Spivak's speech; not fair, lady

Pronunciation row between Anshul Kumar and Gayatri Spivak ignites debate

When Horatio Bottomley, MP, called in to see Lord Cholmondeley, he told the butler, “I wish to speak to Lord Chol-mond-ley.”

The butler, without batting an eyelid, corrected, “Lord Chum-ley, sir.”

“Oh, all right,” said Bottomley, who would be a journalist, a journeyman and be jailed for fraud. “Tell him that Mr Bumley would like to speak to him.”

No scene from a P.G. Wodehouse story this, but a real-life encounter that took place in pre-war or inter-war England when old notions of social class and pronunciation were beginning to be challenged. By then Thomas Hardy of the Victorian world had woven a woeful tragedy in Wessex around the d’Urberville family, labelling the wealthy branch as d’Urberville, and the one to which the miserable Tess belonged as Durbeyfield. Wodehouse of a newer world had made Bertie a simple Wooster instead of a Worcester, and George Bernard Shaw, who would notoriously pronounce ‘ghoti’ as ‘fish’, had staged Pygmalion, which was all about pronunciation and social class.

Missed the play? No regrets. Its more delightful filmy version My Fair Lady, starring Rex Harrison and the ever-dear Audrey Hepburn, is still available for downloads and a few LoLs.

Missed the plot? I guess many of you have, in all this talk about social class and pronunciation. All right, let’s get the speech right.

Illustration: Deni Lal Illustration: Deni Lal

How you speak may no longer determine your class, but pronunciation purists continue to haunt the groves of academe. On ‘elite’ campuses, where pronunciation is believed to mirror scholarship, Chumley-Bumley encounters are still being witnessed, giving mirth to most of us but mortification to its many victims.

One such victim is the poor desi sociology scholar Anshul Kumar of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, who had the temerity to mispronounce the name of the black civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois in the majestic presence of Columbia University professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Spivak, who was taking questions from the audience after her lecture, cut him down saying the name should be pronounced ‘do-boys’ since “he is an Englishman, not French”.

As a sociologist, Kumar would have read the 19th century French missionary Abbe Dubois’s Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. The abbe had called himself ‘dub-va’, but hadn’t bothered when the people of Tamilagom called him Dodda Saami. And do pronunciations matter, as long as you have conveyed what you wanted to?

So Kumar went on with his question calling Du Bois ‘dub-va’, but Spivak wouldn’t budge. She insisted that Kumar pronounce the name right, and then only would she entertain a question from him. At which Kumar did a Chumley-Bumley act on Spivak, or what Eliza Doolittle did at the Royal Ascot. He uttered a few uncivil words, made his exit, and trolled Spivak tagging her influential work Can the Subaltern Speak? which critiques the silencing of marginalised voices by patriarchal and imperial forces.

Kumar’s post ignited a debate on social media, setting the groves of academe on fire. Writer Meena Kandasamy, who recounted a similar mortifying encounter with Spivak, argued that correcting pronunciation should be done gracefully, without public humiliation. “To snub someone over their pronunciation, in a hall filled to the brim with people, shows insecurity, pettiness…,” she wrote. Many defended Spivak, saying she was right in insisting on proper pronunciation.

What do we, the billion subalterns, do? Watch My Fair Lady and The King’s Speech, go to bed every night with a copy of Daniel Jones, and hope to get upper-classified some day.