Friday, April 27, 2007

ST Forum: Speak better English - let's get it right

This letter appeared in the online letters section of the ST Forum on 26 April 2007.

April 27, 2007
Speak better English - let's get it right

APRIL is the speak-better-English month. On, the latest slogan is: 'Be understood. Not just in Singapore, Malaysia and Batam' and the focus is on students, teachers, parents and frontline workers.

Miss Singapore-Universe 2007 aspirant Peggy Chang spouted her stuff with: 'James Dean said: 'Dream like you'll live forever and leave (live) like tomorrow's your last day'.' Correctly, she didn't drag her first 'live' but did the second to sound 'leave'.

Another time, she quoted Dean had both 'lives' correctly undragged. Inconsistency betrays poor grounding and a cavalier attitude. Unremediated contestants let down pageants, their organisers and the nation.

Paradoxically, I learn from global contestants who announce their origins. For instance, Chile is pronounced 'Chee-lay', not 'Chilly'. Antigua is 'An-tee-guh', not 'An-tee-gwa'; Guyana is 'Gye-anna', not 'Gee-anna' and Lesotho is 'Luh-soo-too', not 'Lee-soto'. Those unfamiliar may miscall us 'Sing-kia-pour' or 'Sing-ah-pour'.

American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken called his North Carolina hometown 'Raw-lee' (Raleigh) which I smugly pronounced, heretofore, as 'Rare-lay' - a popular bicycle brand of the past and Sir Walter Raleigh. A Brit on TV pronounced it as 'Rah-lee'. How many know that Leigh is 'Lee' as in 'Wood-lee' (Woodleigh)?

British place names in America can sound different: Birmingham is 'Bur-ming-ham' (Brit: 'Buh-ming-huhm'). Warwick is 'War-wick' (Brit: 'War-rick'). Australians turn Brisbane and Melbourne into 'Bris-buhn' and 'Mel-buhn' which some American newscasters assume as 'Bris-bane' and 'Mel-born'.

On TV, an American guessed petrol as 'puh-trole' - probably misled by 'puh-troh-leum' as their term is 'gas' or 'gasoline'. He hadn't heard the Brit 'pet-truhl', like many of us. When London's mayor was here, local newsreader Neena Maraita literally called him Mr Livingstone which is 'Living-stuhn' to Brits.

Another gaffe over airwaves is 'com-pile-lay-shun' (compilation). Invariably 'com-puh-lay-shuhn' to native speakers. Word variants can delude: 'Com-pair' (compare) becomes 'com-pruh-ble' (comparable). Unlike written music, spelling alone can mislead pronunciation even with sprachgefuhl (intuitive familiarity).

A teacher on TV claimed a shy boy 'crams up' (clams up). Someone called me for a 'brieving' (briefing). A grocery assistant was replenishing 'lick-uh-rais' (licorice) instead of 'lick-uh-ris' or 'lick-uh-rish'.

Common gaffes are: 'flah' (flour: 'flau-uh'), 'ah-roh-mah' (aroma: 'uh-roh-muh'), 'loo-nah' (lunar: 'loo-nuh'), 'soh-lah' (solar: 'soh-luh'), 'fo-toh-grah-fuh' (photographer: 'fuh-taw-gruh-fuh'), 'ree-hair-billy-tate' (rehabilitate: 'ree-huh-billy-tate') and 'sahl-muhn' (salmon: 'sair-muhn').

There is a televised spelling contest for primary schoolers which imparts pronunciation. How about one for older students? Words like 'infinitesimal', 'indefatigable' and 'schadenfreude' would be eye and ear openers.

Anthony Lee Mui Yu

I say I have to agree with Mr. Lee here although 'flour' can also be pronounced as 'FLAA-uh' (as the queen does) - it gets contracted into 'flaa' in the mouth of the average Singaporean (actually, so does the queen).

However, his letter seems to imply that Singaporeans have trouble pronouncing only rather uncommon words like 'Leigh' or 'licorice' when, in fact, many words that Singaporeans use in their daily lives are also mispronounced. One cause of flawed pronunciation is the lack of elocution lessons - people are just not taught proper pronunciation of words in schools. People of my generation certainly weren't taught English pronunciation and I had to work on my pronunciation for many years (I'm still working on it). However, looking at the Singaporean undergraduates in my university, the problem seems to be getting worse with younger people. Or maybe it's because many of them come from SAP schools where the lingua franca is Mandarin. Good grief, what do English teachers do in those schools?

