SOMETIMES, it’s wiser to pronounce things the wrong way because what we’re after in life, anyway, is to be understood.
Say you want to go to Clemenceau Avenue, go on, say it like it is to the taxi-driver. In other words, CLAIR-man-siew, and please, please, not CLAIR-mon-soh, à la française, in the style of the purist’s perfect French. After all, that avenue was named after Georges Clemenceau (1841–1929), a two-time president of France, who visited Singapore from 17 to 22 October 1920.
Now, go all French on the taxi-driver, he won’t even think you’re being snobby, he’d just give you that blank look, that exasperating “Huh, where you want to go?”
Flour is one of those words. What did you just say? There’s the wrong way (FLAH), and there’s the correct way (FLAU-uh, just like flower). But sometimes, I just forget. That was exactly what happened two Sundays ago when I called a baking purveyor to check if they carried potato flour.
“Potato flower,” I said.
“You mean potato starch?” she clarified.
“No, no, potato flower!”
“Oh, you mean potato flah!” she corrected me.
Then I remembered: “Yes, yes, potato flah!”
And yes, they carried it. Potato flah, hurrah! Rye flah too!
Like most folks in Singapore, I used to be a flah girl for the longest time ever, until 1998, or perhaps 1999, on a summer weekend, out on the patio of my ex’s parents’ home in Long Island, where we gathered for tea with his family. His grandmother was curious how I made my steamed yam cake. Of course, I had to blurt that ‘f’ word, only to be rudely interrupted by my ex, who rolled his eyes and corrected me: “Flower, Viv!” Thankfully, his mother came to my rescue: “Now, stop it! Don’t interrupt Viv.” That didn’t exactly cool the blush of mortification, but there it was, my flower lesson.
So, why do folks say flah, when they should be saying flower? I’m going to hazard a guess: having to articulate that second syllable is just a pain, so why bother? Besides, flour looks, phonetically, more like flah than flower.
That’s pretty lame, so I’ll give you a better reason: it’s not so much why we say flah, but why we should be saying flower. Here’s my friend, Oxford, on the etymology of the word:
Middle English: a specific use of “flower” in the sense “the best part,” used originally to mean “the finest quality of ground wheat.” The spelling “flower” remained in use alongside “flour” until the early 19th century.
Now, one last word on the phonetics for both flour and flower:
(where the bracketed schwa, or the upside down ‘e’, denotes an optional ‘uh’)
So there you go: Same, same, flour and flower. That’s FLAU-uh, where “AU” sounds like the “ou” in “ouch.” That’s right: “ou,” not “ah.”
The only problem is so many of us pronounce flower with a strong, audible “w” (FLAH-wer), accent on the first syllable; sometimes even FLAH-WER, accent on both syllables. But now, I’m nitpicking, so let me back off. Enough already!
The point I was really trying to make is this: life’s short, be merry; say it wrong, make everyone happy.
I invite you to write to me at email@example.com if you have any word ideas you’d like to share.