'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Friday, May 20, 2005

By Goad, It Is Note Fair!

This is 'the plaint of a 'Mallu''

English appears to have a range of long ('deergha') vowel prononciations from 'ah' (as in 'card') to 'oh' (as in 'court'). The obvious intermediate vowel sound is 'aw' as in 'broad'. There seem to be further subtleties at the 'oh' end of the above 'spectrum' with 'code', 'pour, and 'toad' all *probably* having slightly different vowel sounds in 'Queen's (?)' English (we wont worry about these rather extreme subtleties here).

All Indian languages, on the other hand, basically have only the two extreme sounds from this range - the 'card' and 'court' ones. Anything in the middle and finer distinctions of the code-court variety are not part of their phonetics (the 'oo' sound of say 'boot' is there in Indian languages but here we look at only about the above-mentioned spectrum of vowel sounds and 'boot' lies beyond that).

The distinction between the 'aw' and 'oh' in English pronunciation is very subtly inconsistent - 'road' and 'broad' have very different vowel sounds and so have 'toll' and 'doll'. And there is no obvious rule or pattern. This should really have created massive confusion to most Indians who learn the intricacies of English pronunciation as an add-on to the sound structure of their respective mother tongues - they basically lack the 'aw' sound of 'broad' and even after adding this sound to their 'phonetic repertoire', one has to learn where to employ it - as distinct from the 'road' sound. But, almost incredibly, the huge majority of Indian learners of English are seldom troubled by this and almost invariably get things right!

...Except, of course, those who grew up with Malayalam! In some very typical cases, one can have a 'Mallu' named 'Tom' say his own name as 'Tome' (rhyming with 'dome'), 'Tony' and 'tawny' having identical pronunciations and a quite decent school student getting confused whether 'coat' (articulated, not written) was an object to be put on or to be slept on. It is not that Mallus do not know the 'aw' sound of 'broad' - they do know it exists and do pronounce it, but they employ it arbitrarily in confusion with the 'road' sound.

Indeed, what really puzzles me is how the rest of India gets it right almost always although they do not start off with any phonetic advantage over Malayalis. A typical Mallu can take several years to get over this severe confusion; many never make the cut and some truly blessed souls never even know they are messing up!

Well, one might say Tamil speakers say the open 'ah' for the 'aw' - but they never are CONFUSED. They would say 'saart' for 'sort' (almost like an American would put it, so it is cool!) but they will not pronounce 'port' as 'part' or 'fort' as .... To be more precise, although the hard-core 'Tam' makes only the two extreme sounds, - 'ah' as in 'part' and 'oh' as in 'court' - he knows, with uncanny precision, which words have an 'aw' ('broad') sound and pulls them back to 'ah's; those with 'oh'('court') sounds are pronounced as such - no trace of the 'coat vs cot' confusion.

On the other hand, the hapless Mallu (poor soul, even 'Goad' is indifferent to his plight) would conjure up spurious rhymes and miss the real ones. Unlike the Tam, he uses the 'aw' ('broad') sound in addition to the 'extreme' sounds; and uses it indiscriminately to create havoc - pronouncing 'code' as 'cod' and coke' as, well, one can go on and on... Get a Mallu to 'roam in Rome' and he will get lost, although he might very well enjoy 'Pope music'!. ..!

I conclude with this assertion, it simply ain't fair: why do ONLY Mallus have to suffer so much from this deeply devious feature of English??

Note added on May 30th-05:
1. Here is a link on the so-called 'cot-caught merger'; amazing that in 'proper' English, 'cot' and 'caught' actually have different and distinguishable pronunciations! This also suggests a technical name for the Mallu's confusion: the 'cot-coat merger'.

2. The Malayali is not entirely alone in his confusion. It has been brought to my attention that some North Indians, especially Gujaratis make the 'road-broad' mess.

3. Further, the assertion that no Indian is basically equipped with the 'broad' vowel is not entirely accurate; Modern Hindi-Urdu has a somewhat similar sound in 'koun' (who). This is almost certainly a distortion from the original sanskrit pronunciation which would have been like 'kown' (same as in 'owl').

