Thursday, September 12, 2013

Fried rice is not spelled correctly

Isn't it time "Fried Rice" is spelled "Flied Lice?"

On a wet and cold Saturday afternoon, I chanced upon an old-time American TV series “Charlie Chan” created by Earl Derr Biggers, an American novelist and playwright in the 1930s. “Charlie Chan” was Hollywood’s perspective of the way Chinese spoke English, confusing their “Ls” and their “Rs”. Following a successful run on TV, the theme was repeated in countless films and TV shows, Fu Manchu and the long running British TV series “Mind your language” come to mind.

Notwithstanding the offensive nature of this impression of Asians, I wanted to find out if it is indeed culturally biased.

It is true that the Japanese and Korean language have no distinct English-type “L” and “R” sounds. There is however an in-between sound “Lr” or the “Rl”.

However, for mainland Chinese it’s important to note that the extent of this non-distinct sound differs depending on which part of the country they come from. For instance Northern Chinese has the same non-distinct English-type sound as Koreans and Japanese. Perhaps their proximity to each other has something to do with it. But in Southern China, the Cantonese dialect has a very clear “L” but a semi distinct "R" English-type sound. The result would be confusingly, "Flied Rice".

If we look further afield it gets even more interesting.

The French has problems with their English-type “R” confusing it with the “W”; Germans and Russians have issues with their “V” and W”; Italians with “T” and “D”; Greeks with their “G” and “K”.

Fried rice may turn out sounding like “Fwied Wice” by the French.

Warning: Do not spoil your romantic night out by asking a French to order fried rice in English.

Given that the non-distinct “L” and “R” is not culturally biased, then is this mix-up because of something else? Could it be due to the follies of the English language itself? Not being a phonetic language, learning it can be difficult for non-English speaking cultures, as so often the sound of the words are not the same way as it is spelled.

For instance the sound of “ough” in “rough” is not the same as “plough” or “cough”; the verb “bow” sounds different to the noun “bow” and worst of all the sound of “jail” is spelled “gaol”.

The English language only took on a self appointed dominance since the mid-20th century. Until then, French has been the language of diplomacy and together with German is still the official language of the current European Economic Community. Against popular beliefs the lingua franca for India/Pakistan is not English, it is Hindi or Urdu. And of course none of the Asian economies have English as their first language. According to the British Council, only 12% of the people in the world speak English as a native or as a second language. The rest gets their “Ls”, “Rs”, “Vs”, “Ws”, “Ts” and “Ds” mixed up.

So with 88% of the people in this world speaking English with mixed-up sounds, isn't it time we accept “Flied Lice” for fried rice; “WoWo” for Volvo; “Ordoves” for Hors d'oeuvre and “Cwasong” for croissant?

One day there may even be a long running TV comedy series impersonating an Englishman mis-pronouncing flied lice.

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