Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Lost in Translation

It's no secret that Asian people got the shit end of the stick when it comes to foreign accents. No one gushes to their friends about the man they met with the sexiest Chinese accent they ever heard. No one spends time in Korea and attempts to Madonna their accent upon their return.

I worked with a girl who was born and raised in Canada, spent a year working in London, and managed to come to work in the New York City office with a thick English accent. We call these people "assholes" and "poseurs" but that's beyond the point. No one's going to do it with a Malaysian accent.

As first generation Americans, my parents speak with a thick Korean accent. There is logic to this, of course. If you learn to speak Korean, you'll see that there are certain letters and pronunciations in English that don't have a Korean counterpart. For example, a Korean person can pronounce a 'b' or a 'c' because there are the equivalent 'buh' and 'cuh' sounds in the Korean alphabet. Ask them to say a word with a 'v' or an 'f,' however, and you'll have them replacing them with a 'buh' and a 'puh' as in "very" = "bery" and "fuck" = "puck."

My father got an engineering degree from City College in New York, so he possesses a solid enough grasp of the English language. He may still say "I sink you arl stoopeesh," but his English is decipherable. My mother on the other hand, came to the U.S. for the first time when she got married. Therefore, her Engrish ijn't bery goosh.

She has taken an interest, numerous times, in improving it, and in doing so, I have discovered several inexplicable pronounciations for English words. No matter what logic I attempt to see behind her choosing to pronounce the following words as such, I can't find any.

1) V (as in the letter, 'V') = Boo-ee
When she asks me to spell something for her, she likes to repeat the spelling I give her. Without fail, whenever I say 'vee' she responds with 'BOO-ee.' "It's VEE!" I'll enunciate. "BOO-EE!" she'll respond. And we'll go back and forth like this for a little while.

2) Purple = Purf
For the longest time, growing up, my mother, for whatever bizarre reason, would pronounce this word "purf." Just like that, one syllable, 'purf.' When I got old enough to be a wise-ass and question her, I tried to correct her. "PUR-PULL." Her response, "FUR-FUR," which, after several repetitions, became "PUR-FUR" and I'm pretty sure that's as good as it's going to get.

3) Fish = Hooey-shee
This is the word we have been working on most recently. She's always tried to pronounce it as two syllables (as in 'fishy'). I finally called her out on it, and for a few months, we managed to get it down to 'hooeesh." Lately I've been trying to squeeze the 'f' outta her and I've gotten several variations of 'heesh,' 'hweesh,' 'weesh' and finally, 'fesh.' She curls her lips and looks ridiculous when she says this, though, so we're going to have to stick with "hweesh."



Blogger The Doorman said...

Can she say "CLEMENTI(M)ES?"

8:57 PM  
Anonymous Pat said...

Wow, good point with the "nobody imitates Asian accents" thing. My girlfriend's parents are from India, so I think they're in the same boat as far as "hip" accents go. Although people outside the family had trouble deciphering my Irish grandma too.

You missed the W sound. I tutored a woman from Korea in English, and she could not say "woman" or "what" for the life of her. Even sounding it out was physically impossible for her: "ooman" and "ut" every time.

11:12 AM  
Blogger DK said...

over here, our teenage poseurs watch MTV all day and try to sound american.. never mind the bad grammar... apparently as long as you don't sound Malaysian, you're cool

1:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about "l" or "z"? my name Liz always comes out as Lig....

11:10 AM  
Blogger -t- said...

When I was in elementary school the parents of one of my friends ran and operated a Korean stationary store. (You know the type that used to be so common place before the big chains i.e. Staples, Office Depot ect, moved into the city.) It was a few blocks from our school so after 3 we would walk over to hang out in the back room. Her mother used to have long conversations with me in Korean and I nodded my head in agreement in fear that I would offend her if I told her I didn't understand. One day I asked my friend to let her mother know that I didn't speak Korean to which she replied that her Mother wasn't talking to me in Korean and I should really listen better. Anyway I do remember the total lack of vee and eff sounds.

3:20 PM  
Anonymous km said...

aww haha that's so cute. hey at least she's willing to learn.

i thought it was just filipinos that cant say very, but say bery. i feel better now.

9:12 PM  
Anonymous highintel said...

Hi, you know what, I have come to the conclusion that the way some Koreans tend to pronounce the letter 'V' as 'boo-ee' is most likely due to one (or some?) bad teacher(s) in the past. That can happen not just in Korea, but in many Asian countries, where some foreign words are pronounced a certain way for no apparent reason, except due to 'habit' - not due to any inability to pronounce some sound, or due to the influence of their own language (such as in the case of mixing up the 'L' and 'R' sounds by many East-Asians).
What do you think of Americans (and Canadians) pronouncing many foreign words in a totally 'anglicized' way, even when they are not hard to pronounce? For example, 'karaoke' is pronounced 'kara-okay' in Japan. Since this particular piece of technology originated (or, at least became popular first) in Japan, why not pronounce it as 'kara-okay' and not as 'carry-yokee'? It is just habit and laziness.
As for your mom's pronunciation, I wouldn't blame her especially if she had grown up in Korea - since Korea was largely (kept?) free of most foreign media - and English teachers there would have had to rely on 'their' teachers for their pronunciation!

1:40 AM  

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