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 www.goodenglish.org.sg, 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.