English as she is spoke in Mauritius
By Paramanand Soobarah
Imagine the disappointment of a Mauritian visiting a foreign country where every child country learns Creole at school only to find that the children there systematically use the wrong vowel sounds in their speech. For instance instead of saying “lécole”, they say “licole”; their speaking is replete with such deformations. It is not that the children cannot say “lécole” properly: they are simply taught to say it wrongly.
This is the sort of mistake regularly made in the English we are taught at school and that most of us keep on repeating throughout our lives. As most Mauritians speak the same way, nobody thinks there is anything wrong.
It is one thing to get the sounds of all our syllables right and a totally different one to speak like a native English speaker. We need not and should not aim to speak like a native English speaker, but we must certainly aim at being intelligible to the world at large. Just as to write something meaningful in English requires a mastery of the alphabet and of the spelling of the words that one uses, to say something meaningful (to the outside world) in English one must use the correct sounds. If one is not interested in being intelligible to non-Mauritians, then of course no further effort is required.
A couple of weeks or so ago I had the good fortune of watching live on MBC a debating competition in the English language among teams drawn from three secondary schools, one of them being my own alma mater, RCC. It was a most heartwarming experience. I was overjoyed to see Mauritian youngsters doing so well in English. I did not necessarily agree with everything everybody said, but I could not but admire their command of the spoken language. All the participants, as well as the smart young person who introduced the teams and acted as Mistress of Ceremonies, deserve to be congratulated.
This exercise proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that there are people in this country who will make an effort to speak English well. Their feat is all the more remarkable because they have all (presumably) been through our primary education system and survived the dumbing-down process that is dispensed in our education system. I wish to encourage them and all others like them to keep on striving for self-improvement.
Sadly, though, very sadly, they have not emerged totally unscathed from the system; for many of them there is still is some more way to go. Within the space of an article it is not possible to cover all or even the most important points that need to be addressed. But staying on generalities will be of no help at all. I will therefore introduce a few concepts using the letter “A” and dwell at some length on the pronunciation of the letter “E” in English words.
In English, unlike what obtains in our other languages (French, Bhojpuri, Hindi, etc), not all words in a sentence are given the same importance; some words are stressed, and others are just slurred over. Similarly, not all syllables in a word are pronounced equally distinctly: some are stressed, and others remain unstressed. Some vowel letters or letter groups are given one or other of their regular pronunciations and some others are “reduced”.
For instance, the letter “a”, in some particular instance, can have a regular pronunciation as is “fat”, “fate”, “father”, “fare”, fall, etc. But it can also be “reduced” to sound like the first letter of the Hindi alphabet. This is the usual pronunciation of the article “a” in expressions like “a man”, a boy”, “a car”, etc. Language books refer to this sound as the “schwa” (pronounced like the word “choir” in Mauritian French). It is the most important sound in English and in Indian languages. In English, depending on circumstances, any vowel letter, singly or in combination with other vowels or with “r”, can be pronounced as the schwa in reduced syllables. Regrettably the schwa sound is not used in French “as she is spoke in Mauritius” even though it is very much in use in Standard French elsewhere around the world; nor is it used by members of the Creole community while speaking the Creole language, though nothing stops other Mauritians from using the sound when, for instance, pronouncing Indian names: but that is a matter that we shall pursue elsewhere.
Here we conclude the observations on the letter “a” by adding that there is another form of reduction that it can undergo, particularly in word endings “-ace”, “-age” and “-ate”: in such cases it is often pronounced like the letter “i” of “sit”. This is also the case with the “a” in “orange”. In a few cases, the reduction is so complete that the vowel disappears altogether, as in “secretary”.
Regardless of the changes that may occur in the stress pattern of the syllables of a word, the quality of the vowels always remains the same. Therefore if we are taught the pronunciation of any word correctly the first time it is introduced, we shall have overcome the first hurdle in speaking English correctly. From there on all we have to do is to struggle with changes in stress and in intonation, and of course with vocabulary and syntax. To my knowledge, however, the concept of reduced vowels is not taught in our system. As every English word of two syllables or more has at least one reduced vowel, it follows that we are taught most words wrongly.
