Don’t be put off by the tag “Islam” in this title if you’re not a Muslim, and don’t be over-joyous either, if you are, for the journey here would be more educational than it would be religious. By educational, I mean corrective of errors rampant in our spoken English, especially in the aspect of diction. By religious, I mean Islamically sermonising of the dangers endemic in our society of mixing truth with falsehood or good with evil or right with wrong or halal with haram.
As you read this now, you might wonder; what the hell the esoteric reference of the pronominal “our” (as used in the second and third sentences above) is without any anaphoric precedence? OK, don’t run away yet if you’re not a grammar enthusiast; you’re safe, totally safe. I only mean to say that this article attempts to correct some skews in the fast-growing diction consciousness of Nigerians without any religious sententiousness as may be wrongly inferred from the title, but would rather employ the synchronous experience of the latter to quickly correct the developing ailments, as well as prevent the futuristic consequence of the former.
Did I just succeed in confusing you? Yes? I guess. My apologies. Perhaps you shouldn’t be confused. If only you could check back to the first sentence of this “rant” to see that my former refers to education and my latter refers to religion, you would have been guided. The only warning perhaps is to my lazy readers. If you must skip, ensure you don’t skip from the next paragraph onward.
As for the latter, how best metaphorical can I put it without offending the secularism of my non-religious readers or the Islamophobia of my non-Muslim readers that the catalyst of the several distortions of the pristine message of Islam is the Muslims themselves who only read without the guidance of a teacher or a mentor. This ethical disorder is today, superfluously evident in the Nigerian Muslim youth who do not even read (if we must be fair and unbiased to the verb read), talk less of have a teacher or a mentor for proper guidance. The Zuckerberg villa today is replete with half-baked (if at all ever baked) youth who acclaim to themselves Islamic scholarship, thereby spreading cancerous ideology alien to Islam. It is no news that these unguided and misguided reprobates who think they are practising the “best” Islam now practise the exact anathema, so much so that even the non-Muslim are beginning to testify.
As for the former (and this is actually the formal opening of this article), how best tactful can I put it without offending the philistinism of my “non-language enthusiast” that we now have breeds of miscreants in our supposed “diction-conscious” communities. Like their Islamic counterparts, these charlatans who seek to “speak phonetics” by all means, but only depend on textbooks rather than have a formal training in diction or have a teacher or a an instructor for proper guidance are gaining momentum day by day and beginning to distort the pristine message of diction as practised and evangelised by the royal Queen of our colonial Lords.
OK, now, ignore those “rubbish” and nonsense above, If they have been gibberish to you. Without being prodigal with words again, the “lighter” of this article is the misunderstanding, misapplication, “misappropriation”, and “mis-realisation” surrounding the phoneme /ɪ/.
By a superficial gesture, this vowel sound seems to (or at least should) be the least confused of all vowel sounds in English. After all, it is one of the most common in English words, it supposedly has no difficulty as regards its place and manner of articulation, it has a simple equivalence in almost all Nigerian dialects… What’s more?
Unfortunately, these “assumptions” are not true, and the weaknesses are getting more and more exposed.
Generally, vowel sounds are the most difficult of the English phonemes, and there are 20 of them with different levels of errors usually associated with each. There are two major errors commonly associated with this phoneme /ɪ/. The error of the wrong realisation and that of monophthongisation. Now, you can fasten your seat belt for the journey.
From long ago, the vowel sound /ɪ/ has been erroneously deemed as the short version of the sound /iː/. So much ubiquitous is this cancerous knowledge that it might be too difficult to uproot from our heads (especially those of our secondary school students offering Oral English) considering how wide, long, and deep it has spread.
To all intents and purposes, (just as no two electrons in chemistry have the same four set of quantum numbers) *no vowel sound in English is a short or long version of another.* You can keep this in your left hand, as Yoruba would say. In fact, every phoneme is distinct in its place and manner of articulation. This wrong notion is perhaps responsible for the wrong realisation of the sound /ɪ/ as /i/.
Now, this shouldn’t really be a problem, it’s what we’ve been used to as Nigerians. While we can forgive our secondary school teachers for feeding us with the generational mispronunciation, the emerging wave of people (supposedly diction conscious) who now import this phonetic malady into new knowledge of diction is worthy of concern.
The error is particularly evident when people substitute the sound /i/ for /ɪ/ in almost every word that contains the latter, so that words like market, bracket, jacket, toilet, bucket, etc, for example, are now erroneously pronounced as makit, brakit, jakit, toilit, bokit, etc respectively.
Anyone who truly has knowledge of diction would know that this is a great calamity!
Most painful, is that each time this error is committed in a gathering of laymen, it is often hailed like “Bobo yen n so iyalaya fònẹ́”. The worst of it is that innocent students nationwide are beginning to be infested with this calamity. If this goes unchecked with the current spread, the next generation wouldn’t forgive us, and it might require a messiah in the next century to sanitise the “diction community” of the disease.
