Speak flatly, please

The Washington Post this week published an article entitled “Accent on Higher TV Ratings” about how the Spanish-language television network Telemundo has been gaining on its rival Univision by, among other things, teaching “its actors — whether they hail from Cuba, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru or Chile — to speak like Mexicans. Mexican television news anchors, to be precise.”

(This article came to my attention via LINGUIST List.)

I’m intrigued, mostly because I’m curious to see how Mexican Spanish is characterized and compared to other varieties. The article continues:

Telemundo has been employing on-set dialogue coaches to “neutralize” the many national and regional Spanish accents of the network’s actors.

You have to wonder about the quotation marks around the word neutralize. Is the author of the article reporting someone else’s use of this word? Or are these scare quotes, used to draw attention to the fact that this word is full of connotations that may or may not be intended by the author?

I think that we phonologists in particular may have too neutral a sense of what neutralize means. Most readers of this article will think that it means that Mexican Spanish is “normal” and that all other accents are “national and regional” bastardizations of this norm. This interpretation is reinforced throughout the article, where Telemundo execs are reported to say that Mexican Spanish is “well-paced, accent-free patter”, that it’s “accent-neutral”, that it “hits a middle ground between Colombian Spanish” (“too fast and terse”) “and some Caribbean accents” (“too slow and imprecise”), and that it “is the broadest-appeal, easiest-to-understand Spanish — if Telemundo’s coaches can iron out its typical sing-song cadence.”

The message is that Mexican Spanish is the best, but still not perfect — too sing-songy, whatever that means. And here’s what Telemundo is doing about that:

Telemundo employs veteran Mexican actress and producer Adriana Barraza, who drills the network’s actors on accent. She focuses on an accent’s “melody,” attempting to make it “musically flat,” she explained in an e-mail translated into English by Telemundo staff. […] Argentine and Uruguayan accents are the hardest to flatten, she said. But an apt student from any country can make the transition to Mexican-neutral in 15 days.

We’re not just talking intonation here, though:

[Barraza] tries to standardize the way actors pronounce their vowels and consonants, which vary from country to country. For example, in Argentina, “pollo,” Spanish for “chicken,” is pronounced “pojz-joh,” where in Cuba it sounds like “po-eeoh.” Barraza tries to get everyone to say the universally understood “poh-yoh.”

OK, for those not familiar with Spanish dialect phonology: the problem here is that intervocalic /j/ has some degree of frication in all varieties of Spanish — relatively more in Argentinian [ˈpoʒo], and apparently relatively less in Cuban [ˈpojo] (though I’ve never heard of this). The “universally understood” form, I suppose, could be transcribed [ˈpoʝo].

A lot of the article is devoted to talking about the business of Spanish-language television and the numbers (market share, etc.), the implication being that deaccentification is at least partially responsible for Telemundo’s recent rise in popularity. Univision doesn’t appear to be moved, however:

Accent-scrubbing can have its downside, Univision said. Univision appreciates “that our talent should maintain the essence of who they are, and not abandon their valuable uniqueness and individual culture and heritage they bring to their role at Univision,” Univision President Ray Rodriguez said via e-mail.

But earlier, the article had noted:

Univision encourages accent-free Spanish among its actors, even if it does not enforce it as Telemundo does.

Makes you wonder how the encouragement at Univision happens. “Hey, Hector, what’s happening. Yeaahhh, um, listen, ahhhh, we sort of have a problem here. You know that accent you’ve got? It’s just that it’s kinda grating on the audience and we’d kinda sorta like you to get rid of it, mmmkay? If you could just go ahead and make sure you do that from now on, that would be great …

Meanwhile, at Telemundo: “Idiot! It’s [tusˈoxos], not [tuhˈoxoh]! No soaps for you!