance and look at people endearingly at their attempt to speak, despite their shortcomings, in the language- be it any language. It is not that I have ever made anybody uncomfortable by voicing my thoughts but it would stay with me and I would use it later while imitating. I haven’t been so lucky though. The Malayalam I speak has been an issue in the family and I have been made fun of for as long as I can remember. I feel it is that very reason of fear of being ridiculed that I didn’t get any better at it. I just stuck to English.
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For those of us who are familiar with Hindi and Sanskrit which use the same written script or ‘lipi’. I used to manage to get past a few answers in Sanskrit by writing them in Hindi and then adding a “Ma” at the end or the “am” or “aha”. Since Malayalam is quite like Sanskrit I thought I could try it here as well. I shall never forget the scene at dinner table where the family was gathered which included my paternal grandfather, the four of us and the four of my father’s brother’s family. My brother was pulling my leg over something over and over again while my younger cousins were giggling away to glory and then when it became unbearable I decided to call him a fool in Malayalam. The only word that came to my head then was “Moorkh’ in Hindi which means the same and to make it Malayalam I quickly added an “an’ at the end to make it sound like Moorkhan which aroused widespread laughter for they knew what I meant as opposed to what I said- all except me! “Moorkhan” in Malayalam refers to a Cobra and not a fool!! My brother still says “Hi Moorkhan” to me, every once in a while, lest I forget the episode!!

So you see, making fun on the basis of language does happen all the time but to make a person feel lesser than he/she is, is not correct. I guess maturity and being comfortable with oneself will finally rid us all of the habit of laughing at another’s expense but till such time let the “making fun” be in good humour(like the Moorkhan) and not out of a sense of false superiority! 

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I do get after my kids if they get their pronunciation wrong and vice versa but that is alright- it is an educative process and not a ridiculing one!! Of course, we can get away with a lot of mistakes by oscillating between British and American English too!! However, English is all essential to know as it is the only truly international language and that is because it is ever evolving and it takes in words from so many other languages, increasing its universal appeal.

And in case you are wondering whether I did check on Maldives; well, I did- It’s “Mall”dives!

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Comments

  1. Great fun to read as always 😃 Waiting for your next already!

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  2. It's always a question of to be or not to be! As a teacher, who is also travelling across the country, I come across various pronunciations for various words. Sometimes hilarious and at times embarrassing. But the beauty is, as you wrote, language is for communication. 😊

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  3. Simply enjoying reading it.... Keep writing

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  4. Absolute hoot!!!! One mistake though.. you forgot the quintessential 'H' in charulat(H)a ;)
    You Moorkhan ;) ;)

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    1. Thank you Jiji... :D :D I don't know what to say... ;)

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  5. Wonderful! I'm sure your father enjoys seeing himself in your blogs. I do.

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    1. Thank you so much Januchechi :) It means a lot to me!

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  6. Fantastic read I couldn't agree with you any thing better

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  7. Beautiful!!! I love the variety of subjects you write about....

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    1. Thank you Sree...anything to keep you interested :D

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  8. Anu, big pat to you for this one too!!!

    Over last couple of years I have experienced all together new sounding and chunking (syllables) techniques....very different to the way we learnt English. We learnt this world staple language through our Hindi akshar sounds. Exciting!!!

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    1. Thank you so much :D Hmmm...thinking of a certain Ms. Vats too ;)

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