Tell me if you've heard this one
Like a lot of kids growing up in whichever normatively defined periphery of any culture, in this case being a fairly young country in the British Commonwealth, I spent my childhood reading the newspaper diligently, picking up all the textual and subtextual cues on what makes a person a ‘good English speaker’. One such kind of regular columns I would usually find and go to for this kind of intelligence are those written by students currently ‘overseas’ (usually on scholarship). Maybe I won’t myself ever be so lucky to meet these people, but by God if I do, I would not be seen as provincial.
Alongside those columns, there are also the more standard ones covering the nuances of English grammar, which was of course, the mastery of which, is a mark of exceptional intelligence. I don’t know about that, but the more apparent result is usually incredible insufferability. I should know: I was one of those people, which is also another thing that might be familiar to anyone living in the cultural periphery: where the adage ‘knowledge is power’ is quite literal in that any small bit of information of the cultural centre is a sign of class. In this case, the ‘correct’ pronunciation. Anyone can speak English, but can you speak it with the right accent? After all, the accent of your nationality is an immediate mark of a lesser colonial.
If you’ve never met me in real life, these days I tend to have an Americanish accent when I speak international English, but I used to have the most proper Received Pronunciation-slash-BBC English around. Tangentially, that’s also another interesting generational shift in terms of the locus of soft power. My generation and before, if you could, would aim for that generic Southeast England/London accent. The younger ones from around late 1990s onwards would have a clearly Disney/Nickleodeon American, if they can manage it (usually, in SEAsia, you need to hit the mainland up to parts of Vietnam or Cambodia to hear kids with perfect American accents, for uh, obvious reasons. But maybe that’s just my experience with the street kids at the tourist areas).
Where was I going with this… so one time, I was reading such a ‘student abroad’ column, where the columnist related her horror that she’s been using the wrong English. You see, she learned to erase pencil marks with a ‘rubber’. And one day, in class, she dropped hers and asked if her university classmate if she could borrow their rubber. And discovered to her great embarrassment, she’s been asking for a condom!
For a good while, not only was I using ‘eraser’, I was obnoxiously correcting other people about it.
I don’t know if she ever found out that she wasn’t wrong per se, just using an English amongst a different English language group. ‘Rubber’ was perfectly acceptable if you spoke British English or a number of its Commonwealth variants. ‘Eraser’ and ‘rubber’ meaning condom were American.
These days, I don’t really consider ‘knowledge is power’. I think, if you are someone from the periphery (and let’s face it for the purpose of this discussion, we are), knowledge is self-defence. I can’t exert the power of influence, but I can install the protection of history. And when it comes to the frankly exhausting status-validating competition that we postcolonials inflict on each other’s Englishes, it’s practically a necessity. For me, it’s just been a long-running quasi-pastime of learning enough amateur linguistics to know how much of that ‘speak good English’ is bullshit and how much of it, if not good advice, at least interesting information.
So this 'flour' business
Here’s the thing about the pronunciation of ‘flour’: It’s not an easy one, and you definitely can blame French for this. Well, not really ‘blame’ but you can absolutely ascribe what the hell is happening, on the mechanics side of things, to the fact that ‘fleur’ has a vowel pair that has no native English sound. So a lot of the regional variations are attempts to reproduce the sound, which is how, while ‘flour’ isn’t ‘flower’, many accents will have a pronunciation that closely resembles ‘flower’, the actual English word for ‘fleur’, especially if it’s rhotic (i.e. R-pronouncing like most American accents outside their South). (anyway fleur became flour because the processed wheat was metaphorically called the ‘flower of the wheat’, so now you know).
The second thing that was happening is that Received Pronunciation in colonial times was even more non-rhotic than now (or rather, nowadays regional and class accents creep into one’s RP). That’s the English many of us in the colonies were taught in. This RP doesn’t even exist in the UK any more — the Queen in her public appearances maybe but apparently even she’s relaxed her accent in private. In combination to the native tongues, that’s already trying to understand what’s essentially a foreign syllable that itself sits clumsily like a foreigner in that tongue, and especially if the receiving speaker themselves don’t have the same R-rhotic patterns like in Yankee English, you get an even flatter ‘flour’ or flah.
And then what happens is, we poor unsuspecting thirdworlders get our confidence shaken because the monolinguals and inhabitants in the cultural centre, would visibly communicate to us (politely or otherwise) that our ‘flah’ is ridiculous and wrong. So you get this forum thread or this tweet:
dulu pernah kena bash sebab cakap tepung in english, bunyinya flower not flah.— morello (@rdzaminhat) October 31, 2021
But as you can see in the replies in that forum thread, two things: one, there is a regional variation in either pronouncing it as like a diphthong (vowel pair sound) or single vowel; and two, we’re not the only ones (Malaysia & Singapore) to do this. In that thread there’s a South Africa datapoint. Elsewhere on the internet, Indians are busy correcting each other. I can bet other parts of the Commonwealth might have similar episodes. But because we’re peripheral, we don’t usually talk to each other unless mediated by the centre or through deliberate networking effort ourselves. And because I finally have my own blog, and this keeps coming up, I’m writing it down before more links rot away or drowned by SEO (seriously, my googling this time around is handicapped. the first page results are rubbish).
But it’s as much a historical artifact as the rhotic American accents probably resemble older forms of British accents, or the American habit to NOT pronounce the h in ‘herb’ unlike modern British (and that was, again, another French thing). It’s not wrong, and if monolinguals tell us otherwise, then they’re just being jerks and ignorant of their own history.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a video about … bread from the British Pathé:
This was from the 1960s, so the narrator already has 2.5 different ways of saying the goddamned word. The one of interest comes first around the 4th minute mark.
In conclusion, ‘flah’ is fine. Now can we please move on to other things?