Friday, June 25, 2010

Spell-check

Sorry to go on and on about the Thackerays, but I have to get this idea off my chest. This has to do with the phonetic problem of transcribing Indian names accurately into the Roman script.

Let me take my own family name as an example. I spell it GOKHALE, thereby creating a problem. What’s the A doing there? Answer: It is there because we are pedantic. By inserting it after KH, we are saying KH is a fully pronounced consonant. Without the A, we will mislead people into thinking that the KH and the LE make a joint consonant.

Great, wonderful in theory. But see the confusion it causes in practice.

Way back in the year dot, I was being interviewed for a seat at Bristol University. Three polite gentlemen sat before me on the other side of a wide table. One of them inclined his head and said, “Please sit down Miss Gokhale”, pronouncing it like Go-pale. Natural mistake given a certain rule in English spelling that has no exceptions (as far as I know), which says E after a consonant means the previous vowel is to be pronounced as it is in the alphabet.

I would have let it pass had the gentleman not smiled and inquired, “That is the way you pronounce your name, I hope?” Even then I could have nodded and said yes. But instead I said helpfully, “No, it’s Go-kha-le.” I thought separating the syllables thus would make the role of A clear. Despite which, the second gentleman said, “Oh yes, of course, I can see that now.” Then very carefully he tried it out. “Miss Go-khaa-le”, he said, bringing Hindi food into my middle. He too made the mistake of asking politely if he had got it right. Again I could have smiled brightly and said of course you have. And again I did not. I did worse. I said, “No, but that’s okay. I don’t mind.” I meant to sound kind and forgiving. But I ended up sounding patronising--to three men who’d done doctorates in heavy-duty Eng Lit issues from colleges in Oxford and Cambridge.

They guffawed at their gaffes and one of them said self-disparagingly, British as ever, “The English tongue finds it difficult to get around anything more challenging than fish and chips.” The others shook their heads and said “Oh dear oh dear, we must work on this,” while I said to myself, “There goes my seat.”

But I got it.

Anyway, all this is to explain that our insistence on transcribing a full, as against a half consonant in the Roman script makes for social embarrassment in England. Thackeray has escaped it by not going to England at all. But his name is very closely connected with English soil.

Let me pull his name apart to demonstrate how. People generally use A to indicate a full consonant. Thackeray uses an E instead. No problem. People generally use an E for the end vowel. He chooses to transcribe it as AY as in DAY or SAY. Fair enough. Each to his own. We are a tolerant nation and all that. But why doesn’t he transcribe the central consonant of his name with a K? Why “CK”?

Ah! That’s where my little idea comes in. My theory is that he chose to spell his name like Thackeray the 19th century British novelist, creator of the earliest upwardly mobile anti-heroine in English literature, Becky (Rebecca) Sharpe of “Vanity Fair”, because of a deeply felt kinship.

Just look at the similarities. The Brit Thackeray was a journalist. Our Thackeray began his journey into political prominence with a magazine called “Marmik”. The Brit Thackeray was a humourist. He wrote for “Punch”. Our Thackeray was (some people think “is”) a humourist. “Marmik” was a jokey magazine. The Brit Thackeray was a caricaturist. Our Thackeray was also one. That’s how he got his cartooning job with the Free Press Journal. Now, think of the Brit Thackeray’s first name, William. Shortened to Billy doesn’t it come close to Bal? Two consonants in common.

There, unfortunately, the similarities end and our great misfortunes begin. The Brit Thackeray’s middle name was an invitation, MAKEPEACE. He was WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY when fully unfurled. Our Thackeray was thrilled to cosy up to his first and last names; but when he came to the invitation in the middle…

Complete the above sentence and send to this blog. The person who sends in the best entry will be rewarded with a free tour of Matoshree and the chance to touch Balasaheb’s feet.