Since everyone and their grandmother is busy listening to Why this Kolaveri Di for the 4157th time in 3 days (What! You haven’t heard it yet? Get out from under that rock already!), I thought I’d write this short note on a couple of points of linguistic interest in that song.
Apart from the extremely catchy tune that refuses to get out of your head even when you are asleep (I am sure loads of people have this song running like a sinister background score in their dreams), one of the things that make this song fun is of course the strongly Tamil accented English. Someone around me wondered why the heck most of the words in the English transcription terminated in -u when what he was saying sounded more like -uh (अ). In Tamil phonology, this sound is usually the unrounded high central vowel*, a default vowel that’s often inserted at the end of consonant ending words (there’re some phonological rules that govern the insertion, but I don’t know what they are), and which sounds more or less like an -uh (अ) to our ears. The letter used in Tamil for this is a cognate of the letter for u in Hindi (just like the sort of awe sound in Bengali is the cognate of the Hindi -uh (अ) sound).
Many Tamil speakers carry this even when they speak English or other languages—waiters in Mani Lunch Home (a great place for a Tamil meal in Matunga) shout Side-u Side-u Side-u as they hurriedly carry trays full of plates full of delicious rasam and sambhar.
Last month, in my post _Poschim Bongo_, I discussed how transliteration is a rather complicated issue, and now you can see why. When Tamil is transliterated in English, they use the letter ‘u’ to represent a sound, which Tamil speakers will pronounce the way they’ve got to, but other people will read as the vowel [u], which sounds completely different. This is often a major impediment in language learning. People stick to their versions of transliteration schemes so religiously that they often ignore something much more important—the way a native speaker is talking. I notice this often in my Chinese course. Pinyin is not the same as traditional English translation of Hindi words, but people end up reading it as if they were reading Hindi words written in English. Disaster.
Now that we are talking of peculiarities of Tamil phonology, a common feature in many dialects is the epenthesis (systematic insertion of a consonant or vowel sound) of the _y_ sound before non-low front vowels (like [i] and [e]) and of the _w_ sound before non-low back vowels (like [u] and [o]) in the beginning of a word. I think this applies to Telugu too (thus making enna into yenna and okati into _wokati_) (someone please correct me if I am mistaken). So that explains why your English teacher said stuff like Ye, Yef, Yel, Yem, Yen, Yes etc., to the amusement of many.
P.S. I have little knowledge of South Indian languages. If there are any factual errors, please put them in the comments section or mail them to me directly at antariksh on the domain linguistrix.com
P.P.S. The lyrics of this song is worse than Rebecca Black’s Friday’s ever could be. For the last time, stop blaming that song for its lyrics.
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*Thanks to Prof. Vaijayanthi Sarma for the clarification