Sunday, February 25, 2018

Is cancer ever prostrate?

We have a knack in Trinidad and Tobago for pronouncing words in our own peculiar way. Unfortunately, too often we spell and write them so as well. And I am not referring to Trini per se (or Tobagonian) dialect which we use among ourselves, naturally and legitimately. I am referring to unwitting modification, for lack of a better term, by addition, substitution or transposition. A number of examples would illustrate this proclivity.

How many times have I heard of "prostrate" cancer, which leads one to wonder whether the cancer is in a prostrate position or whether it renders the victim prostrate, which it does in many cases, particularly if treated too late. This is a classic case of modification or transformation by addition whereby the letter "r" is added to "prostate", the correct word in this context.

The word "film" is pronounced "flim" by some people, in effect transposing the letters "i" and "l". Granted this and the other similar faux pas are not made by the more literate among us but too many people, who should know better, pronounce the popular Nissan car "Cefiro" as "Cifero", transposing the "e" and "i". This is odd, to say the least, because the name of the car is displayed on the trunk lid in clear letters. One can try to get into the Trinidadian mind, to analyse the psyche, and come up with the possible explanation that "Cifero" sounds stronger than "Cefiro" and is therefore subconsciously thought to be more fitting for the car which is at the higher end of the Nissan range. Farfetched maybe but in fishing for an explanation it is possible.

Another example of transposition occurs with ginseng, which is often pronounced as "gensing" by way of transposition similar to the modification of "Cefiro" to "Cifero". There should really be no excuse for this mispronunciation as Ginseng Up is a popular drink, well-advertised in various media. However this particular transposition is somewhat understandable, but only marginally so, as it may be explained by the fact that we are accustomed to so many words in English ending in "ing" that instinctively we choose it.

It would be interesting, however, to know how the pronunciation of El Socorro as El Sicorro came about, in effect substituting the first "o" by an "i". This is particularly baffling because El Socorro is a well-known district in Trinidad and El Socorro Road is even more so, being a very busy street where many people buy automotive parts and accessories. And, unlike many streets in Trinidad and Tobago it is well signposted. Try as I might, no amount of national psychoanalysis could provide me with an explanation for this one.

El Socorro Road is in the town of San Juan which is pronounced, or rather mispronounced, in more ways than any other town in the country. It is a Spanish name but the most popular local pronunciation assumes it is French, which can possibly be explained by the prevalence of French names in the country and the fact that French Créole (more popularly known locally as Patois) was once the dominant "language of the streets" and was spoken by a large percentage of the population in Trinidad a few generations ago.

A classic case of modification by substitution is the pronunciation of the word "chiggers" as "jiggers". Chiggers, as the older folk among us would know, are a small type of mite whose bite causes itching and may also cause a rash and swelling. They often lay larvae in the skin, particularly between the toes, which tends to aggravate and perpetuate the problem.

I grew up in Sangre Grande and when I went to primary school many of the poorer children, boys for the most part, came to school barefooted. Some of them had chiggers. Many of them didn't appear to be too discomforted and some even seemed to enjoy the itching which they described as a sweet scratch. The condition wasn't that severe as it seemed to disappear without too much effort on the part of the sufferers.

Most younger people today don't know about chiggers but virtually everybody knew about them up to the 1960s when they were effectively eradicated. As with the El Socorro story I can't figure out this mispronunciation either.

There are instances when phonetic transposition is required such as in the words "ire" and "Ireland" where pronunciation requires transposition of the "r" and "e". Therefore the name of the country is pronounced "I-er-land" not "I-re-land". My sister-in-law, whom I first met when I was six, is Irish and visibly cringes at the mispronunciation of the word. Moreover I was educated in high school by Irish priests and I am sure I would have had to go to confession if I had committed such a sin.

Let me leave you with one that many people don't know — the road from the Eastern Main Road to Mount St Benedict is St John Road not St John's Road. Allow me to explain why I think "St John Road" is the correct name.

In 1977 I was negotiating to lease a parcel of land in St Augustine and came upon an official original cadastral sheet on which I saw the name St John Road. Initially I was a bit taken aback and thought that it was a mistake but on further reflection it seemed correct and logical as the names of most other streets and towns don't have an apostrophe. For example the main street in Port of Spain is Frederick Street not Frederick's Street. Prior to my leasing the land I used to say "St John's Road", as many people do in Trinidad and Tobago, including the sign erected by the Regional Corporation. Ironically St John Street, not far away in Tunapuna, is correctly signposted.

• Clement Imbert is

Professor of Engineering in

UWI's Faculty of Engineering

at St Augustine