A-Z of Sri Lankan English, Colombo, Language

B is for balls (and bowls)

In the article “The bowl-or-ball dilemma of rubbishing English standards” (Sunday Observer, 6/6/2010), Dilshan Boange adds his voice to the growing clamour of protest at the idea of speaking English “our way”. He recounts the anecdote of a friend who called an Indian hotel and “had to face a lingual jumble of a marginally intelligible dialogue from the hotel staffer”, concluding that the problem was that the Indian was talking English “their way”. If only everyone learnt to speak English properly, such situations would never arise.

He goes on to discuss the pronunciation of the various ‘o’ sounds in English, and asks: “What happens when you ask for a ‘ball’ and are given a ‘bowl’?” It is difficult to think of an actual situation where this might happen in reality: Murali asks for the ball and Kumar throws him a bowl? Unlikely. Language is full of such potential theoretical pitfalls, but context is everything, and such misunderstandings (though they do happen) are rare between competent speakers of the language.

There are three ‘o’ sounds in standard English pronunciation: the short ‘o’ in long, hot, wash, etc.; the long ‘o’ in ball, born, law, short and caught; and the diphthong in bowl, coat, note, go and know.

How you pronounce the first (short) ‘o’ says a lot about where you come from, both geographically and socially. Speakers of British English tend to pronounce it with the mouth quite open, though not as open as in American English. First-language speakers of Sinhala and Tamil tend to pronounce it much more closed, reflecting the way the equivalent letter is pronounced in Sinhala and Tamil. Competent speakers of “standard Sri Lankan English” are likely to make a much clearer distinction between a more closed ‘o’ in Sinhala words such as pol, and a more open ‘o’ in English words like office. This difference is the origin of the term “not pot English” – the words not and pot being pronounced with an exaggeratedly closed ‘o’ to imitate an accent that is widely perceived as socially inferior.

The pronunciation of the ‘o’ sound in bowl is equally flexible, and equally revealing. It is pronounced as a diphthong (though with considerable variations) in standard British, American and Australian Englishes. But in many others, including Geordie, Scottish, Irish, Caribbean, African and South Asian accents, it is not pronounced as a diphthong at all, but (again, with variations) as a long, closed ‘o’ similar to the long ‘o’ in ball – making ball and bowl, to all intents and purposes, homophones.

The problem from an English-teaching perspective is that there are so many words which can be confused if the two ‘o’s are pronounced the same, or almost the same: ball/bowl, bought/boat, bore/bow, born/bone, bald/bowled, to name just the ones beginning with B. As a result, English teachers tend to devote a disproportionate amount of time and energy to attempting to correct an “error” which is in fact just a natural feature of the accent of many first-language English speakers around the world, including here in Sri Lanka.

There are several variations in the way the ‘o’ sound is pronounced in Sri Lankan English. Competent speakers of standard SLE make a greater distinction between ball and bowl than first-language speakers of Sinhala and Tamil. But still, the distinction they are making is not the same as the distinction British or American speakers make between these sounds. In standard SLE pronunciation, the long ‘o’ sound in ball tends to be pronounced as a long version of the more open ‘o’ in office (similar to the standard British pronunciation of the same sound), while the ‘o’ in bowl is generally pronounced more closed (similar to the long ‘o’ in Sinhala words such as bo gaha).

Another way of looking at it is that standard SLE pronunciation has four distinct ‘o’ sounds (while standard British pronunciation manages with the three mentioned earlier):

  1. the short, open ‘o’ in English words like hot and office
  2. the long, open ‘o’ in English words like ball and born
  3. the short, closed ‘o’ in Sinhala and Tamil words like pol and boru (which are also part of the Sri Lankan English lexicon)
  4. the long, closed ‘o’ in Sinhala and Tamil words such as poya and thosai, and in English words such as bowl and bone.

