One of my ongoing sources of torment, and virtually the only thing the sales team in my office can tease me about now that England have confirmed themselves as the number one cricketing nation in the world, is the English pronunciation of various Tamil names and phrases.
The trouble stems from the fact that English, being a sensible language, has just 26 characters in its alphabet and has approximately 42 phonemes (the way things are pronounced). Tamil, by contrast, being the 2,500 year old language that it is, has 247 characters in the alphabet and a mind boggling number of phonemes – for example they have 17 ways just to pronounce the letter ‘L’, 8 ways to pronounce the letter ‘N’ and exactly zero ways to pronounce the letter ‘W’.
All this presents a bit of a problem, particularly when trying to transliterate from a Tamil word or phrase to the English equivalent because there just aren’t enough characters or phonemes to get the pronunciation accurate. One constant source of amusement for everyone who knows me is that my office is in an area of Chennai called Valluvar Kottam. Now being the person I am and refusing to take in to account that it’s just the best spelling match you can get with such a rudimentary language like English, I read this word (as all other English speaking people would) as: val-loo-vaar cot-tam. Which isn’t even close to being right. Infact it couldn’t be more wrong. You go up to anyone in Chennai and ask how to get to val-loo-vaar cot-tam and they will look at you like you’ve just stepped off a spaceship from Mars.
My pronunciation disability can have some bizarre outcomes as with what happened this evening. I got back to my apartment after a
hard day at work and the watchman (all apartments have watchmen, but that’s a story for another day) motioned for me to come and speak to him. He wanted the maintenance money which every apartment needs to pay each month, it’s 900 rupees (about 14 pounds) so I fished around in my wallet and handed him a wad of notes and the watchman pulled out a tatty old notebook and a stub of a pencil. The conversation went a little something like this…
Watchman: à®µà®¾à®Ÿà¯ à®‡à®¸à¯ à®¯à¯à®µà®°à¯ à®¨à¯‡à®®? (Transliterates to: Un peru enna? and translates to: What is your name?)
Me: à®¨à¯‹, Peter (Transliteration: illa, Peter. Translation: No, Peter).
Me: à®¨à¯‹, Pee-ter (Transliteration: illa, Peter. Translation: No, Peeter).
Watchman: *confused* …Petcha?
Me: Grr, no! It’s P-E-T-E-R, Peter.
Me: *sigh*. Yes, fine, pizza.
And that is why, if you were to look in the watchman’s tatty old notebook, under August 2011 Maintenance you would find an entry that says Mr. Pitza paid 900 rupees for maintenance.
Note: If you just see silly square boxes in the conversation above, it means you have an old computer that doesn’t support the Tamil fonts.