April 2, 2010

Fifteen and Fifty

In some English-speaking countries, where English is an official second language, and many documents and business communication in general, is in English, there is an interesting linguistic phenomenon: it is the numerical selling out of the tens and the “teens” which follows the utterance of the number.

Confused by what I mean? OK, let’s go to Singapore or Malaysia. A taxi driver tells you that “The ride to the hotel will be “fif-teeo” dollars. You look puzzled. What is “fif-teeo”?

You mean “fifty?” “No, fif-teeo”, One-Five!” “Oh, I see. You mean fifteen! Now I understand!”

To a Chinese ear there is very little or no perceptible difference between fifteen and fifty. Their language is very syllabic and it emphasizes every phonic pair with s strong stress. So a native Chinese speaker or an almost native speaker of pure Singaporean English still cannot hear the distinction between the two sounds which is very clear to a native American, British or Canadian, Australian speaker.

Fifty- the accent is on the first syllable. The “y” is now a schwa sound. Fifteen=- the accent is on both syllables. So much is clear. To you, that is, but not to the tens of millions of second language speakers out there to whom the difference was obviously never taught in too great a detail.

“How much is a room here?” “Eit- Teoow” dollars”. Again, you look puzzled. “What is Eit-Teeow?” “You mean eighteen? “No, Eight-Oh.” “Eight Zero”. “Oh, you mean” eighty!” Now I see what you mean. I was confused for a while.”

To many former colonial citizens the quite obvious difference in pronunciation between nineteen and ninety, fourteen and forty is completely lost. The Chinese, the Malays, the Indians and even many Africans are speakers of languages that are either tonal or staccato. They simply cannot distinguish the tens of from the “teens” as they are spoken by a native. So, thirteen and thirty are pronounced the same. To avoid the confusion, a digital spell out always follows:

“Sir, this cost seven-teeow, one seven, dollars” (ringgits, takas, etc.)

“I can let you have it for “six-teeow”, zero-six rupees. “

So, when you are abroad, visiting countries where English is the official second tongue, get ready for the confusion which ensues over the very subtle difference between “–ty” and “–teen” which is almost completely lost on the natives. And if you cannot understand, politely inquire whether they mean one-five or five-zero. Because there is after all a big difference between fifteen and fifty and you do not want to pay extra, do you?


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