In fact, the only Sri Lankans who naturally pronounce the bowl diphthong the way it is pronounced in the UK are those who have spent a considerable part of their formative years in the UK themselves. Anyone else who talks like that (or tries to) here in Sri Lanka is ridiculed for talking with a “polkatu” accent, simply because it sounds so alien to the natural Sri Lankan way of speaking.

There is one situation where I have started hearing the ‘o’ diphthong (or a variation on it) regularly here in Sri Lanka. It’s when someone answers the phone and says “Hellou”. You immediately know two things about your interlocutor: 1) he/she probably doesn’t speak English very well, and 2) he/she has followed a Telephone Skills Course. Call centres train people to talk like this, in the name of the Orwellian term”accent neutralisation”, which in reality means training people to speak with a British or American accent. And the same insistence on the artificial ‘o’ diphthong is alive and well in the elocution industry – English language schools purporting to teach standard British pronunciation, but in fact teaching a parody of an outdated perception of a colonial-era accent. It certainly doesn’t sound like any accent I have heard in contemporary Britain.

In his article in the Sunday Observer, Dilshan Boange claims, “Shakespearean grammar would befuddle us today, but the words are pronounced the same.” This is nonsense. Modern UK and US accents are vastly different, yet both evolved from the way the language was spoken in Shakespeare’s time. He also claims that unless everyone learns to speak the same way, there will be a state of what he calls “lingual anarchy”. If this was the case the UK would long ago have broken up into hundreds of linguistic fiefdoms unable to communicate with each other. In the US the people in North Utah laugh at the South Utah accent, and no doubt vice-versa. This is not lingual anarchy, it is linguistic diversity, and it should be celebrated. Even if you don’t like it, it is here to stay.


A-Z Sri Lankan English

A-Z of Sri Lankan English is an all-new, occasional alphabetical dip into the variety of English spoken in Sri Lanka, published exclusively on Groundviews. The original A-Z of Sri Lankan English was published in the travelsrilanka magazine, and can be found here.


    I am wondering what the correct English pronuciation is. Old English is nearly a dead language spoken only by a minority in UK and is kept alive by government subsidies.

    Modern English developed with the assimilation of other languages is spoken with various twangs even with in England. Scottish, Irish, Australian, NZ, South Africans, Canadians, US (vary from state to state) version have their unique identities. One must not fail to notice even the BBC news readers have different accents. Why ridicule South Asian versions?

    What is more important is clear expression of thought. I have watched Pakistani, Afghan, Russian, Chinese diplomats express themselves lot better than their counterparts from English speaking countries.

  • Dr.Ruwan Ferdinandez

    The variations and accents are different from place to place but the core of the language remains intact. It is silly to say Chinese diplomats express better than the English. It is not the accents but the core-pronounciation what the writer is talking about. For example, the words such as fuel or anything to do with ‘o’ are mispronounced homogenously across Sri Lanka and India. The old English does not die, it stays firmly where it is,new additions only strenthen it.

  • cvv

    Good article.

    Languages evolve. There is no reason to force people to speak the Queens English. the accent in Manchester is so different to the one in southern England. English is the world language now. That will not be easily changed. So Sri Lankans can continue to speak their English and Indians their English and Jamaikans, their English.

    This is how language evolves. It is nice that the Oxford dictionary removes words that are not used and adds new words every year. They have realised that language is constantly evolving and they have to change too.

    So Srilankans should not feel bad to speak their English. Foreign people will understand and maybe even borrow accents and words from us. No problem. Let it evolve and do not worry about local accents.


  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Having read Dickens and Shakespeare and being inculcated in the Oxford pronounciation by well-meaning nuns from Ireland and our locally English educated teachers, I was in for a disappointment when I arrived in Yorkshire as a 21year old.

    My lecturer started saying ‘boos’ for ‘bus’ and ‘oopstairs’ for ‘upstairs’. When I said eraser the students laughed since they thought I was speaking posh. They told me it should be called rubber.

    I refused to speak in this Yorkshire accent since I wanted to stick to the English taught by my teachers while growing up.

