Friday, June 18, 2010

Sri Lanka Or Sri Lanka?

What's in a name you may ask?

Do you call it "Sri Lunkah" or Sree Lanker?

I was brought up to believe that "Sri Lunkah" is the correct pronunciation and that "Sree Lanker" is wrong. That was it, black and white, well more brown and white. Grey didn't exist, there was the correct way and the incorrect way. Suddhas say it incorrectly, Lankans say it correctly and Kalu Suddhas just mess things up.

As a kid, in Richmond at school, I'd call it "Sree Lanker" when talking to my British friends. I felt cheap and prostituted, like I was betraying my roots, but it made sense and I managed to live with the guilt. I'd mention the name at school using the Brit way then go home and chat with my parents and use the "proper" pronunciation.

There was rarely an overlap, an occasion when I'd be with a Suddha friend and one or both of my parents and get caught in a position of not knowing which way to turn, so there was never any real conflict. The thing that was definite in my mind, the banker, or bunker, was the right way to say it and the wrong way.

As I got older I maintained the view but, as I felt a stronger sense of identity, perhaps more confidence in my Sri Lankanness, I'd use the "correct" Sri Lunkah more and more, with Western people. I can't really explain the set of rules that I'd come up with to help me decide which pronunciation to use, but they were continually evolving anyhow and loosely based on how close I was to the Western person concerned.

Then, about ten years ago, something happened that messed up my mental equilibrium. I had a really close friend with me, a Lankan who was on holiday here in London, a fellow who's as Sri Lankan as can be and one of my oldest and best buddies. We were browsing in a local camera shop and for some reason he gave the shop assistant his name and address.

When he got to the country bit, you've guessed it, he told the guy that he lived in "Sree Lanker". I was cor blimey gobsmacked guvnor, I tell you Machang. I've never mentioned it to L, my friend, but it was evident that he'd chosen the Suddha way on that occasion as a means of communicating more easily with the very white and very British shop assistant.

Since then I've observed people and their choice of phonetics when saying the hallowed words. The results have surprised me. There's a large chunk of people who'll say "Sri Lunkah" all the time. Stick them with a group of whiter than white people who've never been outside the UK and they'll say it "correctly". Chuck them in the remotest village in the motherland and their pronunciation will be exactly the same.

There's another group of people, mostly western who'll say it "incorrectly" wherever they are.

But what has perplexed me is the number of people I'd consider Lankans, many with Lankan parents who are born here in the UK, some even in Sri Lanka, who'll use the Suddha way all or some of the time. These people have messed up my mindset and forced me to reevaluate. I've met people, brown ones no less, the sort who I'd always say Sri Lunkah to, who'll talk to me, or talk to people that I'd think of as fully Sri Lankan, who'll use the Western way all the time.

My reevaluation is a bit of a reflection on what I feel is my changing attitude towards many things in life anyhow, the fact that there is no right way and no wrong way, just different ways.

What is language? It's communication isn't it? A means of relating to each other to make ourselves understood. It has its limitations but it can also be very effective. So, when we succeed in making other people understand what we mean, it's working. When a person says Sri Lanka and gets it "wrong", it's me who's being wrong in judging them.

It also means that when I say "Sree Lanker" to someone I needn't feel bad or guilty. It's not actually a sign of how Sri Lankan I am, it's just a means of communicating.

What about you though? Which way do you say it and do you alter your choice depending on who you're with or where you are?


Sach said...

I always find 'adjusting' your pronunciation or accent to sound cool / fashionable or whatever else is a bit silly. However doing so to be understood might even be a necessity. For example we have to pronounce many a English word the Japanese way if we wish Japs to understand us. But then again Japanese pronunciation of English words is far from being cool.

Other than that I usually just talk the way I'm used to which is very much a Sri Lankan accent.

PseudoRandom said...

I just tested my pronunciation (yes, I had to check), and I think I say 'Sri Lunkah' to everyone, but the emphasis changes from the '-ri' with people from home to the 'Lun-' with people here. I suppose that's the halfway point my brain has found between pronouncing it the way I 'know' to be correct, and the way I can be understood. Interestingly, when I was here as a kid, the other kids in school insisted I was from 'Srilankershire'. Hmm.

But looking at my accent as a whole, I do speak English differently depending on whom I'm speaking to. I speak a slower and more 'polished' English when speaking to non-Sri Lankans (or Sri Lankans brought up in the UK), and I speak a very 'Sri Lankan' English when talking to people from home. I think it's because when I'm speaking to people from home, I'm thinking in English and Sinhala, whereas when I'm speaking to people who are not from SL, I'm thinking in English. Weird, I know.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Sach - Yes I agree with you on changing an accent just to sound cool.

Pseudo - Thanks for that rather thought out comment.

I find it very fascinating this whole issue of language and dialect etc. I used to admire people who spoke with one accent wherever they went, thinking that they had an inner confidence that I don't have.

Now I think those people often have an arrogance that I don't have, which is not a good quality, that they expect others to understand them without them having to adapt at all. I guess that line between confidence and arrogance is a thin and wavy one.

aufidius said...

I say 'sri lunkah' when I speak here, and I guess I say 'sri lunkah' when I speak at home too, if at all there is a change it may be that I ever so slightly emphasize on the 'ri' and follow it by lankuh.

But interestingly, in colloquial sinhalese the 'sri' is almost always dropped, saying ' sri' is almost formal language. When speaking in sinhalese people always say 'lankaawa' or differently 'apey lankaawa' meaning 'our lanka', which may possibly be intrinsic small island mentality.

Interesting how in English the whole word is used thus satisfying the fullest linguistic criteria, where as in sinhalese colloquialism it is not so.

