Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

May 12, 2005

Speaking Foreign Words in English

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:13 pm

Joe of Joe’s Dartblog has an interesting post on the pronounciation of foreign words used when speaking English.

John Derbyshire is exactly correct. If you are from an English-speaking nation, you speak English. If you speak English, you pronounce foreign words as standard English pronunciation would dictate. Therefore, the correct pronunciation of ‘latino’ is LAT-in-oh, not La-TEEN-oh.

Now, I have to admit that I completely agree with sentence #3. However, I’m a native speaker of English, and a fluent speaker of no other language, and I have never in my life heard anyone pronounce “latino” as LAT-in-oh. As far as I’m concerned, the correct pronounciation — in English — of “latino” is la-TEEN-oh. Maybe it’s because I’m from California, and Joe is from New York, but I’ve lived in four different states and never heard anyone say “LAT-in-oh.” In fact, I hardly ever even hear the word at all outside the Southwest.

This brings to mind an article I read a few years ago, by Jay Nordlinger, entitled “Gutter Politics,” which states in part:

I’m not going to say “gutter.” That’s what we’re supposed to say now, instead of Qatar — instead of “Qa-TAHR.” It’s the latest thing. From time immemorial — defined as the moment of my birth on — we’ve said “Qa-TAHR.” All red-blooded Amurricans say “Qa-TAHR.” But the other day, I even heard Condi Rice — the otherwise unimpeachable Condi Rice — say “gutter.” I almost busted a gut.

If you start to go native on the pronunciation of foreign capitals and other places, there’s no end to it. None. I called up the Qatari embassy in Washington. The receptionist answered, “Good morning, Embassy of Qa-TAHR.” I smiled. I then asked — this was a native — how Qataris (“gutterees”?) pronounced the name of their country. She said “gutter,” or something close. But one gets the feeling that she wouldn’t say “gutter” when speaking in English. Neither would an American say “United States” instead of “Etats-Unis” when speaking French.

There was a followup to this a few months later:

Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes interviewed the Emir of Qatar himself the other day, and, lo and behold: While Bradley duly said “Gutter,” the Emir — speaking in English — said “Qa-TAHR.” Which is perfectly natural, because “Qa-TAHR” is what you say when speaking English. But CBS News was trying to be more gutteree than the Qataris.

(If you’re not laughing by now, re-read that last sentence…)

I remember reading a very long time ago (early 1980s) a letter to the editor in U.S. News & World Report in which someone wrote in to complain about the inherent racism in the fact that we called Japan “Japan.” This back when every right-thinking person was convinced that that country was overtaking the United States both economically and otherwise, that it would soon be the dominating country in the world, and that we in the U.S. had better learn to not only play second fiddle (there, I split an infinitive!), but get used to it. Anyway, he thought it was due to racism that we called it “Japan” instead of “Nippon.” “No other country in the world is denied the right to choose its own name,” he thundered. My first thought was, “You mean like Deutchland? And España?”

Ten points to the first person who can find a video of Ed Bradley interviewing someone from Italy, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Spain, or Switzerland, and saying “Italia,” “Sverige,” “Suomi,” “Deutchland,” “España,” or any of “Die Schweiz,” “Suisse,” “Svizzera,” “Svizra,” or best of all, “Confoederatio Helvetica.”

The fact is, we English speakers are horribly inconsistent about which foreign words we pronounce (approximately) as they are pronounced in the foreign language (“Honduras”), which we pronounce as if their foreign spelling would be pronounced in English (“Paris”), which we do something in between (“van Gogh”), and which foreign proper nouns for which we have bona fide English words (“Italy”).

To one who grew up in California, as I did, this becomes painfully obvious — especially when someone from another part of country who has taken a few Spanish classes comes to visit. On her first visit to Los Angeles (“Loss AN-jl-us” not “Loh-s AN-gheles” — the “gh” being something like the “ch” in the German “Ich” or “×—” ih Hebrew), my then-future-wife saw a street sign (“La Cienega Blvd.”), applied the Spanish pronunciation rules and said “La See-en-AY-ga” — which sounds hillarious to anyone who knows how locals actually pronounce it: “La See-EN-e-ga.” Which is indeed correct Spanish, since in Spanish it’s actually spelled with an accent mark over the first e (“La Ciénega”) — only problem is, the street sign is “in English” and we don’t have accent marks in English. The same thing happened later when we got to Sepulveda Blvd., which is not pronounced Se-pul-VEED-ah, but Se-PUL-v-da — due to the fact that it’s pronounced that way in Spanish, in which it is spelled Sepúlveda. You might think from these examples residents of Los Angeles pronounce street names consistently — that is, correctly in Spanish — until you get to Los Feliz, which is pronounced “Lahs FEEL-iss” instead of “Lohs Fe-LEEZ.” (Even growing up there, for years I heard that name on the traffic reports, and saw the sign, and didn’t realize they were talking about the same street!)

Jay Nordlinger has more examples of inconsistency:

But the general problem persists. Last winter, I was thinking of starting a “Torino Watch.” Why? Katie Couric was broadcasting from the Salt Lake City Olympics, and she was looking forward to the next Winter Olympics, to be held in . . . “Torino,” she said. Why she said “Torino,” instead of good ol’ Turin, is shrouded in mystery. Would-be sophisticates are always saying “Torino” instead of Turin and “Milano” instead of Milan. But, oddly, they don’t say Roma — except “when in Rome,” presumably — and they don’t say “Venezia” (Venice), “Firenze” (Florence), or “Napoli” (Naples).

But there is a point — or several — and one of them is consistency. Katie Couric may swing with “Torino,” but she’d never say “Köln” instead of Cologne, and she probably wouldn’t refer back to the (horrendous) “München” Olympics. Nor would she pretend that the 2004 Summer Games will be held in “Athena.”

