This post should have come 1½ years ago, but Linguistrix wasn’t extant back then, and I only remembered this yesterday as a friend professed his love for Shahrukh Khan. And this needs to be on Linguistrix.

You all know the routine.  The one time linguistics is mentioned in mainstream cinema, and it’s just plain wrong. If you’ve seen the movie, you’d know that the character Shahrukh plays makes a big deal about the fact that his name isn’t pronounced correctly, specifically the first sound. It’s KHAN, KH, KH, KH, from the epiglottis, you morons, he says, more than once in the movie—without the moron bit of course, though I won’t put it past him.

Let’s have the facts first. Don’t be scared by the terminology; I’ve explained it in detail. The kh sound in the word Khan (Urdu: خان Hindi: ख़ान) is what is described as an unvoiced velar fricative. The IPA symbol for this sound is [x].

Unvoiced means that the vocal chords don’t vibrate while producing this sound. Velar implies that the region of production is the velum or the soft palate, shown in the diagram below.

Finally, fricative means that this sound is produced by constricting the flow of air through a narrow channel, causing turbulence—in this case, the narrow channel is that formed by the back of the tongue and the velum. Other sounds pronounced at the velum are [k] and [g], two common sounds found in many languages of the world.

Fricatives are very common in English (s as in sit, z as zebra, ʃ as in shut and ʒ as in pleasure, f as in fat, v as in very, h as in hat, θ as in nothing, ð as in father are all fricatives), but not so in Hindi, where we have only three fricatives sounds (ʃ-श/ष, s-स, h-ह).

Since this sound is part of Urdu phonology but not really part of native Hindi phonology (except probably in areas where Urdu is also prevalent, such as Lucknow), most Hindi speakers don’t pronounce it, saying the aspirated velar stop [kʰ] instead, written in Hindi as ख. Singers and actors who are trained to pronounce Urdu words correctly do pronounce it (listen to Amitabh Bachchan, for instance).

All this information is available on Wikipedia, of course, and it couldn’t have taken more than 15 minutes (including booting and shutting down time) to find it. The guys over at MNIK did a lot of research into Asperger’s so that Shahrukh could do the role realistically. Some linguistics would have helped too. It would be better still if language teaching in schools involved some teaching of phonetics instead of just making students memorize wrong definitions of nouns and verbs, and convert compound sentences to complex sentences or simple sentences, or similar pointless calisthenics.

Now, don’t say I am ranting just like that. Since he repeats it so often in the film, this bit of linguistics general knowledge now has become mainstream, and people have now begun to use it in everyday life. Here’s what a blog says about some song:

the song is good but the way they say aankhen or aankhon se sounds bad as they say it like ‘Khan,’ from the epiglottis, which is not the way.

In general, though, I wish Bollywood didn’t try to make fundae movies. I mean, we’ve obviously had good ones like Black and Taare Zameen Par, but, in general, when these guys try to make movies about issues, I twitch. Look at Three Idiots, a hopelessly unrealistic picturization of a supposedly real problem. Or Dostana, which makes homosexuality look like a joke that poor, tharki men come up with to get cheap accommodation.[1]

Entertain us, don’t teach us. We have Wikipedia for that.

P.S. Watch Shaitaan

[1] I know Three Idiots did some good. And I know Dostana did help make a taboo issue become talk-able, but I wonder why it always has to be done in such a clumsy way