T said...

just responding to your reply to PR, i think it's less arrogance and more confidence. I know I love visiting my Guyanese friends at home cuz their accent comes on thicker when they're in familiar surroundings. If people kept changing their accents and dialects, which we in Anthropology call code switching, the homogeneity of it all would be an utter bore. Besides, you don't hear Brits or Americans change their accents so that you can understand them better right? Not in my experience anyway.

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Auf - Yes, you make an interesting point, I think we often talk about "Lanka" to each other in a way we'd rarely do to someone white.

T - I guess it depends on the person concerned. In my experience there are may Brits (me as an eg) who do change certain pronunciations in theory to make us easier to understand.

PseudoRandom said...

I don't know if it's a matter of confidence or arrogance...I'd say it's neither.

Also, like RD, I know a fair number of Brits who change their accent to make themselves understood. I had batch mates from parts of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and even northern parts of England (notably Liverpool - those who have heard Steven Gerrard speak will understand) whose (very strong) accents became more diluted during the course of the term. And then they'd go home for the holidays and come back with accents stronger than ever!

Serendib_Isle said...

I say “Srilunkah” (one word); and yes, I think people tend to change their accent and the way they articulate sentences specially in foreign environments...

Jeev said...

Now Sinhala grammar and how there are two entirely different languages as far as grammar and sentence formation goes, one for speaking and one for writing is a different matter. So sad that that Singhala evolved that way (most likely in the last couple of centuries) and no one did anything about it. The language should have been modernized to prevent this. Now people are losing the language for lack of usage. No one can even remember the grammar once you finish O/Ls. English is constantly being updated and modernized to keep up with the times and to keep it relevant to the needs of today. I so wish someone or entity did the same with Singhala.

This will likely sound too complicated to someone who can’t read Singhala. But it’s very easy to pronounce anything once you learn to read, then it’s not complicated at all!

President Premadasa even changed the country’s name to Shri Lanka. He didn’t change the name, but he changed how it’s written and represented in English. He officially adopted the variation, newspapers were using it, all official communications with foreign Governments were done with Shri. That was a good move because that prevents people from using the ‘s’ letter instead of the ‘sh’ letter. But alas, as his presidency was cut short courtesy of the terrorist bombers, it never took root. It didn’t have time to take root. Everything reverted back to Sri after his death. I’m certain if he had no been murdered, today we would all be using Shri Lanka.

Personally I don’t like the name Sri Lanka. Just Lanka would have been great. Indeed that was the name before the foreign invasions. The Sri is more Indian than Lankan. Since we were reverting back to the original names, why we didn’t just go back to Lanka and felt the need to add a Sri in front, baffles me.

Jeev said...

I pronounce it just as it is written in Singhala: "shree lung-ka". The 'ka' is sounded as you would, ma or pa in English. Since Singhala is a phonetic language, and words are sounded as they are written, there's only one correct way. Of course anyone can pronounce any word as they wish, after all language is personal, but as far as true language is concerned (in the same vein as there's set grammar in English, but people widely use double negatives like "I don't know nothing". It's accepted and understood by the listener, but it's wrong) there's only one correct way. If one knows how to read Singhala, it's pretty simple actually. There's the "shree" as opposed to "sree" or "shri". If it were "sree" a different letter would be used: the 'sa' letter instead of the 'sha' letter. To drag or not to drag the "shree" at the end is also indicated by the addition of the little circle on top of the letter. If there were no circle, then, no dragging. There’s no room for interpretation or error. It’s very definite and very clear. It's "lung" (the closest I can write it in English, even though there’s no touching of the roof of mouth to form the ‘N’ part of the sound as you would briefly, in pronouncing ‘lung’ in English) and not "lun". Again, the two different sounds would be written completely differently in Sinhala. The former with the 'la' letter followed by the circle. The latter with the 'la' letter followed by the 'na' letter with the addition of the 'flagpole' on top to indicate the need to touch-and-hold’ the roof of the mouth with the tongue to complete the 'lun' sound. Without the 'flagpole' addition, there would be no ‘hold’. Only touch roof of mouth. And even which part of the roof of your mouth you touch with the tongue is clearly indicated by two different letters: One ‘na’ to touch the front half, and another (different) ‘na’ to touch the back half (there’s slightly more to this than touching the back half of the roof). In the case of pronouncing ‘Sri Lanka’, this is a moot point as the letter 'na' is never used as you never touch the roof of your mouth with your tongue, thanks to the circle that follows the ‘la’ letter. So really, the pronunciation is definitive and clear. Every nuance of sound, the slightest variations in sound is all written out. I love this part of Singhala. I wish English pronunciation were this simple! In English, the same letters or combinations of letters would be pronounced entirely differently in different words. One just has to know how it’s done. Not so in Singhala. There’s very little room for error once you learn how to read.

Jeev said...

RD, I swear I'm not trying to take over your blog-comments :) But I forgot to answer the second part of your question! I say it the same way to everyone, every time. In the U.S. it make no difference anyway, most Americans don't know whether Sri Lanka is even a country. As cricket is a creature here as opposed to a sport, and the general American lack of interest in anything foreign unless there's an American angle to it, Sri Lanka is largely unknown to most. So it's not like they already have their own way of pronouncing it. I adopt the same strategy when people can't understand me. After saying anything twice, I spell it out. For Sri Lanka though, I add, "It's a country in South Asia. An island below India." At this point I've lost most people anyway because they don't think India is in Asia and I don't look Asian to them, they see me as Indian.......

Ok, now I'll go back to just reading your blog and leaving the Comments Section alone! :)

Rhythmic Diaspora said...

Jeev - Thank you for the interesting comments. I understand the points you're saying about the "correct" way to pronounce Sinhala, I suppose one of my issues is whether there really is a "correct" way in any language, or if communication is the main objective.

Please feel free to comment again, don't be a lurker!