Many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip


  • Business
  • Saturday, 08 Apr 2017

I RECALL when I first realised that spoken English isn’t what it seems to immediately suggest.

Let me explain. I was in junior primary school when Teacher, with a flourish, wrote “quay” on the blackboard. He then invited the class to pronounce it.

Unsurprisingly, we said “quay” as in “sway”. Triumphant, Teacher said it was, and always is, “key.”

The Chinese would have said “nuts”. I have a friend called Ronald Quay and no one has ever called him Ronald Key. You know why? Because then he wouldn’t be a person, but a destination.

Ah, the vagaries of English speech. That’s in theory. In practice and collectively, many Malaysians have problems with certain consonants as in the stereotypical “flied lice” for rice that’s been stir-fried.

This may, in extreme cases, even extend to a Jinjang chap’s response to news that fried noodle prices had doubled.

“Canape,” moaned the worthy and he wasn’t talking of French pastry. No, it was a vexed protest – “cannot be” – against unfairness.

I should be the last one to talk. I never knew that Indians – OK, some – had difficulty separating “v” from “w” until a night sometime in 1991.

I was moonlighting as part of a duet in a pub in Medan Damansara. We were into the Shocking Blue’s “Venus” when I noticed my wife sniggering in a corner.

The end to the chorus was in close harmony and we’d launched into it sounding like this: “I’m your Wenus / I’m your fire / and your heart’s desire.”

Did I mention that my bandmate was Indian? Just saying.

Thank God, I never tried acting in Shakespearean plays. All those “verily’s”, “valiant’s” and “varlet’s” would have scandalised the audience and killed me in the process.

Let me add, however, that I have almost got over it by practising with alliterations to wit: “we viewed the verdant valley’s vaunted vegetation.”

But we were talking of English and its often-irritating obscurities. “Retain” does not rhyme with “Britain”. There may be a “tear” in your eye because there’s a “tear” in your dress.

Similarly, you might be feeling more than a little “wound” up after the “wound” you suffered.

A “corpse does not qualify to become a member of an infantry Corps” although that might well be the fate of some of them – the Corps, not the corpse. And don’t think for a minute that “horse” rhymes with “worse.” It gets worse but I think you get my point.

If it’s this bad in English, how much worse could it get in another language?

I’m glad you asked because it reminds me of a friend of mine reading Arts in University Malaya in the 70s. Everyone there then had to do a language “not his own” to progress to the second year.

While pondering his choices, my friend – let’s call him B – noticed that most of the pretty girls had signed up for French.

But French is a genteel thing: elegant phrases that fall like gentle rain, dulcet on the ear.

Merci (Thanks), for instance, is soft, even seductive. It is not to be confused with a boisterous “Mercy” with a prefix (-vey) thrown in for good measure.

Puan Z, the French tutor winced at B’s roar. And so it was that a distressed B fell behind. Before you could say F9, the first oral exam loomed.

The girls who’d gone in before him assured B it was easy. Z would ask his name, his address, his major and so forth. It had been the same with them. All he needed was to answer in English because it was about comprehension.

Piece of cake.

First question by the crafty Z in French: “What is your address?”

Student, confidently: “B”

“What is your major?”:

“2nd College, University Malaya.”

“What is your name?”

“History.”

So too were his French dreams. B, a North Indian, signed up for Tamil, omitting to mention that many of his neighbours back home were Tamil. And that he spoke it with, well, dulcet tongue.

He aced the course. Which proves that there are, after all, such things as happy endings.

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