Allow me to give you a few examples of poor pronunication. Take the word 'vehicle'. It should be pronounced 'VEE-uh-kel' with the stress falling on the first syllable but most Singaporeans pronounce it as 'Vee-hee-kel'. I cringe every time I hear that. Some words can be pronounced in different ways, depending on the context. For example, 'rebel' is pronounced 'RE-buhl', with the first syllable identical to that of 'reservoir', when used as a adjective or noun. On the other hand, it is 'ri-BELL' when used as a verb. Another example is the word 'contest'. As a noun, it is pronounced 'CON-test' whereas as a verb, it is 'kuhn-TEST'. Seriously, many of the Singaporean whom I have met in this university don't realise the difference. Also, many Singaporeans are ignorant of the fact that the stress in a word shifts depending on its usage and meaning. I don't even want to go into the difference between 'three' and 'tree'. 'Power'/'Flower'/'Lower' isn't pronounced as 'PAU-wuh'/'FLAU-wuh'/'LOH-wuh'; it is 'PAU-uh'/'FLAU-uh'/'LOH-uh'. The 'w' sound is silent. Actually, even when there is no 'w', as in 'hour', there are people who still pronounce it as 'au-wuh'. Oh, by the way, it is 'AH-muhnd', not 'AL-muhnd' for 'almond' as in almond jelly. Yummy.

Well, those are the more obvious ones. There are some that most well-spoken (by SG standards) Singaporeans don't even realise. The vowel in 'pen' and 'pan' are pronounced differently. 'Texas' is not a homonym of 'taxes'. Nor are 'men'/'lend'/'send'/'met' and 'man'/'land'/'sand'/'mat' identically pronounced. Characteristically, many people also fail to realise that 'bear' has diphthong in the middle - it is suppose to sound like 'BE-uh' (glide quickly) where the 'e' sound is as in 'rest' and 'met'. Ditto for 'chair', 'care', 'dare', 'tear', etc. You get the idea. Mr. Lee, who penned the letter, doesn't realise that 'sair-muhn' isn't an accurate pronunciation of 'salmon'; it is 'SAE-muhn'. The 'ae' sound is the 'a' sound in 'sam' or 'land'. Also, 'sure' is pronounced 'shoo-uh', not 'shuh'.

Seriously, folks, the Speak Good English Movement is needed in Singapore. I think I'll make up a list of commonly mispronounced words sometime in the near future and post it on the blog.


Elia Diodati said...

While we're on the topic of being grammar snobs, my favorite examples are the nonexistent words 'irregardless' and 'deprove'.

testtube said...

I cringe whenever Goh Chok Tongs says "opportunity".

Jolly Jester said...

Well, I would beg to differ on the seriousness of mispronunciation, as long as it does not make the speech incomprehensible to others.

After all, how would one define standard english? Which variety would one consider as standard, and are the rest of the varities of english spoken all around the world(even in USA/Britain itself) therefore mispronunciations, and therefore they speak bad english?

Fox said...

I don't claim that there is one common standard of English.

I don't want to play the game of Singaporean English being either intelligible or not. The truth is, these things lie in a continuum. Obviously, the more different one's spoken version of English is, compared to the target audience, the harder it is for them to comprehend. It's not the case where they either fully comprehend you or not. That's a false dichotomy.

However, I would claim, with some good evidence, that Singaporean English has many highly divergent characteristics which reduces intelligibility with other English speakers. For example, vowel lengths is neglected, which is not the case for most, if not all, other varieties of English. Also, the same goes for stress timing.

Singaporean English's very different stress and intonation pattern makes it more difficult for people, especially non-native speakers who have never heard of Singaporean English, to understand the speaker.

Jolly Jester said...


Agreed about the continuum.

You do sound quite knowledgable about spoken English. What do you think of the other Asian varieties of English? (China, Hongkong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, SEA).

And as to the teaching of english pronunciation, I think its still not taught in the majority of the schools, not even the top schools. (I am currently a uni student now, to give a gauge for my age). In fact english grammar wasn't really taught rigorously when I was in school.

It's quite ironical now that Chinese is taught with great emphasis on the pinyin, while the english phonetics is totally neglected (ie out of syallbus, therefore not taught at all).

Fox said...

Sorry, I don't know anything about English in other Asian countries apart from Malaysia. Malaysian English is very similar to Singaporean English in terms of phonology as a result of the countries' shared history.

sandy said...

"I cringe whenever Goh Chok Tongs says "opportunity" -
I reach for the mute button everytime Lim Swee Say appears on the tell.

annie said...

Take it in the perspective of the natives who have never travelled overseas and still able to learn a foreign language which the natives brought home to them. For most non-native learners, blending the first two syllabus are good enough to get on with lives and make themselves understood. (like saying 'kip' for 'keep'). For many, listening skills have to be retrained and in a society populated by different ethnic groups, how can speaking proper English be synchronised unless there is an institution to correct speech delays amongst adults? Cheers to those who brave to try and speak up in a non-native tongue (English primarily) and still find a spot in the world map, as the only country who's national language is still Malay.