Sunday, October 5, 2008

A debate

Since it seems to be debate-season in the US, the other day my wife and I had a little debate of our own too. Unlike the presidential and vice-presidential debates, it was an impromptu debate triggered by the pronunciation of a certain innocuous word which ultimately got blown into a bigger debate about languages. The sole audience member to the debate, our dog, was largely uninterested in the topic, yawning at the start of it and even barking in his dreams, as he was deep asleep through the most of it.

Anyway, I have tried to reproduce the exchange of ideas as best as I can. Try not to emulate our dog.

Me: Do we have any aluminium foil left?

Wife: Yes. We do have some aluminum foil.

Me: Did someone swallow the 'i' in aluminium? Its alumin-i-um, not alumin-um.

Wife: In American English, its aluminum. There is no 'i'.

Cooper (the dog); Yaaaaaawn.

Me: I think aluminium is and should be the correct pronunciation.

Wife: Why?

Me: Because English comes from England. If the creators of the language pronounce something a certain way, that is the way it should be pronounced. And while we are at it, I think words should also be spelt the way the creators of the language spell it.

Wife: Not necessarily. You can pronounce a word or spell it anyway you like, if it is more convenient.

Cooper (deep asleep) : woof ! woof!

Me: Yes you can pronounce it anyway you like, if its a proper noun. But not regular words. Just because a bunch of people change the pronounciation of a word, that does not make it the right way to speak a language that they did not create in the first place.

Me (on a roll now): Just imagine you trying to learn a foreign language like say Hindi. Just because you mis-pronounce it, spell stuff according to your convenience, that does not mean that it is the right way to speak Hindi. Its like me playing baseball and saying that I am not out even after 3 strikes, because thats how I play. Of course, I can't do that, because I did not invent the game.

Wife (smiling assuredly): If enough people start speaking a language a certain way, it becomes a dialect or a language of its own. How do you think languages evolved? Most Indian languages evolved from Sanskrit and most European languages have their roots in Latin. By your logic, all the languages that we speak today are wrong because they are not what they were derived from. What you are saying is that since a large part of English is derived from Latin, when we speak English, we are just speaking improper Latin.

Me (with no counter-point to parry the death blow): Oh look, Cooper is barking in his sleep!

And then we exchanged knowing smiles. My face bearing the defeated smile of a man who has come out second-best in a mental contest with a worthy opponent and my wife smiling away to glory because she knows she will not be troubled by me again on this topic!