The two common regular pronunciations of the letter E, when not mute as at the end of a word, and when not combined with other vowels or with r, found in stressed syllables, are either short as in “pet” or long as in “Pete” (pronounced “peet”). The short sound is found in words like “beg”, “bet”, “set”, “less”, “assess”, “affect”, etc. The long “ee” sound of “e” occurs in words like “these”, “scene”, “scheme”, “theme”, “even”, “evil”, “fever”, “lever”, “metre”, “region”, “complete”, “athlete”, etc. These are the two pronunciations of the letter E that one can commonly find in stressed syllables. For this discussion we can ignore special pronunciations as in “debris”, “Vedas”, Deva, etc. As far as the reduced sounds of “E” are concerned, they are the schwa and the short “i” of “sit”. Nouns ending in “ment”, for instance, have the schwa for the reduced value of “E”, as in “government”, “argument”, “movement”, etc. On the other hand the prefixes “be-“, “de-“, “re-“, “en-” and “ex-“, when unstressed, have the short “i” of “sit”.
In Mauritius, the distinction between stressed and unstressed syllables with the vowel E is never made; also, the short i-sound is often used when the long ee-sound should be used. As a rule, the letter “E” should not be pronounced “i” in stressed syllables; it has to be the short e-sound of “pet” or the long ee-sound of “Pete”. The only common exceptions are the words “pretty” and “England” and their derivatives (English, Englishman, etc.); another, less common, exception is the word “sacrilegious”, where the syllable “leg”, even though stressed, is still pronounced ‘lij”.
During the debate I referred to above, the erroneous teaching of our education system came to the fore on several occasions. I will quote just one example: the word “presentation” was invariably pronounced “priz-en-ta-tion”. All words ending in “-tion” have their main stress on the syllable that comes just before the ending, here “ta”. Because of the rhythmic nature of the English language, fully pronounced syllables and reduced ones usually alternate with each other. Therefore in the word “presentation”, the “e” in “en” has to be reduced; it is made into a schwa. The “e” in “pres” must be given its full value, as this syllable precedes a reduced one. It cannot be “pris”.
These are not hard and fast rules; but they are a great help in guessing. The final decision must rest with a dictionary. The participants in the debate are strongly advised to check the word in any one of the Advanced Learner’s Dictionaries that are widely available. While they are at it they may also wish to check the pronunciations of the word pairs relative/relation, negative/negation, memory/memorial, remedy/remedial, economy/economic, melody/melodic, method/methodical, and equator/equatorial. They will probably find that the rhythmic principle is a fairly safe guide.
Analogous problems occur with all vowels. It is not going to be easy to redress these problems nationally. Some job-seekers realise that they have a problem with oral communication particularly in English, and they would like to do something about it right away. Some suggest that the most effective way of learning any language is to follow the path of “total immersion”, that is to say to live in a situation where only the object language is spoken for some time. But such a solution is rarely available. An almost equally effective solution may be to immerse oneself totally in a language laboratory under a qualified instructor. This is the solution being proposed by the Brindaban Multipurpose Educational Centre (BMEC) at Palma Road, Quatre Bornes.
Located within the grounds of Gandhi Temple Complex, the BMEC is a modern, secular school that has grown up from a straw-covered baithka set up way back in the forties in the heyday of the Jan Andolan movement. With time the managing committee extended the basic Temple that was built around the same time, and side by side a separate committee was set up to develop the baithka into a modern secular school with an appropriate building. The successive stages of development have produced the present large concrete building with two large halls and several classrooms on two floors.
The latest acquisition has been a well-equipped language laboratory which is being inaugurated with great fanfare on Sunday 11 December 2011, to coincide more or less with the anniversary of the great Mahayaj Ceremony that was held by Pandit Bissoondoyal in Port Louis on 12 December 1943. The language lab will be used to teach all languages of interest but initially the emphasis will be on English. The plans are ambitious but their implementation will depend on resources that become available. In any case, the managing committee deserve to be warmly congratulated on their initiative and to be encouraged by all. As the typing drill goes, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.”
* Published in print edition on 9 December 2011
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