Saturday, December 29, 2007

Commonly mispronounced English words in Singapore

One of my pet peeves is the way many common words are mispronounced in Singapore, even by teachers of the English language. By mispronunciation, I mean the way the Singaporean pronunciation of a particular word diverges from that as prescribed in dictionaries. While learned opinion may remain divided as to how a particular word is to be pronounced (e.g. 'schedule' or 'often'), it is fairly safe to say that the Singaporean pronunciation of a common stock word would often be at variance with any of the established standards.

The reason for this state of affair is that reading was and still is not emphasized in English lessons in Singapore schools. I don't recall ever having a class on phonetics or on reading in secondary or primary school and I suppose this is probably true for most Singaporeans of my generation. Many older English-educated Singaporeans do however speak the language with a pronunciation scheme that conforms closely to the prescriptions in dictionaries. Two such speakers who come to mind are Lee Kuan Yew and Eugene Wijeysingha, if any RI alumnus still remembers that old dodderer. Younger Singaporeans, even the English-educated ones, have a more colloqualized pronunciation scheme.

Of course, there will be those in Singapore who will lambaste me for insisting on a foreign pronunciation standard. Afterall, it is the Singaporean-accented English that distinguishes the true sons and daughters of Singapore from foreigners. The same people also say that pronunciation should be descriptive, not prescriptive, and we should stick to the vulgar standard, if one can ever call it a standard. Strangely, no one has ever suggested that we should teach the grammar of Singlish instead of proper grammar. The consensus is that we have a linguistic diglossia in Singapore for grammar. The grammar of educated language should conform to that as prescribed in (British) English textbooks but the grammar of colloquial Singaporean English retains its distinctive character. The same goes for spelling - few in Singapore believe that we should have a uniquely Singaporean orthography. So, why should we reject the pronunciation scheme as prescribed in the same dictionaries from which we learn our spelling?

I think that it is important for educated Singaporean English speech to be less divergent from more established varieties of English such as Received Pronunciation (RP) or General American (GA). Afterall, it is the prevalence of the usage of the language that has contributed to our competitiveness in the global economy. This prevalence has enabled Singapore to position itself as a financial centre. Because English is the language of education, government, commerce and law, Singapore is able to import large numbers of workers from Australia, Britain, India, the Phillipines, the US, etc as well as to export hordes of Singaporean workers to the aforementioned countries. Even if their governments wanted to, countries like Japan and South Korea can't do that, at least to the extent Singapore can, because English is not their official medium. There is simply no reservoir of Japanese-speaking or Korean-speaking labour for them to draw upon.

This is not to say that Singlish should be eradicated but we should recognize that there are established pronunciation norms the same way there are established grammatical norms. At a time when millions in China are trying to learn English, an established English variety without any idiosyncratic pronunciations, it is highly inadvisable for Singaporean schools not to arrest this divergence in Singaporean English speech lest Singapore loses the competitive edge the prevalence of English has given it.

Anyway, here's an incomplete list of commonly mispronounced words that I can think of. The pronunciation scheme follows that of (with slight modifications since the former approximate GA as its idea). Stresses are highlighted in bold while the differences are underlined.
































[kon-dem-ney-shuhn, -duhm-]





















[v. ik-skyooz; n. ik-skyoos]

































[jap-uh-neez, -nees]



[priv-uh-lij, priv-lij]
























[wenz-dey, -dee]









[before a consonant/vowel thuh/thee]


















Anonymous said...

i got a few for you..

comfortable - correct is (komf-teh - bel)...

singaporeans pronounce it is (kom for-teh-bel).

turn - correct is (tehrn)..we say it as (tehn).

anyway - i do agree we should have phonetics classes for english in school.

Fox said...

Actually, 'comfortable' can be pronounced ˈkʌmftəbəl or ˈkʌmfərtəbəl according to The second syllable unit is not necessarily silent although I stick to the first pronunciation.

Phonetic classes would be a bit of an overkill but basic reading classes would do our kids a lot of good, provided that English teachers are competent to teach them. The problem is that many of our English teachers don't even know the proper pronunciation of many words, thanks to the years of neglect of instruction on reading in our schools.

Anonymous said...

Delivery - lee lee ver re

testtube said...

"character" is also often mispronounced (as something like "correct-er")

le radical galoisien said...

You linguist ah? Or phonetician the likes of Language Log's (and UPenn's!) Mark Liberman izzit? Or maybe like William Labov ah? Or maybe this Nancy Loy?

