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 Post subject: Hunting with the English hound
 Post Posted: Sat Dec 16, 2006 10:19 pm 
Hunting with the English hound

We claim that we are proud to call our model of local English "Standard Sri Lankan English" (SSLE: M. Gunasekara, 2005: The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English) which indeed has its phonological and lexical identity. This linguistic paradigm is closely bound with the sound patterns that our organs or speech are long used to according to the sounds of our indigenous languages.

by Vijaya Jayasuriya
@ The Island / 16DEC2006


The English proverb "to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds" has a rather hazy meaning, yet the Oxford Concise Dictionary explains it as "keeping in with both sides" presumably in a dispute. The phrasal verb "to keep in with" again means to make sure that you stay friendly with somebody because it would be advantageous (Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary by A. S. Hornby). My rather didactic opening is meant to clarify the title of this article in terms of its subject matter: the manipulation by certain intellectuals of the English language to their own advantage.

We claim that we are proud to call our model of local English "Standard Sri Lankan English" (SSLE: M. Gunasekara, 2005: The Postcolonial Identity of Sri Lankan English) which indeed has its phonological and lexical identity. This linguistic paradigm is closely bound with the sound patterns that our organs or speech are long used to according to the sounds of our indigenous languages, for example the variation of the "o" sound in "hall" as against "hole" as illustrated by Gunasekera is non-existent in our mother tongue Sinhala. The same is true of the prolific use of diphthongs in English-the very common words with diphthongal sounds such as "go", "so", "both" etc. we pronounce as a pure vowel: "o" rather than "au". This is not limited to Sri Lankan speech alone, but is a phenomenon seen in the variety of English spoken in different parts of even the British Isles themselves, such as Scotland, where pronunciation of these sounds is remarkably similar to the way we pronounce them, so much so that a Sri Lankan visiting Scotland would most likely find himself in his element hearing home, go, etc. uttered as we do here.

One other significant feature of Sri Lankan speech of the English is the non-observance of the clear-cut distinction between "v" and "w". While "v" is a labio-dental produced by the lower lip touching the upper teeth, the "w" is a bilabial pronounced by rounding both lips which is alien to our indigenous languages. Hence the similarity in our pronunciation of both "have' and 'cow' and "vague" and "wake".

So much for the distinctive phonological differences in local English speech in terms of single sounds (phonemes). The important factor here is that our own version of pronunciation produced using these sounds do not create difficulties that cannot be surmounted when communicating with an Englishman. Whether we say "boat" as a diphthong or a single vowel, or else whether we produce "hall" with the pronunciation of "hole" it hardly tends to lead to a breakdown of communication simply because the difference between the two is almost negligible.

I do not wish to make extensive comments on the many illustrations of lexical items in the book mentioned. Most of the entries, such as "athee phone" (cell phone), "api kaluda" (aren't we good enough?), "godayatik" (rustic) etc. are all distinctly the mark or prerogative of a specific class of English speakers in this country, practically amounting to the status of a dialect peculiar to them. By "class" here I do not mean the affluence of its users, but the educated urban elite who may include a handful of fluky rustics like me who venture into universities to read English.

Apart from this particular crowd which is clearly a minority, there is a widely diffused community of Sri Lankan speakers of English, mainly the teachers of English spread over a vast area in this country. Having spent more than 40 years of my professional life with this particular crowd as teacher, teacher educator and administrator, I haven't come across a single teacher even in a so-called "posh" school like Royal or St. Thomas' who uses any of the vocabulary catalogued in the book. On the contrary, teachers take many pains to use the most suitable lexical items for meanings conveyed by these widely deviated forms referred to above. I do not see any particular merit in the use of distinctly Sri Lankan forms such as "kapuwa kapothi" in speaking English, but it should be just a matter of international communication for which we train our students and therefore teachers simply cannot afford to use such terms in their day-to-day conversations.

The recognition of this deviation from the norm as a distinctive standard at first upheld by certain Indian scholars and then even by some English linguists may be fashionable, but has created problems for teachers because teaching anything should have an accepted form. In this line of argument there is no problem about the local pronunciation of the above-mentioned sounds, for e.g. "hole", "cow" or "boat", because they have come to stay with us with the "shaping" of our speech organs.

However, there are a vast number of English words different teachers pronounce in different ways, mostly going by their spelling. Since we learn a language to communicate, when we pronounce these words according to our whims and vagaries just because we do not have an idea about the phonetic alphabet, there can very well be a breakdown of communication disrupting the smooth flow of interaction. A case in point is an awkward situation a person known to me had faced when he went to the USA for his post-graduate studies. When he was asked to refer to the "sketual" he was more than nonplussed, resulting in a waste of a few valuable minutes in the lesson until he was shown the visual representation of the word "schedule"!

This is in no way holding the brief for Daniel Jones's RP (Received Pronunciation), yet in the task of teaching a language there has to be uniformity among teachers and the shortest cut to this is following a standard dictionary illustrating one pronunciation (or possibly two). A list of words variously pronounced is as follows (prevalent model followed by the standard): annihilate:-"a" as in apple and "ni" as in funny-"a" as in "v" in cover and "ni" as in "yer" in lawyer; binoculars:-"bi" as in "y" in why-"bi" as in "bi" in big; cholesterol: "cho" as in "co" in cost-"cho" as in "ker" in sucker; clientele: "clien" as in "iron"-"cli" as in fee; ebullient: "bu" as in few-"bu" as in "but"; foliage: "fo" as in fox and "lia" as in "sies" in siesta-"fo" as in four and "lia" as in lid; graffiti: "gra" as in gram and "fi" as in fit-"gra" as in "a" in about and "fi" as in feet; grandeur: "deur" as in dear-"deur" as in "jure" in injure; hurricane: "cane" as in cane-"cane" as in "kan" in Lankan; vehement: "vehe" as in silly-"vehe" as in dear (beginning with a long vowel or the first element of the diphthong "if").

There are three main functions of any human language according to M. A. K. Halliday (1970 and 1973): ideational, interpersonal and textual and consequently text types may differ according to the function of the occasion. However different the text type may be, language should have the common quality of being convenient for the hearer/reader to decode"

"Like the Interpersonal Rhetoric, the Textual Rhetoric (both spoken and written) is based on speaker-hearer cooperation, a textually 'well-behaved' utterance being one which anticipates and facilitates hearer's task in decoding, or making sense of the text. The constraints of Textual Rhetoric also operate to stage 4-5, which stands for hearer's phonological, syntactic and semantic decoding of the text. From hearer's point of view, they take the form of expectations which so long as they are fulfilled, ease the decoding process. For example, hearer may feel entitled to expect that speaker will observe normal word-order constraints, and will avoid ambiguities..." (G. N. Leech, 1983: 60)

In serious text types of ideational functioning of language, which is the type teaching mostly deals with, this uniformity of language is eminently desired.

We may rightly be proud of our own model of English which we call SSLE. Unfortunately, this is well and good as far as it goes because it is restricted to the speaking skill, while in writing we fight shy of making the slightest deviation from the standard variety of English. One might even feel it is a misplaced pride as well because deviation from linguistic norms can also be traced to a lackadaisical attitude to learning, the perfect analogy for which is the typical Sri Lankan habit of the non-use of the seat belt when driving. Are we proud of that too?

Furthermore, if I am not to be accused of hitting below the belt, we only take pride in our version of English whereas of our own mother tongue we know very little, and do not seek to be proud of mastering it, leave alone having read a few classics in Sinhala like the Saddharmaratnavaliya by Dharmasena Thera.


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