And do you ever say Peking? Only when ordering duck, huh? There’s something vaguely right-wing about saying Peking instead of Beijing, isn’t there? I always feel a little frisson of rebellion when I do so. If you wanted to be a real weirdo, you could say Peiping.

Actually, there is some actual geopolitics behing that last one. “Peiking” is the (anglicization of) the Cantonese (Guangzhounese?) name for that city; “Beijing” is the (anglicization of) the Mandarin name for the same city. We starting out saying “Peiking” because the first English speakers to have extensive contact with China were British traders, and their initial contact was mostly with the Canton (Guangzhou) area in southern China (Hong Kong is in this general area). When the Communists took over, they were mostly Mandarin speakers from the North, and they tried to impose their language on everybody. It hasn’t worked all that well — but they did succeed in convincing most English speakers that it was insensitive to pronounce the name of their capital city in a way that reminded them of how their racially inferior (hah!) countrymen in Guangzhou and Fujian pronounce it.

So, I think we should all pronounce it “Peking” as a way to protest anti-Cantonese bigotry on the part of Mandarin Communists. So there!

Joe has one more complaint:

I would listen to WNYC (NPR in New York) every morning. The regional news, anchored by good speaker Soterios Johnson (who is from Jersey), features New York beat reporter Cindy Rodriguez. This girl, who grew up in Texas, should not be on the radio. She signed off every report saying, “For WNYC, I’m Cindy Rrrrod-RRRRigeZZ.” I instinctively stopped short whenever I heard that sign-off; thinking that a rabid raccoon- possibly possessed- had somehow entered my truck’s otherwise mild mannered Bose sound system. But no. It is Cindy Rodriguez, Texan. An English-speaker. Doing a report in English. In New York. About New York.

I’m sorry, I usually agree with Joe, but I have to disagree with that. I think people have the right to pronounce their names anyway they want. If she wants to pronounce it “Rrrrod-RRRRigeZZ” and spell it “Smith” that’s fine with me — as long as she doesn’t get insulted with people with toungues that can’t roll fast enough don’t roll them. In exchange, when you go to Cancún for spring break, you get to call yourself “Joe” or “José” — your choice, not theirs.

By the way — how do you pronounce the name of that most American of cars, the “Chevrolet”? Because I think the French would pronounce it, “Shev-row-LAY” not “Chev-ROW-lett.” ;-)

11 Responses to “Speaking Foreign Words in English”

  1. romy Says:

    … and certainly not “CHEV-row-lay” as your first quoted source might suggest.

    very interesting post. i’ve often wondered why we say “munich” instead of “münchen” – except of course that most americans can’t/won’t *pronounce* “münchen”, so that’s one mystery solved. ;)

    i admit a certain level of gratification on reading the “gutter” points. i too refuse to call a country “gutter.” on the other hand, and about the same paragraph, many french people actually do say “the united states” or even “les states” or “les USA.” it’s a much more manageable mouthful than “les états-unis.” go figure.

  2. Different River Says:

    Fascinating! I had no idea French people would say “les states” or “les USA” when speaking French. But when saying “les USA” do they pronounce the names of the letters as they are normally pronounced in French, or in English?

  3. Different River Says:

    Speaking Foreign Words in English (2)
    Joe of Joe’s Dartblog responds to my response to his initial post on the language issue:

    I do concede that very few people in America pronounce ‘latino’ as LAT-in-oh. But I would hold that that pronunciation is the proper one as far as English …

  4. romy Says:

    “les USA” sounds like “layz Ãœ-Ess-AHH.” you can’t get a french person, while speaking french, to utter the syllables “YOU-ESS-AY.” they would think you were trying to conjugate montaigne. and nobody wants to do *that*.

  5. Different River Says:

    Right. I don’t think “layz Ãœ-Ess-AHH” qualifies as “pronoucing it the way Americans would.” It does count as spelling it as Americans would, but that’s not the same thing.

  6. Different River Says:

    No Freedom of Press in Italy
    Oriana Fallaci is one of the most intriguing writers and journalists of the century (this one or last). She was born in Florence, Italy (or if you prefer, Firenze), and joined the Italian anti-fascist resistance with her father at the age of 10. Afte…

  7. Different River Says:

    No Freedom of Press in Italy
    Oriana Fallaci is one of the most intriguing writers and journalists of the century (this one or last). She was born in Florence, Italy (or if you prefer, Firenze), and joined the Italian anti-fascist resistance with her father at the age of 10. Afte…


    We keep getting told that the whole of Europe is now speaking English,great, but this does not mean that you can ask Parisians for directions to the Eiffel Tower.

    We asked at least 10, before we give up and resorted to drawing a picture of “Le Tower”. Its called Le Tower Eeeee-ffel. As for The Eiffel Tower – no one’s heard of it.

  9. John Says:

    The problem with native pronaunciation is that those international words (capitals etc) must be recognized all over the world with no difficulties. When each country pronounce it different it’s impossible.

  10. Jack Says:

    Alas, city names can be even worse than described above. The Texas town of Mexia, which
    is located southeast of Corsicana, looks like it should be MEX-e-uh in English, or
    me-HAY-yuh in Spanish, but its Muh-HAIR to the locals.

  11. Tom Says:

    Joe is wrong in saying the correct English pronouciation Lat’-in-o and not La-tin’-o.
    The standard, witch means usually, for pronouncing three syllables or more,
    is the emphasis is on the second syllable. So, La-Tin’-o is the correct English pronounciation.
    I know we can all find exceptions. That is why is called a standard and not a rule.
    Have a great day.

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