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English pronunciation features of Malayalis

Updated on December 19, 2015

Pronunciation mistakes that Malayalis make while speaking English

No doubt Malayalis (people of Kerala) are one of the few Indian communities who have scripted success stories in a number of fields in different parts of the world. It is often said that there may not be any country in the world where there is no Malayali. Whatever part of the world you are in, the chances are high that you might spot a Malayali, typically with a well-trimmed thick rectangular moustache covering the upper lip, doing some kind of decent work or business and earning a standard income.

A good majority of them are obviously educated, hardworking and intelligent too. Their grip on English grammar and written English is much better than the rest of Indians. However when a Malayali opens his or her mouth to speak English, the strong influence of mother tongue shows its ugly face which often spoils the general impression they have projected globally. Having said this, I do not mean that all the people from this part of the world speak that way; the number of English speaking Keralites with nearly-native-like fluency, pronunciation and accent is not very low. Therefore, whenever I use the term Malayali or Keralite, it only refers to the awkward English speaking Keralite brethren. Ironically, they constitute the huge majority.

The underlying causes

It is not so easy to pinpoint the exact reason behind the poor accent and pronunciation of these people. A few out of many reasons are lack of corresponding sounds of certain English sounds in their native language (Malayalam), improper and outdated English teaching methods, the tendency to speak out each sound or syllable precisely as it is written unaware of the stress and intonation patterns of English and, to some extent, the we-are-always-right mentality.

Interesting characteristics of Malayali English

Let’s look at some interesting characteristics of Malayali English (Manglish?). The vowel sound ‘ə’ (the sound of ‘a’ in about, above around etc) is pronounced as ‘e’ (like the first ‘e’ in elephant). So about, above and around are ebout, ebove and eround for a Malayali. When they utter fresh as frush, they don’t make any difference between flush and flesh; friend and front; font and fond; bent and bend etc. What more? Even their own country’s (India) name is Intia or Intya for them.

Malayali English also lacks some diphthongs (sounds formed by the combination of two vowels in a single syllable). As a result, for a Malayali both got and goat sound similar. The same is the case with bought and boat; cot, caught and coat; rod and road; roll and role; so, saw and sow etc. The other day I was literally taken aback when one of my Malayali friends asked for two large cocks at a cinema refreshments stall during the intermission of a movie. The crowd around him became abruptly silent for a moment. I heard a few chuckles too. Anyway, after staring at him for a few seconds, the vendor handed over two large bottles of Coke to him, obviously with a suppressed smile on his face!

Another drawback of Malayali English is due to the lack certain corresponding English sounds in Malayalam phonology. As there is no equivalent to the English vowel sound æ (the sound of ‘a’ in cat) in it, the speakers deal with the English words with æ in them in a funny way. For example, cat is pronounced as kyat while captain is kyaptain and his cap is kyaap. What about cancel, cancer and camera? They roll out of a Malayali’s mouth as kyancel, kyancer and kyamera. The sound ‘z’ is another one that Malayalis are still struggling with. You might see a number of zoos in Kerala but the number of people who can pronounce the word zoo correctly is as rare as the population of Bengal tiger. For a Malayali, zoo is soo and zebra is sebra. Though the state is well known for its zig-zag roads and rivers, for the natives they are all sig-sag. The fate of zip, buzz, Zen and zenith is also the same in the hands of English speaking Keralites. Rice (noun) and rise (verb) are pronounced differently in English but not in Manglish in which both are ‘rice’. Same is the case with price and prize, vice and wise, mace and maze, and face and phase – all of them end with a hiss. Another common word bass is baas for them whereas treble is trouble!

Time to relearn the alphabet

Not only words but certain letters of English alphabet also fall prey to their misuse. When the letters f, h, l, m, n, s and x reached God’s own country (a pet name of Kerala), their pronunciation changed into yef, yech(yeich), yell, yem, yen, yes and yex. A good number of Malayalis pronounce the sounds ‘v’ and ‘w’ in the same way hence both vine and wine sound the same to them. Van and wan too are treated alike while speaking. What about the last letter of English alphabet ‘z’? While the British pronounce it as zed, the Americans prefer zee. For the 100-percent-literate-claiming Keralites, ‘z’ is something like ised (isɛd).