Update (July 2016): There is a huge ongoing confusion among Keralan netizens as to whether 'trolling' is a usually nasty cyber activity or a sometimes controversial maritime one. The reason, of course, is 'trawling', performed by mechanized fishing craft (it eats into the catch of more traditional fishermen). There are 4 distinct ways to pronounce the 'troll'-'trawl' pair - to make both 'trawl', to make both 'troll', to get both words right and to get both wrong. My informed guess is that a survey among Mallus will yield the first 3 possibilities with roughly equal frequency and the last with slightly less but considerable frequency. This guess would, of course, imply that the clear majority of respondents would pronounce both words just the same(Note: Intriguingly, even 'trolling' has maritime connotations - it literally means to fish with a hook and line)!


  • At 7:23 PM, Blogger Rhyncus said…

    What can one say, its the 'gelf' (Persian?) between good and bad pronunciation that the Mallu has to bridge.

  • At 10:28 PM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    The 'gulf' - 'gelf' ('guelph'?) thing, though plenty of Mallus do indulge in it, is not as confusing as the 'cot' vs 'coat' problem. Morever this tendency of replacing the short 'a' with 'e' is pretty universal - Telugus say 'chendra' for 'chandra' and the Turks spell 'Kamal' as 'Kemal' - the reason probably is the relative ease of pronunciation. We also have the short 'o' replacing 'u' all over ('kUrdIstan' becomes 'kOrdEstan' in 'Eran', Iran ie).

  • At 11:39 AM, Blogger Silent Eloquence said…

    Great post. Phonetics are the toughest part of learning a new language. As a hapless Malayalee being bombarded with the ä, ö, ü of the German language on daily basis, I will say English is still far from qualifying for having "deeply devious features".

    Neverthless, excellent post - I had never thought about the road-broad difference before. Spent a good 5mins trying to think of a Malayalam word which may have the broad pronunciation..nada!This might qualify - In North Kerala, I have heard people say "oane" instead of "avane" and thats sorta close to "broad"...been a while since I have been to Calicut, so I am not all that sure.

  • At 4:48 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks Surya, for the appreciation.

    I am not sure where the 'oan' North Kerala falls in the spectrum of vowel pronunciation. It feels closer to the 'road' sound than to the 'broad'. But I am not surer than you seem to be.

  • At 8:10 PM, Blogger mp said…

    i didn't even realize there were two pronunciations of o until i came to bombay for undergrad. (i went to an english medium school in trivandrum, but had never used english for conversation till then.)

    i remember we had a chapter in a highschool malayalam textbook, which addressed this very same problem (along with the problem with the "a" sound as in say "bag"). the "a" sound was all good, but when the author mentioned that malayalis read "road" and "rod" the same way, we were terribly confused -- they are read the same way! even the teacher didn't know what the deal really was.

    the schools do a pretty good job of handing down the malayali accent from the teachers to the students, i guess.

  • At 7:35 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Manoj, so you seem to have been saddled with a straightforward (though spurious) 'cot-coat merger' from school days; applying such a merger all over the place would at least be consistent although it would confuse others. My own situation was somewhat different - the 'broad' sound was vaguely known but where to use it was not. I got the first intimation that something was amiss when I briefuly learnt the Pitman Shorthand after high school (and was told that 'Paul' and 'Poll' actually sound different); but the full extent of the mess became known only after leaving Kerala!

  • At 3:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    dont worry u disheartened mallus. people from every state of india have their own accents. if u hear some of them u will die laughing. do u know a typical bengali pronounces B and V alike, that's a B sound.they pronounce very as bhery !!gujaratis say snakes for snacks !! punjabis say bast for best ! compared to that the difference between the pronounciation of cot and coat is very subtle. i don't like people making an issue of that. but yes, saying gelf for gulf, jemp for jump is something which should be corrected.


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