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30 Days of Blog

Who speaks English[30 Days of Blog 29]

This post is part of my 30 blogs in 30 days series. More details here.

English is as much a lingua franca as the world as ever seen. There is no right English pronunciation of any word.

In England’s Green & Pleasant Land

The Anglo-Saxon people were really good at conquering. Not just land, but the minds and culture as well. You can tell how everyone from the Welsh to the Maori speak English as their first language. To the point that the Untied Kingdom, the last vestige of the British Empire, only has the 5th largest population of English speakers.

The Queen’s English is not the only English that counts. It isn’t even in the top 3 in the world. Of course, that is not even the most spoken English in England. Central London Cockney is not the same as Liverpudlian is the not the same as the English spoken by Scotsman from Glassgow. All of them pronounce words differently. It would be a sure a way to get punched in the face if you were to suggest any one of them at a local pub that they are speaking the ‘wrong english’.

Yet it is the ‘native’ speakers who claim propriety over the pronunciation of a word. Especially Americans.

The Dream

What sparked this idea was watching a zoom discussion amongst two people, posted to youtube. One was a an American man originally from the Bay Area who has never lived outside of the US and only speaks only one language. The other a Panamanian woman who speaks 3 languages and has lived in multiple countries, including US. The video starts with the American making fun of the Panamanian because the pronunciation of socialize. Although it was all in good fun, something about that rubbed me the wrong way. I boiled it down to these four things:

  • The Hermione Effect — Social, and all its derivatives are weird and phonetically inconsistent. A person who learns english by reading it will never understand how to say it. Like most of the world not aware of Shakespeare pronounced it ‘Her-me-own’ when they first read Harry Potter.
  • Her pronunciation itself was not off from a Upper Classman from some county in England, albeit with a slight Spanish tinge.
  • There are probably a lot more people speaking with her accent in the States than his. While the US is the largest English speaking population in the world, the Urban Bay Area is a small part of NorCal, and that is not even the most common accent in the California.
  • He would never do that to someone from Minnesota, or West Texas or New Jersey. That too would be a recipe for attracting violence.

Why is her pronunciation wrong and his right? There is no reason. What she was trying to say was clear to most speakers of the language. I think it might be a colonial legacy.

English Education Act of 1835

The second and third highest number of English speakers reside in India and Pakistan. The reason for this can be traced back to the aforementioned legislative act, enacted by the British East India Company’s Council of India. This has lead some very bizarre results, like the popularity of terms such as ‘bamboozle’ and ‘intimate’, to some downright horrifying ones as well. One of the original reasons for this act was to “a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect”. Whether they succeeded in the second part of the statement, they did create a sharp class divide. English is a mark of refinement and education, a signal of your class and a signal of your education.

Parents in both countries spend about 40–50% as much the government on private education. These private schools are almost all in English medium. The Pronunciation Police is more active than in the US and England. Since proficiency in the language is a signal of class, correcting someone’s pronunciation is a signal of superiority. This linguistic colonialism was not unique to British Raj India; as far as a century ago, Maori and Irish children,among others, were forced to learn English at school and were punished for speaking their mother tongues. While those cultures fought back against the colonialism, the sub-continent has internalized the colonial attitude. However, if we were to select the ‘right’ way to say a word in a dictionary, the signaling jackasses will end up looking like just that; jackasses. However, the publishers of these dictionaries would never refer to their pronunciation guides as definitive. They maintain that there publications are supposed to catalog and record the language, not define.

Today

This brings me back to Bay Area Guy. Like most Americans, he is probably a 2nd or 3rd generation immigrant. His European Immigrant ancestors probably went through the same colonization effort in the form of public schools, like the Maoris, Irish and the Indians, from the then dominant Anglo-Saxon descendants. It manifests itself everywhere. However, there is no right way to say a word in this language. It is the common language of trade and most education. It is the common language amongst the top 2 movie industries by releases. For a language spread so far, there are bound to be dialectical differences. There is just one problem. The Anglo-Saxons were really good at conquering.

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