What is correct?

2010-10-04 00:00

I WANT to say some things about the pronunciation of English in South Africa. I write as a retired professor of English, although probably not all professors of English would agree with what I say.

I was struck by a letter written to this paper by L. N. Peirson (TheWitness, September 29). He or she complains about the way English is often spoken by second-language speakers, and mentions as an example the fairly common South African way of pronouncing “determined”, with the accent on the first syllable instead of the second, and so that it would rhyme with “mined” rather than “tinned”. Peirson goes on to say: “These familiar errors are a sign of something alarming. Because English has become the language of international communication, it is suffering an enormous onslaught by speakers of other languages.”

He or she then criticises the SABC for not using many first-language speakers on its English programmes, and adds: “I imagine that all hell would break loose if an obvious second-language speaker were to read the news in Zulu or in Afrikaans.”

It is highly unlikely that a second-language speaker would read the news in Zulu or in Afrikaans because neither language is spoken a great deal by second-language speakers, whereas English is now spoken in South Africa, and in many other parts of the world, more by second than by first-language speakers. In other words it is, as always, the people who speak the language who decide how they will pronounce it.

First-language speakers will continue, rightly, to say words in the way that they are used to, and their influence on others will probably be significant, but among many South Africans other pronunciations have begun to become entrenched. It seems likely that in the end there will be, with some words, more than one South African pronunciation.

One has to be careful about talking about “correct” pronunciation, for the English language, although its written form is fairly consistent throughout the world, is spoken in very many different ways. If one considers that when educated Americans say “inner” they could mean either “inner” or “inter”, and that they might well pronounce the word “hunting” as “honey”, that Caribbeans pronounce “mother” to rhyme with “bother”, that inhabitants of the sub-continent say consonants in their own way, that Australians have a very distinctive range of vowel sounds, and that indeed English is spoken in many different ways within the British Isles themselves, there is no intrinsic reason for disapproving of the South African pronunciations “seVENty”, “cirCUMstances”, “DEterMINED”.

At one point in the letter Peirson says: “English must, like all languages, adapt and grow, but the process should not be accelerated.” I partly agree with that. It is inevitable that there should be some tension between different ways of speaking the language, and that first-language speakers should be determined to hang on to the pronunciations that they know. But at the same time let the tension be a friendly one.

The clash of pronunciations that we see in South Africa at the moment is understandable: it grows partly from the fact that, because of apartheid, for well over 40 years Africans were taught English exclusively by second-language speakers. So now we are hearing these new ways of saying certain words. They could be seen as a further enrichment of the English language. And certainly it is in my view wrong to say that what is happening is “alarming.”

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