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Posted at: Nov 3, 2015, 12:24 AM; last updated: Nov 2, 2015, 11:07 PM (IST)

The Achilles’ heel

PRONOUNCING ‘bourgeois’ was your Achilles’ heel,” remarked an erstwhile colleague, now retired, at a recent dinner party. He was referring to my association with him way back in 1976 when he and I were posted with the CID. Front organisations of the Communist parties having been assigned to me for a watch, I had to often use the word in my interaction with him.

Without recollecting how I pronounced the tongue-twister then, the remark set me thinking of my tryst with learning English. Introduced as a subject in class VI, and continued till XII, and then as a qualifying subject at the graduate level, the emphasis was on grammar, spelling and syntax, and not much on pronunciation, accent and intonation, which, therefore, could never become my forte.

My pronunciation of English words, therefore, was the ‘received pronunciation’, as heard and received from people of my ilk, products of government schools. This was, however, different from the ‘received pronunciation’ (RP for short), named so by Daniel Jones for want of a better name, to convey the sense of ‘accepted’ or ‘approved’ as in ‘received wisdom’. He used the term in the second edition of  his book English Pronouncing Dictionary (1926), in which he tried to standardise the accent and pronunciation of English words pertaining to the Queen’s English, also known as the Standard English or Oxford English. However, a study by Peter Trudgill in 1974 concluded that only about 3 per cent of people in Britain were RP speakers and the rest followed their own variations over regions and locales.

Back to my own country, in the schools and college I attended, I struggled with pronunciation of words like choir, sixth, Wednesday, restaurant, schizophrenia, beverage, and many others. Though dictionaries were not prescribed by schools then, I purchased one and learnt from it as much as I could, in the absence of any formal instruction as how to use it for deciphering pronunciations. However, I found that many I conversed with, using the pronunciations so learnt, found it hard to get me, and I had to revert to the ‘original’ to make them understand me!

The feeling that something was wrong with us, the way we pronounced English words, continued till 1986 when I, along with nine other IPS officers from all over India, got an opportunity to be deputed to the UK for a three-month training programme.

Our first stay was at West Yorkshire. Our course director, a Superintendent-rank officer in the West Yorkshire police, used the word ‘but’ several times in the introductory address, but pronounced the ‘u’ as in ‘put’. At first, we could not decipher what he meant, but later when we confabulated, we decided from the context that he meant our ‘but’. That brought a smile to our face!

We learnt that accent and pronunciations varied from region to region, and in the same region, from place to place. Thus, the word ‘come’ would be pronounced differently in Scotland from what it would be, say in London. There were over a hundred variations of accents and pronunciations in the UK. 

So, we can take heart in not being able to follow too strictly the so-called ‘received pronunciation’, so long as we are intelligible to each other! 


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