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The politics of (mis)-pronunciation

Luis Dias

If a word is written down, how should it be pronounced? As the writer intended, you might say. But what if the writer is long dead, and it is in a language the writer may or may not have been very familiar with?

I’ve often wondered this when reading the works of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Having been born and spent his childhood in Mumbai (then Bombay, of course), he appears to have been very familiar with Hindustani from his family household staff. In his autobiographical ‘Something of Myself’ (1935), Kipling writes: “In the afternoon heats before we took our sleep, she [Kipling’s ayah, or nanny] or Meeta[another member of the household staff] would tell us stories and Indian nursery songs all unforgotten, and we were sent into the dining-room after we had been dressed, with the caution ‘Speak English now to Papa and Mamma.’ So one spoke ‘English,’ haltingly translated out of the vernacular idiom that one thought and dreamed in.”

So it seems safe to assume that when Kipling refers to ‘Baloo’ in ‘The Jungle Book’ (the 1894 collection of short stories he is perhaps most famous for today), he would have heard it as ‘भालू’ in his head as he wrote it, the way most of us in India and most of our neighbouring countries even today would. But in film adaptations of the book, and in audio-books produced by western narrators, it morphs into something like Ber-LOO (always difficult to express a pronunciation of a non-European word in the Roman script).

I was thinking of this when listening to one of the BBC Proms broadcasts, which featured a work called ‘Les Bandar-Log’ by French composer Charles Koechlin (1867-1950), a charming 20-minute piece of music, part of a cycle of symphonic poems based on ‘Kipling’s Jungle Book’. ‘Bandar –log’, which to Kipling and to most of us in this part of the world would be pronounced  बन्दर-लोग as written in Devanagari, was a term used by him to describe the monkeys of the Seonee jungle.

So now here we have an interesting situation: an Indian phrase used by an English writer is used by a French composer, who is inspired not only to write a piece of music but to incorporate it into its title; and this is now being aired on a British radio channel. What’s ‘Les Bandar-Log’ going to sound like now? Should it sound like an expression from India, France, or Britain?

The presenter got the ‘Les’ bit right, from the French point of view. The rest sounded a lot like ‘Bander’ (as in ‘pander’)-‘lawg’, which seemed close to none of the three parts of the world involved in the work’s creation or
inspiration.

Perhaps I’m being pedantic, but it seems to be that native speakers of non-western languages have to work harder to learn the ‘correct’ way to pronounce a word in a western language, but that courtesy doesn’t always have to be returned. Often the excuse is given that there is an ‘anglicised’ form of a word, (as in the place-names Nag-pore and Cawnpore for Nagpur and Kanpur).

And it’s not necessarily related to colour or race. I had a relative who had lived in Portugal most of her life but had grown up in Goa. Towards her later years, she had begun holidaying in Goa annually in the winter months. I was surprised to find her addressing her house-help here as ‘Joana’; on asking ‘Joana’ herself, it turned out that my relative found her actual name ‘too complicated to pronounce’ and instructed her to answer to ‘Joana’ for the duration of their interaction of a few weeks each year! Can one really ‘forget’ completely the pronunciation of a language and of sounds that surrounded one during one’s formative years?

The ‘Hakuna Matata’ song from the Lion King films is a real delight, but it completely mangles (Americanises; same thing?) the Swahili phrase. Those of us who grew up listening to the Kenyan song ‘Jambo Bwana’ will know the correct form in Swahili. But couldn’t it have been incorporated into the Disney song? Far from detracting anything from it, it would have added much by celebrating the African-ness of the Swahili term.

Coming back to Koechlin: ironically, there is a YouTube video on Brut India titled ‘How do you pronounce Koechlin?’ which features the Indian-born French actress Kalki Koechlin (incidentally a very distant relative of the above-mentioned composer, as well as great-granddaughter of Maurice Koechlin, chief engineer of the Eiffel Tower) educating the viewer on the ‘real’ pronunciation of her surname, after citing the several mispronunciations that have been used when referring to her. So (mis)transliteration can be a two-way street, although the volume of traffic on that two-way street might be unequal.

You might think that my own surname ‘Dias’ would be a walk in the park. But think about it, a generation ago, my father would have been accustomed to ‘Días’ as it is of course a Portuguese surname. But over the years, its pronunciation got ‘anglicised’ to Dye-Us’, which is the pronunciation I’ve grown up answering to. Then when I went to live and work in England, some work colleagues insisted on addressing me by the Spanish ‘Diaz’ and try to convince me it was the ‘right’ way to pronounce my surname. Shouldn’t I determine how my own name is uttered? In vain I tried to correct them a few times, and over time, and with job changes every few months, I resigned myself to whatever they called me. To be fair, there’ve been worse mutilations in writing, ranging from ‘Bias’ to ‘Dais’ to ‘Das’. And I could count myself as more fortunate than many of my colleagues from India and many other non-European countries, who’d often have a ‘Joana’ done to them: if their name was deemed “too complicated to pronounce”, it would be substituted with an abbreviated form, or sometimes a completely unrelated
nickname!

There was another small storm in a teacup on a Facebook group called ‘The Society for the Promotion of Correct Pronunciation on Radio 3’, which I have mentioned before in an earlier column. This time round, the hullabaloo (or should it be hulla-Bhaalu?) was over the pronunciation (or not) of the ‘h’ when referring to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. One member vehemently argued it ought to be the Spanish pronunciation (silent ‘h’) as “the palace is in Spain”. Others felt that if referred to in Spanish, the silent ‘h’
applies, but not so in English.

Who decides on what is ‘correct’ or ‘common’ usage? For a long time, the ‘Anglophone’ world (as the term was understood) was confined to the western, English-speaking countries such as the British Isles, North America, Australia, New Zealand. But today, a far larger number of English speakers live beyond that very tiny confine. Shouldn’t their usage also be considered when deciding what is ‘common’?

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