I was intrigued by this recent NY Times article about two newly elected members of the Hong Kong legislature and their anti-China protests during their swearing-in ceremony. What’s particularly fascinating is how both of them pronounced China as /ˈtʃiː.nə/ , and how it instantly infuriated Beijing (this despite all sorts of other apparently anti-Beijing activities happening at this oath-taking event). Sixtus, the young man in this video, later blamed it on his poor English accent, and did so in perfectly fluent English. The Chinese government, it seems, perceives the aberrant pronunciation as a slur from the time of the Japanese occupation.
This is the first time I’m hearing of pronunciation being used to mark protest. I am , however, familiar with the sentiment, because I’ve been doing something similar subconsciously for a while. A lot of Indian place names have been officially renamed over the last two decades to make them sound (allegedly) more Indian. Like a lot of people, I use the old Anglicised pronunciation out of habit, but never with any kind of consistency. I have met language chauvinists who’ve corrected me subtly reformulating my pronunciation or explicitly pointing out my dirty elitist, colonial ways.
I now use the Anglicised pronunciation intentionally, even with people who I reckon it’ll provoke. I think it’s great that place names are pronounced in ways that reflect the culture that shaped it in the first place. But what I take issue with is the empty populism of politicians who fritter away public money that could have been spent on more pressing needs like health, education, sanitation, and hunger – yes hunger – on meaningless name changes and all the associated costs that entails.
So if you live in India, here’s a thought experiment for you. Over the course of a fortnight, keep a record of which of the following you use and in what situations.
Bombay or Mumbai
Madras or Chennai
Poona or Pune
Calcutta or Kolkata
Bangalore or Bengaluru
Cochin or Kochi
At the end of the fortnight, analyse the results. Do you for example use Bombay consistently with your friends but Mumbai at work? Do you (like a lot of people I know) use Bangalore and Cochin all the time but can’t bring yourself to say Madras? Is it because Chennai is a totally new name and not just a different pronunciation? If you haven’t made a clean break from the old names to the new ones, what’s your reason for favouring some from the old lot and others from the new one? Or are you, like me, using pronunciation as a form of low-level protest?
If you’re not from India, I’m curious about whether you have any parallels in your own culture or region where you feel pressured to pronounce a word in a certain way and the impetus to rebel.