To-may-to, To-mah-to

Luis Dias

As I listen to BBC Radio 3 such a lot, I couldn’t resist the temptation to join an online group called ‘The Society for the Promotion of Correct Pronunciation on Radio 3.’ For the most part, I’ve just been a fly on the wall there, learning a lot about pronunciation of names of composers, operas and other matters largely musical. It has been very interesting, reading the reactions often to programmes I had just listened to.

So I read detailed debates and discussions regarding articulations, stresses, emphases, accents, vowels, sibilants, consonants, concerning most languages commonly encountered in opera, oratorios, and other choral and vocal works: Italian, German, French, Russian; and a smattering of other European languages too.

But I noticed one gaping lacuna: on the few occasions that Indian names or terms pitched up on Radio 3 programmes, or indeed even place-names further afield in the Middle East, they passed without comment, even though they had been repeatedly mangled. So I posted the following on the Society’s page:

“It’s SAA-vitri, not Suh-VEE-tree, and it’s PAAR-vati, not Puh-VAA-ti, thank you very much, dear overseas radio presenters. It’s a lazy assumption that stressing the second syllable of any Indian word is the correct way to pronounce it. And it’s not Shank-CAR (for Shankar) either. Or Muh-HASH (for Mahesh) or Rum-MASH (for Ramesh). And moving over to another country, it was never Bag-Dad. But it’s been mangled for so long that it’s become common usage. Still wrong, though. It’s really not that difficult to pronounce words properly. Not taking the trouble signifies either laziness, or a post-colonial hangover (“we’ll say what we bloody well like!”) or both.”

I was referring to references to Gustav Holst’s opera Savitri, to the token Indian girl Parvati at Hogwarts in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, to Ravi Shankar, and to Baghdad in the discussion of William Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. I had heard them mispronounced so often and no-one else on the group, or elsewhere, was pointing it out.

I was, however, gobsmacked when the reaction from a member of the group, ironically surnamed England, was: “Could this inappropriate post be deleted, please?”

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was inappropriate about my post. Perhaps the remark about a “post-colonial hangover” had ruffled England’s feathers a little? ‘England’ was offended!

Thankfully the administrator of the group stepped in quickly enough, to say there was “nothing in your comment that would cause offence. It is suitably rigorous.” A few other members also spoke up in my defence, and England withdrew into a sulky silence. The last time I checked, he’d left the group.

But it brought into focus the double-standard regarding pronunciation and diction. There is an expectation on the part of peoples of the formerly-colonised world to ‘correctly’ pronounce words, names and place-names in English and many of the commonly used European languages (French, Italian, and to a lesser degree, German and others), but very little effort is made in the reverse direction.

Some years ago, a famous English writer was reading extracts from his books at a literary venue in Goa. Among several examples, he chose one passage where he mimicked an Indian’s accent in clumsily attempting to pronounce the name of an English cricketer, with hilarious double-entendre consequences. But he made a dog’s dinner of every Indian term, name and place-name in the same extract, and seemed to be oblivious to this irony, until someone in the audience pointed this out to him.

Similarly, we’ve all listened to overseas cricket commentators refer to Gavas-CAAR and Ten-dull-CAAR, and even worse contortions of the names of Pakistani and Sri Lankan players, but this is taken as the ‘norm’.

When I began living and working in England, I found people from ‘my’ part of the world (and not just India) who had learned to adapt to the host country’s ‘difficulty’ with their names. So my South Indian colleague had learned to answer to ‘Nathan’ instead of Ranganathan, Harish had become ‘Harry’, Raveendran was ‘Rav’, Mohammed had been shortened to ‘Mo’, and (this took the biscuit in my opinion) Acharya was answering to ‘Archie’!

There are two episodes from ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ (the popular sketch comedy TV show featuring Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia that explored the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life) that deals with Indian names. In one episode, the Kapoors prefer to be called ‘Cooper’ in a farcical attempt at social climbing, and outdoing the British in British-ness. (Not too long ago, on a BBC TV programme, Indian and Pakistani officials were referring to the problems in ‘Cashmere’, presumably just to match their host’s pronunciation of Kashmir!).

In the other sketch, the setting is a white-collar firm of some sort in Mumbai, at which an Englishman named Jonathan has just begun work, but there’s a hitch: all the locals have difficulty pronouncing ‘Jonathan’, so they decide to christen him ‘Janardhan’ instead!

At one hospital posting as O&G Registrar, I walked into delivery suite early one morning to find the senior midwife having a go at my Pakistani junior colleague because she had mispronounced an English consultant’s name: “It’s Davies, not Davis. Not that difficult, is it?” she said, rolling her eyes.

I decided to speak up for my colleague. I felt the midwife was nit-picking (I had found nothing amiss in my colleague’s pronunciation of ‘Davies’, at least to my ears); and she ought to have been the last person to give lectures on correct pronunciation, as she had been distorting my colleague’s name (and mine, and about everyone from ‘our’ part of the world, which meant anywhere but the UK or Europe, I guess) since the time we had begun our stint at the hospital. She was quite deaf to her own phonetic, linguistic double-standard.

So, as the song goes, should we “just call the whole thing off” when it comes to pronunciation, or is there a middle ground? How does one pronounce names, places, or just words that fall remotely outside one’s own comfort zone?

In my view, a first-time slip due to ignorance or clumsiness is only human. But it is laziness not to even try, when it is a word you will encounter and/or need to say often, and common sense tells you that people from that part of the world enunciate it differently, and their version is therefore the norm we ought to follow. Conversely, I think it is only decent and courteous to make this effort.

To give an example: German visitors to Goa often pronounce Calangute as ‘Kalangooter’; perhaps they subdivide the word into two, and they therefore pronounce the second half as they would the German word ‘gute’ (for ‘good’). But if the same individual visits frequently or takes up residence here, and persists in this mispronunciation, either the person doesn’t get around that much, or is too lazy to make an effort. If the latter, it is unfortunate.