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.