Unless I’m mistaken it was a Hindi teacher at Doon School who first made me aware of the idiosyncrasies of English pronunciation. Mr Chandna was a small man, with a large round head and a very precise way of speaking. When he wanted to make a point he would do it with a delightful degree of over-emphasis.
“What sort of language is this?”, he would begin. “P..U..T is put yet B…U…T is but. N…O is no but K…N…O…W is also know! There’s no consistency, no rules, no logic. That’s just the way it is.”
At the time I found Mr Chandna’s comment witty. A recent email from my cousin Lakshman Menon who, incidentally, Mr Chandna failed to make proficient in Hindi, has made me realise how profound his witticism actually was.
Read the following paragraph and see if you can get the pronunciation correct without pausing to double-check and re-consider. And here is a tip: if you’ve got the pronunciation right the meaning will be obvious. If not, it’ll be gobbledygook:
The bandage was wound around the wound.
The farm was used to produce produce.
The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
We must polish the Polish furniture.
He could lead if he would get the lead out.
The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
I did not object to the object.
The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
They were too close to the door to close it.
The buck does funny things when the does are present.
To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?
Most of the above trick words are homonyms. That is to say they are different words, with different meanings, but the same spelling. However, its even more intriguing — or do I mean confusing?— when the pronunciation is the same but the spelling is different. Beach and Beech are examples. So too witch and which. Or blue and blew. And, if you’re a little weary, don’t forget tire and tyre.
So, what’s the conclusion? Words with different spellings can have the same pronunciation while words with the same spelling can have different pronunciations. This also means that just because you know how to speak it you don’t necessarily know how to write English or if you can spell it correctly that’s no guarantee you can pronounce it properly.
If it’s any consolation, the British don’t have an agreed pronunciation for their language. They may call it ‘the Queen’s English’ but her pronunciation is by no means a guide for her subjects. They revel — or rebel? — in regional accents. Henry Higgins makes the point most tellingly in My Fair Lady: “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak? This verbal class distinction by now should be antique!” Alas, he failed. And, as Mr Chandna declared, “That’s just the way it is.”
Views expressed by the author are personal