Let’s involve a little diction technicality to relearn and unlearn, at least for the sake of our unborn children, so that your kids, would not wake up one day, and tell you “Dádì, àṣé kọ́tan kọ̀tan lẹtín kọ́ wa láti ijọ́ yìí”. Remember the way you still blame the previous generations for your errors in English.
First, deconstruct that old notion that tells you that the sound /ɪ/ is the short version of /iː/. They are totally different and not similar at all.
Actually, you would need a teacher to really learn the right pronunciation of the sound /ɪ/, (and in fact, every other phoneme), no textual description can be absolute, and so this article can only serve as a try.
The phoneme /ɪ/ is a short, swift sound, pronounced not as the sound “ee” but rather as the sound “eh”, given by the fourth letter of the Yoruba alphabet— thee without a diacritic. Just like the sound “eh” in the words edé (crayfish), ètè (lip), ejò (snake), ebi (hunger), etc.
This phoneme /ɪ/ is mostly present in words that have the letter i in between two consonants. For example, kit, sit, bit pit, tip, kid, lit, zip, etc. These words are transcribed respectively as /kɪt/ /sɪt/ /bɪt/ /pɪt/ /tɪp/ /kɪd/ /lɪt/ /zɪp/ etc. There is no “i” sound in any of these words.
Now, try to replace the “i” sound (the one you’ve been used to before now) with the sound of the Yoruba letter e in each of these words and you’d get something close to the perfect pronunciation.
If you’ve got that, go back to the words market, bracket, jacket, toilet, bucket, etc described in some few paragraphs above, and replace those wrong “i” sounds there with the Yoruba letter e. Each of those words is correctly transcribed as /ˈmɑːkɪt/, /’brækɪt/, /ˈdʒækɪt/, /ˈtɔɪlət/, /ˈbʌkɪt/ respectively (don’t bother about the right pronunciation of the other vowel sounds there for now).
If you’ve got that too, go to the dictionary and look up any word that has the sound /ɪ/ and pronounce that particular sound as the Yoruba letter e.
Sorry if you’re not a Yoruba, I’m short of a better way of explaining this. Diction is not what one can learn by text alone, it requires both audio and visual references.
One very fact that deepens our problem in English diction is that our local languages in Nigeria do not really distinguish between letters and sounds.
Therefore, we erroneously assume that each letter has just one associated sound and that the former is always the same as the latter and vice versa. As a check, for example, there are just five vowel letters in English, but there are 20 vowel sounds!
This exactly is the problem with the sound /ɪ/ often confused with the letter i. The letter i is rarely realised as the sound /i/ (the “normal” short sound “ee”). One of the most common of such rare cases is the sound of letter y when it (letter y) ends a word (usually adverb). For example, locally, formerly, finally, etc (transcribed as /ˈləʊkəli/, /ˈfɔːməli/, and /ˈfaɪnəli/ respectively). Observe that the last sound in each of these transcriptions is the sound /i/ which is totally different from /ɪ/.
Therefore, those words that contain the sound /ɪ/ such as toilet, gullet, fasted, floated, casket, basket, etc should never be pronounced as toilit, golit, fastid, floatid, kaskit, baskit, etc. This is a pure bastardisation of English words!
Often times, I ask those supposed “fònẹ́ people” who commit this type of error (as a way of punishment, anyway), how they’d pronounce words that contain both sounds /ɪ/ and /i/ side by side or double of each when they cannot differentiate between the two. An example is the word atheist transcribed as /ˈeɪθiɪst/ or nihilism transcribed as /ˈnaɪɪlɪzəm/. Well, not surprised they pick whichever one they like, and “throw” the other away. /ɪ/ is often the sacrificial lamb. That is the way to identify fake speakers of fònẹ́; na them.
Another possible reason for the misplacement of the sound /ɪ/ with /i/ is the swiftness with which the former is pronounced. If you listen to a native speaker pronounce a word that has the sound /ɪ/ and you do not listen carefully, you may think he sounds /i/. This is common with people who only depend on audio aids without background knowledge of the place and manner of articulation of each phoneme.
Sigh! The explanation is been about just one type of error – the error of wrong sound realisation. It would be too exhausting, too boring, and too technical to explain that of monophthongisation in the same article, as this would require an encyclopaedia to achieve.
Let’s put this into practice first, and “evangelise” it. The other revelations may come later. Like prophet Muhammad (SAW) advised, spread the message, even if it is one verse you understand. Spread this gospel too, even if it is the only one you understand now, by so doing, you’d be contributing your own quota to stopping an infected future diction-conscious community.
Like Islam, like diction, stop learning without a teacher!
Yussuf Ayo: (Senior Advocate of the World, SAW) email@example.com
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