Anyhow, your non-IPA phonetic scheme so confusing one -- so difficult to distinguish /æ/ and /ɑ/. And what about /ʌ/ and /ə/? And aw-hor! Never distinguish /θ/ and /ð/. Minimal pair you know!

Also I'd say the dropping of the rhotic /ɹ/ is pretty unprestigious and deserving of ridicule, and reflects the pronunciation of the outdated old Singaporean generation ...

You teach babies all the sounds of the IPA, including the click consonants, all modes of voicing (and not just the European modal voiced/unvoiced dichotomy, but harsh voice, slack voice, breathy voice...), etc. then sure phonemic awareness will stay intact one! Babies do very fine distinction, so it's just a matter of making sure they don't lose it as they develop.

How come you also so picky over the gemination and sandhi one. Also, I didn't know that English had a minimal pair for /k/ and /c/ ... wah, I must be very bad at Engrish.

Also hor, some variants are just acceptable allophones. In Maine anyway (unless you be inclined to call us rednecks) /ɛ/ replaces /ɪ/ for the morpheme "ex-". Sometimes hor, the /ɪ/ is so de-stressed that it acts like a neutral vowel, freely interchanged with /ə/. (Which by the way, haven't you ever noticed the /k/ and /s/ are really co-articulated as an affricate? How come you never note this one.)

"Pressure" with a /ʒ/ and a /ʃ/ are allophones. You adults so resistant to language change ...


Gee, you didn't even mark the first /t/ in the middle of "potent" as unaspirated, never mind unreleased. (e.g. the /t/ approaches that of a glottal stop in perception.)

You pseudo-linguist pedants always so funny one. How come the American Deep South doesn't suffer the same "zomgz you're placing incorrect stress and over-diphthongising our words" criticism. Prejudiced bigots -- this is pure racism.

Fox said...

I thought about rendering the pronunciation in IPA but that would have been beyond the audience. Obviously, using IPA would have been a lot more precise. You want to reach a lay audience, no? Duh!

Also I'd say the dropping of the rhotic /ɹ/ is pretty unprestigious and deserving of ridicule, and reflects the pronunciation of the outdated old Singaporean generation ...

I never insisted on the exclusivity of a non-rhotic pronunciation.


Brush up on your comprehension skills. I wasn't pushing for the extermination of the basilectal forms of Singlish. Never heard of diglossia before, meh?

le radical galoisien said...

Then perhaps IPA should be taught in (primary) schools -- it's the same idea of language reform, no? If you want to change a deplorable situation (e.g. the use of ugly digraphs to have to represent a single phoneme) then it should start right away. I mean, your readers would have had to look up "zh" anyway -- why not have used IPA from the beginning and used an IPA guide?

"Brush up on your comprehension skills. I wasn't pushing for the extermination of the basilectal forms of Singlish. Never heard of diglossia before, meh?"

Of course you weren't pushing for it; you're like the litigator in the courtroom who only has to suggest an idea before it gets struck out. Though you're not calling for its eradication, you have already implied that its quirkiness should be reduced.

Basically, you're coming from the "let's tame our differences" line, the SGEM idea that SSE should be adopted in place of Singlish, so we can have a distinctive accent like the Australians, but abolishing all the *real* phonological and morphological changes.

By mentioning linguicide, you have already suggested linguicide, especially since you failed to make a real qualification that placed a lower bound on how far to go.

As to diglossia, of course; but you have implied that the diglossic situation is undesirable and should be tempered. (Not to mention it's really more of a spectrum, but alas, all the linguistic research that comes out of NUS is so didactic ...)

I am fairly uncertain about your understanding of diglossia since you have suggested that the acrolectal end is the "proper" end, an implication that sociolinguistics doesn't make.

Fox said...

There is nothing racist about what I said. Singaporeans of my generation are blameless for the way they speak the language simply because instruction in reading was not emphasized. The teachers and the schoolchildren are not at fault because the system did not concern itself with instruction on oral communication.

Of course, all dialects are equally valid from the perspective of linguistics. There is no intrinsic reason to prefer one to the other. However, society do value different varieties differently. Obviously, the Singaporean variety, with its highly divergent phonological features and small population base, is a little lower in the ladder of economic usefulness.