Errors extend to numbers

Is that all? No. Malayali’s butchering of the English language extends to numbers as well. The number 20 (twenty) is tonty for them whereas 12 (twelve) is mispronounced as tolve. When the rest of the world says triple eight for 888, the Kerala version is thrible eight (even eight is ‘yate’ for many). A googling of the word thrible brought no sensible result; the word was alien to Oxford, Cambridge and Longman dictionaries. Even www.urbandictionary.com made fun of me by asking back ‘thrible isn’t defined. Can you define it?’

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      Toms 3 years ago

      English words murdered by Malayalees:

      kangaroo (the worst offended word, Malayalees pronounce as “kanGAROO” instead of “KANgroo”)

      mixed, fixed (pronounced as 'miksed', 'fiksed' instead of 'miksd', 'fiksd')

      bear, pear, wear (pronounced as ‘biyar’, ‘piyar’, 'wiyer' instead of ‘beye’, ‘peye’, 'weye')

      auto (pronounced as "aaatto" instead of "otto")

      Queen (prounounced as “kyuun” instead of “kween”)

      form (pronounced as ‘farum’ instead of “fom”)volume (books) (pronounced as "vaalyam' instead of "volyum")

      biennale (pronounced as “binale” instead of “bienale”)

      place names – Ohio, Seattle, Utah, Sultan's Battery (pronounced as “ohiyo, seetl, ootha, soolthan batheri” instead of “ohayo, siyatl, yuta, Sultan's Bateri”)

      tortoise (pronounced as ‘tortois’ instead of “totis” )

      turtle (pronounced as ‘turrrtil’ instead of “tutl” )

      Mascot Hotel (pronounced as “muskut HOtel” instead of “MAScot hoTEL”)

      bass (pronounced as ‘baas’ instead of “beis”)

      twitter (pronounced as “tyooter” instead of “twiter”)

      birthday (pronounced as “birthaday” instead of “buthdei”)

      garage (pronounced as “garej” instead of “gaRAZH/gaRAJ”)

      chassis (pronounced as “chasis” instead of “shasi”)

      divorce (pronounced as "daiverse" instead of "divors")

      pizza (pronounced as "pisa" instead of "pitza")

      our (pronounced as "avar" instead of "aue")

      flour (pronounced as "flower" instead of "flaue")

      alarm (pronounced as "alarum" instead of "alaam")

      beer (pronounced as "biiir" instead of "biye") – especially in Malayalam print media

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      Mohandas 3 years ago

      Most of the human beings have funny pronunciation and funnier accent according to the English and US whites. English and and Americans do not have the same pronunciation or accent either.Most nations do not give a SHIT about these differences and go about their business. A small number of INDIANS, mentally still under the influence of their colonial masters who bend their bodies and cringe when they meet a white man and eat their s.......are serious about such trivialities.

    • sunilkunnoth2012 profile image

      Sunil Kumar Kunnoth 3 years ago from Calicut (Kozhikode, South India)

      Very good observation and interesting narration. It is a sad fact that though Malayalees do excel in whatever field they enter, they lack proper communication skill in English. They have no opportunity to use English in their daily life as all people here speak in Malayalam only. So obviously the lack of a metro city culture here is a great block for them. The knowledgeable people like the author should help them articles like this one. I hope you will do by writing more helpful articles. Shared in FB.

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      Someone 2 years ago

      I would really like to know how many other Indians (forget the convent educated minority) pronounce the words rice and rise differently. I doubt there is an appreciable difference even when native english speakers say those. It is just understood from the context usually. When we go into stereotypes, it is very easy to over-simplify things.

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      Toms 2 years ago

      @Mohandas, don't try to fill the hole with darkness! You are just trying to brush the issue under the carpet instead of addressing it.

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      James 2 years ago

      @Mohandas, you are a frog in an old dilapidated well!

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      Donald 2 years ago

      If Malayalis have a very different accent is because that is the only language that is spoken there. If teachers in primary school teach the same kids in Kerala with a better accent, they would learn for sure. I wonder how many of us can pronounce the difficult Malayalam sounds? I can't, though I'm fluent in 8 languages. So the bottom line is: just as others can't pick the malayalam sounds, they have difficulty with english sounds. I've taught many malayalis to pronounce some of the sounds which they have difficulty. They take time to learn, but they do in course of time.

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      pessimist 21 months ago

      I appreciate your article and its intention. However, it is very obvious that you are keen to make a group of people some kind of a laughing stock . I am pretty sure that the majority of the snobs among English speakers will not be able to speak Malayalam or any other Indian language fluently even if they try for a long time. Try to be open and accepting before you stereotype people.

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