    In her book, Class, Jilly Cooper explains how accents used to distinguish classes. Then the BBC announcers started ironing out their accents to be acceptable but the sixties changed all that. With the hippie revolution and railing against class even Princess Anne started talking common.

    In Sri Lanka however, as Mahler says how you pronounce your ‘o’s make quite a distinction and many Colombo elites still look down on those who cannot pronounce their ‘o’s appropriately.

    Then again I still remember that when I was about eight my father was abroad and my mother did not speak English. I was left to my own devices to learn to speak good English. Hence for quite a long time I pronounced ‘national’ as ”natteeyonal’.

    There was also a very confident schoolmate of mine who was often chosen for elocution competition. She was reciting a speech and when it came to the word ‘surely’ she spat out, ‘soorrely’.

    English being our second language and since Sirimavo brought in Swabasha the standard of English had deteriorated. But thanks to the sprouting of internatinal schools English is making a comeback although government schools are still lagging behind.

    English education is definitely a gateway to advancement and good job prospects.

  • Osman Ali

    Seems like this forum is being used as a cheap mode of publicity for some writers here. Oh, the so uppity “read Dickens and Shakespeare and being inculcated in the Oxford pronounciation” and having ” arrived in Yorkshire as a 21year old”. Wonder why this modern day Eliza Doolittle stopped at this. At least she was generous enough to spare us further agony listening to her ramblings about her personal fortunes in life. Wonder if she prounounces her words like a Kalu Suddhi when she talks to her lesser priviledged playmates with whom she grew up in Lanka and who now have the misfortune of enduring the agony of listening to the Sinhala accented English spoken by hardcore nationalists of the likes of Malinda Seneviratne. These people, however hard they try are unable to discard the shackles of class that tie them down to their beginnings. Hence their discourse on the matter is heavily tainted with a tinge of inferiority complex. If that doesnt explain the bias against the Col 7 English speaking gentry, nothing would.

  • cvv

    Osman Ali,

    Now now Osman Ali. I can see where you are coming from. “Kapili danawa”. For your information, there is nothing fortunate or unfortunate of going to UK at the age of 21. That may be what happened to her. Then it is good that someone reads the Shakespeare and Dickens, tripitakaya or salalihini sandeshaya. Nothing wrong with that. Going to Africa at the age of 21 is the same. People are people and places are places.

    From what I see, all Pearl Thevanayagam was trying to do was to explain how the accents around UK are so different. Also to show the connection of class with accent in the UK itself.

    A “kalu suddi” is a person who deliberately forgets the mother tongue. Someone who learn English well is not a “kalu suddi”. We all Sri Lankans want to learn English. We do not have to restrict ourselves to a so called correct English accent. Speaking English in the Sri Lankan accent is OK. Actually I find it sexy when Sri Lankan ladies speak in the local accent. “We went to the iscool”, “I like iscool No” kind of accent. Actually My wife is learning English and I encourage her to keep her own accent.

    There is not need to worry about these things. We have to let the language evolve, We have to remove these shackles and be proud of who we are and be proud of individuality. “Ispeak our own English”.

    What I have noticed in Sri Lanka is that those who do not speak English very well like it when others who speak in English speak with them. This is so that they can learn too. It is those Sri Lankans who somehow learnt to speak English that put “kapily” on others who try to speak. This comes form Jealousy and not accepting who you are. Actually thinking like this does not show wisdom. And it shows. This character I have seen in many Sri Lankans and it is the reason I am writing passionately on this topic.

    Pearl Thevanayagam wrote well. and You Osman Ali wrote well too using good words. Good for you both. Honestly I cant write as well as you.

    English is a tool. Use it. modify it, play with it and be yourself.

