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Ask Mint | It’s all about what you hear

Ask Mint | It’s all about what you hear
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First Published: Mon, Oct 08 2007. 12 56 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Oct 08 2007. 12 56 AM IST
If Professor Higgins of Shaw’s Pygmalion were to walk around the streets of India’s metros, he would be able to gather a rich collection of samples of Indian English speech. When in London, he could listen to people and then identify the street of London from which they came. In India too, there is scope for similar phonetic research.
Here are samples of spoken English from India. Can you play Higgins and decide in which state you can hear English spoken thus: “My ungle is a simble man”; “Kiriket is popular here”; “First istep”; “Providgen”; “Governament”; “Jeebra”; “Phunction”; “Invholvement”?
The word Hinglish has been current in scholarly and media circles during the last five years. David Crystal’s visit to India led to a general discussion of this concept. He said that 350 million Indians speak Hinglish as a second language, exceeding the number of native English speakers in the US and UK. Hinglish is not the same as Indian English. If linguists speak of world Englishes, we have reason to speak of Indian Englishes.
Indian English pronunciation is difficult for many foreigners to understand. The pace, the stress and the music of English are totally different from those of Telugu or Hindi. Business by telephone is a major growth sector in India. This is why corporate houses have to rely heavily on employees who can communicate in English.
This is not to say that Indian speakers of English should switch to BBC English. The only relevant point is whether the listener can understand the communication. The “prestige” accent known as RP (received pronunciation) does not command the same respect today as it did 50 years ago. Less than 5% of speakers still use RP. Britain’s queen, Parliament and courts and the Church of England continue to use it. People who say “tar” for tower, tyre and tar, or pronounce “fire” and “far” the same way, are not many. On the other side, “nephew” has lost its RP form and is often pronounced “nefyoo”; “primarily” is stressed on “–mar” rather than on “pri-” by nearly 80% of younger speakers.
BBC reporters worldwide speak in several accents. Accents are seen as variations, not errors in speech. A survey conducted by Professor Khalid Aziz, reported on BBC, found that people with British regional accents were “bad for business” and overseas accents were acceptable. About 10% of the respondents felt that a European accent was an advantage in business.
With the growth of business on the phone, the need to train Indian speakers to articulate clearly has become acute. There are programmes that aim at doing just this. They go by names like accent neutralization, accent reduction and accent modification. The process has to be carried out at different levels, which include the sounds of English, word stress and intonation.
Word stress is probably the easiest to deal with. In Indian languages, there is generally a flat, level articulation. If speakers are trained to apply stress at the right syllables of words, there will be a perceptible improvement almost immediately. If you ask students to read the three words photograph, photographer and photographic, you will notice that there is something of a monotone. Teach them to say PHOtograph, phoTOGrapher and photoGRAPHic, and they will immediately realize the importance of stress.
The next task can be to practise pairs of words in which the shift of stress leads to a shift of meaning or function (noun to verb or noun to adjective): OB-ject, ob-JECT; CON-flict and con-FLICT. The trainee can be asked to make the stressed syllable slightly louder and longer.
When it comes to the actual sounds, there can be problems. My Fair Lady has Eliza practising accent modification by repeating, “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain”. The consonant that is most tricky is the initial sound of thousand. In an experiment in London, native speakers were asked to listen to an Indian volunteer say, “Tagore was a great thinker”. Most of them thought he said, “Tagore was a great tinker.”
Finally, intonation: Generally, Indian speakers only resort to what is called a horizontal lip movement. In other words, they do not open their mouths enough. There is little upward and downward voice modulation, which is characteristic of English intonation. Again, Indians tend to speak fast, without pauses at units of meaning. Many syllables are lost or misheard. To understand the role of intonation, you can take a sentence and utter it in different ways to make it a question, a mild assertion or an expression of surprise or alarm. Intonation can serve to express your attitude to what you are talking about.
There is no need to aim at an Oxbridge accent. As Frank Luntz said, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Oct 08 2007. 12 56 AM IST