How do you say the word 人?

A man called the RTHK phone-in talk show yesterday morning. He got through, and the first thing he did was to correct the pronunciation of Leung Ka Wing, a co-host of the programme: “The word 人should be pronounced like 仁; but you mispronounced it as 忍.” Leung didn’t argue with him. Later, while expressing his opinion, the man said “嗰D忍”(those people). Leung ‘corrected’ him: “You said 忍just now; it should be仁.”

I teach a course titled “Teaching the pronunciation of English” to groups of preservice teachers, and a course titled “Introduction to English phonetics and phonology” to groups of inservice teachers. A reminder I keep issuing to the participants when I am teaching these courses is: “If you wish to correct someone’s pronunciation, check, and check, and check again.” I myself have made this gaffe on more than one occasion: I corrected someone’s ‘mispronunciation’, only to hear it used by some native speakers later. (Of course it doesn’t mean native speakers are always correct with their pronunciation.) The problem has to do with the existence of varieties of English, and the nature of English.

A pronunciation which is not used in one variety may be commonly employed in another. Also, English is a ‘phonic’ language, but its phonics patterns are not always regular. Even if there is a conventional pronunciation to a word, its spelling may lead to alternative pronunciations later.

And I’m not even touching the increasingly popular notion of World Englishes!

Native speakers of English thus have a much more accommodating attitude towards English pronunciation than we have towards Chinese pronunciation. If you ask a native speaker whether a certain pronunciation is wrong or not, they will most likely say: “Well, I would say it as ….”, instead of dismissing it as unacceptable.

To go back to the pronunciation of人, I am not an expert in Chinese (Cantonese) pronunciation, but I do know that tone shifts are very common in Cantonese. We say

黃and陳 in one tone when we say黃先生and陳先生, but in a different tone when we say ’黃sir’ and ’陳sir’. The message: how to say a word in isolation is one thing; how it is actually said in connected speech is another. This applies to both English and Cantonese.

Incidentally, last Sunday I had lunch with a few friends, one of whom is Dr Benjamin Au Yeung. Because Ben is an expert in Cantonese pronunciation, we had a lot of fun ‘correcting’ each other’s Cantonese pronunciation over the lunch. I happened to mention劉嘉玲, whose Cantonese pronunciation, in my view, was superb for someone from Soochow. To my surprise, they all rated her pronunciation poor! Maybe this is because two of them came to Hong Kong from Beijing many years ago, but today they don’t show any traces of a non-native Cantonese accent, and our friends at the lunch last Sunday have been impressed with that for years. But when I compare 劉嘉玲’s Cantonese with my Putonghua …….

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