  • Maru Sira

    All you proud Lankans, dont worry about speaking English the Queens way. Go ahead have your own dialect and speak it your way. Who the hell cares about the world laughing at us anyway? We are proud of our own heritage and culture and dont care tuppence for what others may have to say as long as we can say “I did it MY way”.. But do be careful you convey the right meaning when you speak it your way.
    eg: Soon after Lanka won the World Cup the foreign cricketers were hosted to a celebratory Lankan luncheon buffet. One Australian Cricketer hesitated at a dish he wasnt too sure about dumping onto his plate. The Lankan Captain who noticed this jumped to his assistance “Donn be afraid, take, take….. that is tasty curry…made from arse pumpkin”. The Australian gave a snigger and moved away fast from the table like a wounded wombat. One wonders if he relished the rest of his lunch. He certainly would if he was told that the dish was made of Ash Pumpkin.

  • cvv

    Maru Suira.

    Couldn’t say it better Machang.

    We need to have our spices in it no?

    Or else we will be like copycats. We were never copy cats.


  • cvv

    One day, I was watching a video where a journalist was taken to the front line in the war in around 2008 when the war was at its peak. This front line soldier was explaining in Sri Lankan English that it was time for the journalist to go as a few bullets came in their direction and had to duck.

    What I heard was like poetry in my ear. I got goose bumps and tears.

    I might have been ashamed of the accent before in my life, but that day I was how beautiful it was.

    I think it was Ajazeera and the journalist understood everything what the soldier was saying.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Unfortunately or fortunatley I had private education at an Engllish convent and my parents paid for my education. We got nothing free. Hence we studied hard. The result was I realised my goal of becoming a journalist and I am still practising it.

    Having come to UK I worked and studied hard. I even got scholarships through my hard work. I depended on nobody including my family after I left home.

    I still earn my own living. How bad is that Osman?

    Should I be weeping ove those who got free education in govt. schools and went on to Unis; again free education. Then they agitate for more demands or turn to taunting lecturers or even assaulting them.

    So get that green-eyed monster out of your system.


    I do not believe one should get personal and emotional about issues even if the content irritatates you. We are all wishing for a just society.

    Please let me a say few things, since I have had experience in mingling with many overseas nationalities at the street level.

    Sri Lankan English speakers posses a sound vocabulary – one probably larger than those natives going around streets in Ottawa, LA, Sydney to name a few and it is matter of how to use it.

    I would like to list a few hints for good communication acceptable to overseas listeners. Hope no one is offended.

    1) Avoid SL native expressions when converse.

    2) Use basic Enlgish and be aware you are trying to get a message across and not trying to impress with your mastery of English language.

    3) At least initially, be slow, short and precise and not practice highly expressive SL manner.

    4) If you going to live/travel overseas learn a few native slang – great for making friends.

    5) Always, remember your difficulty in listening to others when you express yourself to them.

    Finally, I would like to add that English, as one writer said previously, is an evolving global language and no one has sole right to it.

  • CVV says “English is a tool. Use it. modify it, play with it and be yourself”.
    Now, now, be careful CVV .Tools have their proper uses. You cant use a pickaxe to remove a bad tooth. Nor can you afford to use tools as playthings because they have a tendency to hit back if abused. Like fire they are good servants but can be very bad masters That reminds me of one of our bosses, a Katubedda NDT qualified Engineer at a Corporation long ago. He was a diehard Swabasha nationalist like some of our modern day English writers who use the language only for their own personal material advancement but are inwardly pro everything as long as it happens to be anti-western (read Malinda Seneviratne). One day he came late to office and announced (in his brand of ‘modified’ English that he would be leaving us soon for an overseas appointment . We asked him where and he said it was in a copper mine in Sambia. We were perplexed and asked him where Sambia was. “Somewhere in Africa” he said…… So much for bastardising the English Language…… pass me a kahata..

  • sumathy

    I am befuddled by all this nonsense about standard English. Did Shakespeare write in Standard English? He wrote Blank Verse most of the time for upperclass characters (in his plays) but what exactly is standard english?

    There is another and more intractable problem and that is the one that stumps most, in the pedagogic sense. Not these personal anecdotes everybody is throwing about:

    What exactly is our way? And I do not think any of the ‘experts’ on Sri Lankan Englsh or any other English have been able to describe our way.

