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     Volume 4 Issue 23 | December 3, 2004 |

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A Roman Column

The Hijacking of 'V'

Neeman Sobhan

One rainy afternoon I was briskly cruising the TV channels, suppressing a yawn with one hand and pressing the remote control with the other when I passed a Bangla channel with a programme titled 'Mama Vagne.' Vagne? Vaguely vexed I went back to it wondering if I had read it right. Was it a German uncle? A Mama called Vagner perhaps? Interesting! I selected the channel and found that 'Vagne' stood for the Bangla word for nephew 'bhagney' or 'bhagna.' My mouth remained half open and the question that trembled on my lips was: how come the Bangla sound 'bho' was not represented in English as 'bh' but with the totally unrelated and vibrating sound 'V'?

Next, I started to read the internet edition of the Daily Star and came upon an article under the name of someone called 'Shuvo'. I thought perhaps he was Czech or Russian. Then I opened an email in which my husband was addressed as 'Vai.' That stopped me dead in my tracks. I retraced my steps, groping towards partial enlightenment. If 'Vai' was 'bhai', then 'Shuvo' must be 'Shubho' and …Oh! My God!

Hello! Language Police? I would like to report a crime. Some misguided users of Benglish in Bangladesh have recently hijacked the twenty-second letter of the English alphabet. They have kidnapped 'V,' then siphoned out its lightly tingling, vibrating sound and at gunpoint have forced it to represent the closed aspirated Bangali 'BHI'. These violaters (who would read this as 'bhiolaters') are not only going unchecked and uncorrected, rather their mistaken notion that 'V' and 'BHI' are interchangeable sounds is being quietly accepted by everyone, even the media, making it common currency.

HELP! Are there no minimum standards for the written English used and taught in this country of ours? I can cringe but bear the confusion of 'J' and 'Z' sounds in spoken English. I mean, when a Bengali brother calls a zoological garden a 'joo' and a member of the Semitic faith a 'zoo' it is after all a confusion of pronunciation (horrible though it is). At least, he does not insist on imposing his mistaken pronunciation on the written form, that is, he doesn't actually write: 'The traffic ZAM affected the pedestrians on the JEBRA-crossing.'

I used to laugh at the Indians and the Pakistanis when many of their less polished English speakers would pronounce the 'V' without it characteristic vibration and instead produce the sound 'wee'. I remember laughing at my Punjabi friends for saying 'Nowel' for novel or 'wictory' for 'victory' and 'lowe' for 'love.' I knew that some of my compatriots had their own weakness about this letter, and that these same words would be pronounced in a heavily aspirated way as 'nobhel' and 'bhictory' and 'labh'. Still, it remained only the oral quirk of a few.

But now, so ingrained has this notion of interchanging the English 'V' with the bangla 'Bhi' become among students and teachers (who, through no fault of theirs, never hear English being pronounced correctly, and learn or teach English as if it were a Bangla dialect), that they are actually borrowing the symbol V as shorthand for the Bangla letter 'BHO' in Roman English! Thus 'Bhai', 'Bhumi,' or 'Bhat' is being written as 'Vai', 'Vumi' and 'Vat'!! So, the BHI sayers are not only assaulting English with their faulty pronunciation, but are perpetrating this misconception in writing. Soon a generation will grow up to believe (beliebh?) that V is indeed BHI and learn to hear and speak English wrongly.

We in the media can do something about it right now by editing and correcting this immediately wherever it occurs. After all, it isn't as if Bangalis cannot differentiate between certain sounds and pronounce them. It isn't like with the 'flied lice' eating Chinese who have their tongue twisting battle with 'R' which they pronounce as 'L.' Their hurdle is not the same as the Bangali's problem with 'J' and 'Z', since the latter can pronounce both sounds, only in the wrong locations. This could be easily mitigated by introducing a new letter to the Bangla alphabet which could be designated for the 'Z' sound, instead of the two 'JO's we have. Similarly, we do not have any genetic predisposition for not being able to pronounce 'V' either. It's just lack of correct learning at the foundation level compounded by teachers who themselves never learnt English properly to be taught to hear the difference between 'never' and 'nebher'. (Even here, the introduction of a new letter for 'V'in Bangla would help).

I am appalled at the levels to which our teaching of English has sunk in the last generation. In my grandfather's time, most educated and cultured Bangali gentlemen, invariably wrote and spoke graceful English as well, and most started their education in the village and district high schools, learning the basics from educated and dedicated schoolteachers. Thus their transition to famous and higher institutions all over India was smooth. Today, even if I overlook the Mufassil high school graduates, I am saddened by the University graduates in Dhaka who can speak and write neither English nor Bangla with polish, grace or articulation.

We really need to fine-tune not only our education in general but also our approach to teaching English, and I mean not just the written aspects but also ORAL or SPOKEN English. For this we first need to educate and train our teachers. And this requires us to think of the English language not as an extension of Bangla but as a truly foreign language like French or German, that is, an unfamiliar tongue with alien sounds that need to be learnt from scratch and not conveniently and lazily Banglazed. We should have proper language labs in schools with audiotapes in English-mother tongue speaker voices. We need to invest in our teachers, send them for training abroad or give them crash courses with language experts.

We need to teach English to our students, as it deserves to be learnt and respected, not picked up sporadically from Hollywood films on DVD, spawning slang and street-smart speak. Educated English is the language in which the professional, technical, business and diplomatic world operates, which provides the 'open sesame' to doors of opportunity. It is not just the language of the British or the Americans; it is an international language, a global tool. If we do not learn to articulate and SPEAK it properly, no one will listen to us.

Most people on the streets of India's major cities speak fluent English. The Dutch speak it like their mother tongue without compromising their own language. In Rome, where a generation of Italians are learning English from non-Italian, English speaking teachers, they are not only mastering English but also losing their typical accents and tones. If others can do it so can we.

It is crucial we learn English and that we learn it VERY well, not 'bhery' well. We must not think of English as a homegrown 'bhasha' that can be erroneously written as 'vasha', but a foreign language like French. Let us not learn 'Benglish' or 'Hinglish' and treat it like 'daal-vaat.' In the media, we should be alert to any linguistic atrocities. It is the duty of the educated few to guide those who are not aware. To start with: the Bangla word 'bhai' cannot be transcribed as 'vai' because the English word 'vote' is not pronounced 'bhote'. Let us pay the ransom of education to release the V from the captivity of 'captibhity.' Let the V in Victory vvvvibrate!

NEXT WEEK: 1-Saluting Film Makers Govind Nihalani and Rakesh Sharma; 2-Meeting Activist-Actress Nandita Das.

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