14 May 2010

thought / taught

I was recently reading a book (written by Edison John) about Racha Umong, a member of the Lun Bawang tribe from eastern Sarawak state who become a Christian pastor and was eventally elected as a state and then a federal representative of his people. The book is nicely written, and it has few grammatical flaws; but I was momentarily caught out by the following, about the guidance that Racha received from his father Umong:Presumably, thought is a mistake for taught.

This error is easy to explain: in Malaysian English (as well as the English of Brunei and Singapore), there is often no distinction made between /θ/ and /t/, so words like three and think are regularly pronounced with [t] at the start. As a result, thought and taught are likely to be homophones, and writers may get confused between the two.

This conflation of /θ/ and /t/ is reinforced by borrowings into Malay: terapi ('therapy'), teori ('theory'), tema ('theme'), and metanol ('methanol') are all written with 't' rather than 'th' and are pronounced with [t], so it is not surprising if these words also get pronounced with [t] in the English spoken in Malaysia.

One might note that distinguishing between /θ/ and /t/ helps people to avoid errors in their writing. On the other hand, there are plenty of homophones that writers need to learn to distinguish, such as there and their (which lots and lots of people around the world confuse all the time), so perhaps adding a few more is not such a big issue. Furthermore, failure to distinguish between /θ/ and /t/ is so common in this region that it is doubtful if it causes too many conversational misunderstandings.