    Sri Lankan English dictionaries do not say anything about ‘our’ way; in the sense they do not point to a Sri Lankan English as a form, standard or otherwise. Is there really an ‘our’ way and another ‘their way?
    A related question: if there’s no their way, how can there be an ‘our’ way?

    These are the questions that I feel that need to be asked, and not whether we should speak standard or Sri Lankan english. This debate offers us no no help pedagogically.

    On other related matters:
    People do not know what they are talking about when they refer to Old English. Old English is not what most people would consider standard English.
    Old English is a dialect the way ‘Standard English’ is a dialect, and was in use long before Shakespeare’s time. I am not a linguist and language specialist, but I can vouch for the time hallowed fact that there is nothing called Old english prevalent today in the formal sense.
    I wish people who comment or even write about these things will make sure that they know something about the subject before they shoot off.

    on the question of Zambia; Zambia is not an English word is it? Confused.

    Also, who cares about whether the Australian ate the pumpkin, with or without the arse or not? It’s his loss, not ‘mine.’ Will a posh accent get you an Australian visa? That is what interests me, not the Australain cricketer’s close mindedness (if that’s what had put him off the dish. I don’t like Pumpkin and can easily think of other people who share this dislike).

    Pearl Thevanayagam says that teh international schools are promoting english. This is a complex and problematic area and I cannot get into it without writing an entire article.
    All that I could say here is that, International Schools cater to a tiny minority in the country and are not involved in any kind of national service here.

    Also, we must have a more nuanced understanding of Sinhala Only. there was and is an issue that followed the Bill that led to the neglect of english in schools. At the same time, more people got to learn English. Whether this is a result of teh language policy or not I cannot say, but it certainly is part of the broader democratising tendencies that had come into being from the sixties, not necessarily brought in by the government, but by the struggles of the people.
    But bad language planning, officialdom etc. etc. led to a deterioration. There are other people more qualified than I am in the field of language studies, who can speak with authority on this subject. All that I want to say is that any historical assessment of the past and of our current needs needs to be an informed and analytic one. All that I have come across are impressionistic ones which as I said before do not help us too much as teh topic we are dealing with involves people on a national and (also intra-national, inter-national) scale.

  • Pearl Thevanayagam

    Dear Sumathy,
    The world has moved on since Shakespeare. He was but an accounts clerk with the equivalent of GCE O/Ls. He went on to write great prose and poetry and if you analyse his works they are downright earthly and full of emotions and stark-staring human psyche. He had not ventured outside England; and coming to London from Stratford was foreign enough for him.

    Yet he encompasses the whole world in his plays. His plays are full of human virtues, failing and imaginations.

    We need to get geared up for the 21st century.

    Words have evolved and what Ms Hensman taught me in the ’70s does not hold true now.

    Narada De Silva, another tutor of mine always used to say, “Do not use big words because they sound elite. Say what you want to say in simple words.”

    If Mrs Johnson, my neighbour says, ” Now they are welled off” and it is grammatically incorrect I understand her feelings grammar notwithstanding.

  • Bin Dalen

    Sumathy is confused and obfuscated. I can imagine how SHE speaks the Queens language. Must be ThasThing-ThisThing, english for her. Little wonder she was denied an Australian visa. Remember that Zambia may not be an English word but that Z is an English alphabet. So is S. ( still confused ?) So, be careful, and like the writer above said, see that you advise your man to use the right tools for the right trade, otherwise he is sure going to poke it in the wrong place. Oh, by the way, Pumpkin is a favourite of the Americans and British, especially during Halloween. They use it to make all sorts of dishes including Pumpkin Pie and Pumpkin broth. Try and develop a taste for it. Maybe it would be your short-cut to getting that US or British Visa. Damn the Waltzing Matildas. They are ex-convicts, anyway unlike us who pride ourselves on 2500 years of our own native civilisation and want to do everything OUR way, even if it is to continue speaking the Queen’s English.