Monday, May 26, 2008

Pronunciation of "harass"

I listen religiously to "The News Quiz" through their podcast. For those who don't know, "The News Quiz" is a comedy panel program broadcasted on BBC Radio 4 and takes a comedic view on the news over the past week.

On a show a few weeks ago, one of their panellists mentioned the word "harass" is usually pronounced wrong. It is usually said with the stress on the first syllable (sounding like "her ass") but should be said with the stress on the second syllable. For those who don't believe it, there is a Wikipedia entry on this matter.

Does it really matter how you say words or phrases as long as you can get your message across? Well according to my mum and everybody who corrects my Cantonese, it seems to matter. Whenever I correct my mum on her English pronunciation (despite living as many years, if not more, in England as I have), she gets frustrated about it and said I shouldn't do it. I rightly point out to her that she corrects my Cantonese and I will continue to correct her English, even in public, as long she corrects my Cantonese.

I don't usually correct people's pronunciation of English that often. Most of my friends speak fluent English so the situation never arises. If my colleagues and peers don't speak English fluently and pronounce words incorrectly, I usually close my eyes and flinch - even when it is doctors. People in the medical profession in Hong Kong think their English is very proficient when the truth is that their English is as good as any person in Hong Kong. Ask a doctor what the plural of lipoma and haemangioma is, they will say lipomas and haemangimomas which any other Hong Kong person would say. The correct version is lipomata and haemangiomata, which Hong Kong doctors rarely say because what they believe is true.

My gripe with the pronunciation of the English language in Hong Kong doesn't stop there. Chinese people tend to pronounce "mechanism" incorrectly placing the stress in the second syllable (similar to pronouncing "mechanical"). And their pronounciation of letters is worse. I think I covered this topic before in another blog entry but I had to correct my mother on the pronunciation of the letter "F". She says it like any other Hong Kong person does, with an extra vowel sound at the end - "ef-oo" instead of "ef". Many of the letters in the alphabet get "Hong-Kong-ized" with added vowels sounds added at the end of letters. Whenever Hong Kong pronounce letters, I usually have to block out the sound since I want to keep my sanity intact and not have to shout at them for denigrating the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer.

Yet what is the matter as long as you get your message across?

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