We teach English in Singapore, not to sustain the linguistic ecosystem for the quaint academic interests of linguists, but as a means of economic survival. To say that we shouldn't teach a more standard variety just to preserve the pristine linguistic ecosystem is patronizing, analogous to Europeran explorers refusing to expose isolated Amazonian natives to modern medicine or culture in the interest of perserving their cultures for anthropological studies. Who are you decide that no Singaporean wishes to be educated in a more standard variety of English or to have the option to take advantage of the economic benefits of learning to communicate more effectively in English?

le radical galoisien said...

Your analogy is false, because replacement != sharing.

Sharing is good; I am all for the introduction of standard English and for a kind of SGEM that does not seek the elimination or replacement of Singlish. (The explorers in your analogy refused to share.)

On the other hand, it is those who call for entire replacement (or even a "difference-diminishment") who are patronising. Like the bigoted Alaskan government which prevented the Eyaks from speaking their own language for a long time...

You can introduce standard English without replacing the existing creole.

Greater code-switching is what is required, not replacement.

"is a little lower in the ladder of economic usefulness. "

Which is the only way to judge the worth of a language, amirite???

If your argument were valid, this would be sufficient cause for Scots and Deep South speakers to immediately self-destruct their own linguistic culture and suddenly take up RP or New Jersey acrolectal English or something.

Those Louisiana/New Orleans people, why, they all black one; so divergent phonologically and morphologically also -- definitely lower on the economic ladder too! Must abandon!

"or to have the option to take advantage of the economic benefits of learning to communicate more effectively in English? "

As far as the near-acrolectal band goes (where most Singlish features are dropped save syllable-timing and certain phonological traits) I am not sure there is a great increase in effectiveness.

Sure, there is a great reduction in stigma, and the "foreign" feel -- but after that, the morphology has become quite normalised. Have you tried listening in on a United Nations session for example? The varieties of English (as well as other languages) vary far and wide, and yet effectiveness is not really compromised.

Of course Singaporeans may want to learn a variety that better approximates the prestige accents -- but such efforts should aim for co-existence, not replacement.

"Singaporeans of my generation are blameless for the way they speak the language simply because instruction in reading was not emphasized. The teachers and the schoolchildren are not at fault because the system did not concern itself with instruction on oral communication."

I am curious about your theory. Whiie I do agree there is often a lack in oral instruction, it should also have struck you that the Singlish of your generation approximates a semi-pidgin, while the Singlish of my generation better approximates an actual creole; i.e. my generation natively perceives more grammatical concepts in Singlish whereas your generation's pidgin speakers more often tended to substitute terms from other languages in a less cohesive manner. Since this is a spectrum development, my generation still has pidgin features as well, and your generation probably had many creole features, and the process started in the generation before (a process ousting Bazaar Malay). [I want to probe the state of sociolinguistic affairs in Singapore before the 1950s, but again the people at NUS apparently don't have the creativity or open-mindedness to conceive of researching the relationship between Bazaar Malay and Singlish.]

Basically, my generation's reason for divergence is probably quite different from your generation's. Of course on the surface, we seem to speak the same Singlish, but the generations' thought processes are quite different. The implications will reveal themselves generations later -- spawning language change. (Have you read about the various new models of language change currently being developed at UPenn? It is fascinating.)

Anonymous said...

that's very resourceful of you... but i gotta say that singaporeans themselves should take this with a pinch of salt, especially if they're researching for oral exam notes. because from what i see, you're studying in the US, and probably are strongly influenced by the speech of the regular American. it should be noted that Singaporeans, however, follow the British 'system' for English, so the pronounciation may not always be the same.

Fox said...

Actually, I adjusted the pronunciation scheme to that suggested by the Oxford English Dictionary. So, it follows the British system.

Spoken Singaporean English is far more divergent from Standard Received Pronunciation than American English is.

Anonymous said...

sgporeans say vegetable as vegi-ta-ble but the correct one is veg-table

Anonymous said...

I have 2 to share, one is salmon which is pronounced as (sell mon) but its actually (sa mon). And the other one is almond, which people commonly pronounce as (el mond) but it is actually (ah mond)

Anonymous said...

Here are some more commonly mispronounced word.

1. poor
2. pronunciation
3. prayer
4. intrigue
5. physique
6. statuesque
7. across
8. three

Billy S. said...

Another 2 words that Singaporeans get wrong - privacy and garage. It should be [pree-vuh-see] and [gare-raaj]. Why do we spell colour with a 'u' and then have a double standard by pronouncing these 2 examples in the American way?!