Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Correct Speaking Habits in North India

I just finished eating dinner. Television was on while we were eating and there was Dekha Ek Khwaab (Have a Dream), one of many Indian soap operas, playing. In the programme a character (some member of the royal family) is teaching the protagonist princess Manyata history when suddenly the focus turns to language after the princess utters a word incorrectly. 

The word in question is [ʊmr] (umr, age). The princess instead says [ʊmʌr] (umar, age) and a funny scene ensues when her instructor tries to correct her. She just doesn't get it. Then the would-be prince appears and, as if by magic, and the princess learns the correct pronunciation in a single attempt. The programme aside, the episode does bring up an interesting situation that is prevalent in much of North India.

We North Indians have developed really bad pronunciation habits. I often try to correct my sisters when they say [dʒəmɪ:n] (jameen, earth) instead of [zəmɪ:n] (zameen, earth) or [vəkʌt] (waqat, time) instead of [vəkt] (waqt, time). Guess what I get in return - mockery.

I am not a professional linguist so I don't know the basic underlying factors. Nonetheless there is this visceral feeling that makes wrong pronunciation so repelling and I find it so 'uncultured.' I don't think speaking habits can be changed by a government decree but at least the education system should be such that it at least inculcates in children correct speaking habits.


  1. Very interesting. Perhaps your sisters say jameen because the word is written with the corresponding letter, only with a dot?

    1. Yes, you are right Z in Punjabi and Hindi is just letter J with a dot below. But that's not an excuse for incorrect pronunciation, is it? ;)

      Any way it seems like you know the orthography, don't you?

    2. Yes, I can read a little, although I keep forgetting some letter combinations. Hindi interests me very much. Is your native language Hindi?

    3. My native language... now that's a tough question. Like many here, I am trilingual. There are things I can do only in Hindi (when talking to people I don't know well yet and to show respect to them), others only in Punjabi (talking to family members and sometimes neighbours) and the remaining (reading, writing and thinking) only in English. It has been more or less the same since I was a child so I don't know which of the three is my "mother tongue."

      Now I can't talk to my boss in Punjabi (that would be inappropriate); Hindi and English are the right choices.

      I can't write or read or think in Hindi or Punjabi without extensively using an English-Hindi or English-Punjabi dictionary.

      And I can't talk to my immediate family members in Hindi or English; though extended family members (uncles and aunts and cousins) are an exception.

      Finally for the past few months I have got only one friend remaining and we converse in Esperanto because she is a Chinese.

    4. Looks like English is the language you know best.
      Why is it inappropriate to talk to immediate family members in Hindi or English?

    5. Speaking about Hindi and Punjabi, I would ask you to inform us about such words that we won't find in our dictionaries. For example, to urinate. Perhaps one can say piss karna, but it is the most used variant? Also, what is the baby word for it (like the English pee)? It would be great if you make a post about such words (some of them rude perhaps, but don't worry, non-Hindi speakers won't understand their rudeness) in Hindi and Punjabi.

  2. The princess should say "oumer" as in Sambahsa ;-)