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Changing patterns of spoken English

Changing patterns of spoken English
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First Published: Mon, Jul 18 2011. 11 52 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Jul 18 2011. 11 52 PM IST
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you...” In these famous words, Prince Hamlet instructs his team of actors on the right form of oral delivery. His aim is to expose the villainy of his uncle, now his mother’s paramour.
With the torrential flow of spoken words broadcast and telecast in the world, oral communication has become central to civilized life. TV news channels inundate cyberspace, and newsreaders address global audiences. The way they pronounce words can influence the communication. Here is an example.
At some time in their work, every newsreader comes across the word, “impasse”. I have heard at least three different pronunciations of the word: aw(ng)pass, ampass (am as in I am here) and impass. The easiest way is to read it as a simple English word.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Received Pronunciation (RP) held sway over English. What was called BBC English was a close rendering of RP and served as a model for speakers. It had some snob value, and was linked to the top British universities and the monarchy. In colonial India, proper nouns were given an anglicized form. So we had names like Bombay, Juggernaut and Calicut. These anglicized forms have been replaced now. But Trivandrum was easier to pronounce than today’s Thiruvananthapuram.
As the world’s most widely distributed language, English has received new words from every continent. Non-English sounds have come in with names from Asia and Africa. The combination ts- has been naturalized with the coming of a word like “tsunami”. The guttural sound in Scottish loch is heard more and more in English speech, as in Van Gogh. Another name in the news which has initial -ts is Tsvangirai. The BBC Pronunciation Unit first recommended tsvang-girr-igh. In 2000, on the advice of a Zimbabwean journalist, the recommendation was changed to “chang-girr-igh”.
British Library’s Evolving English Exhibition launched a project to study the changes in English pronunciation. The example most often cited is the word controversy. Conventionally, the word carried emphasis on the first syllable: CONtroversy. But today there is a shift of stress; three out of four Britons say conTROversy.
The same kind of change is seen in advertisement. Under US influence, the stress falls on ISE, and not on VERT. The number of people who say “pay-triotic” is increasing. The word schedule, with its traditional soft sh-, is now being replaced by skedule. Pristine, once pronounced to rhyme with fine, is now pris-teen. Nephew today has an -f- rather than a -v- in the second syllable. Here are some questions for you to answer. In “associate”, do you pronounce the -c- as sh or s? Does the last part of “gradual” sound like jewel or dyoo-el? Do you say priMARily or PRImarily? Do you say “garadge” or “garidge” or in French fashion “garahzh”? When you say “economics”, is the first syllable -eek or -eck ?
Foreign words are often fitted into the local sound system. When Indian speakers say thinker, it sounds like tinker to British ears. I have met French speakers who say fowsand in place of thousand. An Australian newspaper reported one day that thirty thousand pigs floated down the river. Soon they made a correction. They had meant “thirty sows and pigs floated” (a sow is a female pig).
More important than individual sounds is the intonation of the sentence. I have struggled to make sense of what I hear when the reader utters a whole sentence of over 20 words in one breath. Pauses are extremely important in oral delivery. They help listeners to grasp word groups as units of meaning. The newsreader must also be aware of the distinction between the known and the new. New information should be conveyed clearly by appropriate stress and deliberate pace.
V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Jul 18 2011. 11 52 PM IST