How Sikhs became Seeks
THE verdict in the 1985 Air India bombing trial, in which both the accused were acquitted in February 2005, was covered extensively by the media in North America.
One radio show, on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, originated from Vancouver, the site of the trial and the city were the accused Sikhs, Ripudman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, lived and which has a fairly large, dynamic, and lately, emotionally divided Sikh expatriate population. Sikhs first arrived in Vancouver aboard the ship Koma Gata Maru in 1914 after a historic voyage across several oceans. A large part of the community has been assimilated into the mainstream Canadian society, and the community's influence as a voting block is seen at the time of elections, and on the occasion of Sikh festivals, when the media announcers do their best to roll their tongues around unfamiliar Punjabi words as they wish the audience "a happy Baisakhi".
In other words, Vancouverites have been hearing the word "Sikh" for quite some time.
A common practice
The guest host for the show for one day, Manpreet Grewal, a local freelance journalist and the name gives it away a Sikh, did a professional job. Except, every time she said the word "Sikh", she pronounced it with the long vowel /i:/ as in "sea". And to think that I often gritted my teeth in silent fury upon hearing non-Indians say "seek" when they meant "Sikh", a practice quite common in North America.
Could this lapse on Ms. Grewal's part, this act of mispronouncing the quintessential word of Sikh religion, be considered a sacrilege, I wondered; akin to someone smoking inside a Sikh holy shrine or a gurudwara. Especially when one of the persons interviewed on air, Dr. Gurmit Singh Aulakh, the president of the Council of Khalistan, a group based in Washington, D.C. that lobbies for Sikh independence, always pronounced the word (he probably came to the U.S. as an adult) as it should be, with the short vowel /i/ as in "sit".
This experience made me listen more closely to other Sikhs. Just a few days later, I heard Shauna Baldwin Singh, a quite competent Sikh-Canadian writer, whose eulogy of Sikh customs and lifestyle in her novel What the Body Remembers turned many readers off, talk about her new novel The Tiger Claw, also on CBC radio. She too, horror of horrors, seemed to be diphthongising Sikhs with the long vowel /i:/.
The more I listened, the more I found the mispronunciation of this noble word, derived from Sanskrit shishya and shiksha, to be hardly an exception. Even highly educated, erudite and well-travelled people, Sikhs and other Indians alike, were committing this act of gross phonetic violation.
Those who do not speak an Indian language may not be blamed for this arbitrary vowel substitution. Lexicographers are leading them astray. Guidance on the pronunciation in several varieties of OED has the entry: Sikh /si:k/ (with the long vowel). Chamber's does the same; so does the pronunciation key to the word in The American Heritage Dictionary. In electronic and CD-ROM dictionaries with audio format, such as Collins, one can hear the same error. Readers will get my drift.
Now about mispronouncing the syllable "kh". Semitic language groups, including Arabic and Hebrew/Yiddish, have the "kh" sound we use in Sikh. In Yiddish, it is represented by the spelling "ch". Any dictionary of English worth its name will tell you that the Yiddish chutzpah, meaning shameless audacity, is pronounced as "khutzpah", with "kh" represented by the international phonetic symbol "x". Guidance on the pronunciation of challah, a bread traditionally baked to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath, has it as /xa:'la:/, with "x" for "kh" and /a:/ for the long vowel (as in arm).
The stiff-tongued who keep pronouncing Sikh as Seek because, they claim, they are unable to articulate the dorsal sound "kh", can be found saying chutzpah and challah with perfect ease. This sound, made with the back of the tongue (k, g), is also found in Scots, a dialect of English language spoken in Scotland, where "ch" in loch (meaning lake), is pronounced as "kh". What else than chutzpah to continue to say Seek!
Other trouble spots
The same cannot be said of Buddha and Gandhi, two Indian words one comes across most frequently outside India. The articulation of "ddh", similar to the sound made by striking a cotton-filled mattress with a stick, is almost exclusive to the South Asian language groups, and quite hard to imitate. Still, both Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries' guidance on pronunciation insist on a "d" for "dh" or "ddh" rather than use the appropriate phonetic symbols, showing no respect as to how these two much-venerated names should be articulated.
It would be interesting to see if the aforementioned Dr. Aulakh falls prey to accommodation, a linguistic process meaning "adjustments made unconsciously to one's speech, influenced by the speech of those they are talking to", or continues to call a Sikh a Sikh.
E-mail the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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