How hard can it be?

The LA Times has a story by Steve Lopez this morning about how local voters have trouble pronouncing the name of mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa. Transparently it’s a practical issue, if indeed the name is such a challenge. If you read only the headline and first few paragraphs, you’d believe voters want leaders whose names are easy to pronounce. Read a little more, and you discover what the piece ought to have mentioned a little earlier: the more pressing issue is the willingness of voters to vote outside ethnic lines.

Los Angeles isn’t ready to embrace a Latino for citywide office, said Cardenas (KAR-day-noss), who also happens to think Hahn is better on policy details than Villaraigosa. Cardenas was sitting with Councilman Alex Padilla (pa-DEE-yah), who predicts a narrow win for Villaraigosa, but agreed that a Latino candidate had to jump hurdles like an Olympic champ.

If you’re like me, you’re annoyed at the crappy phonetic (fo-NEH-tick) transcriptions given for the comparatively more mundane names, Cardenas and Padilla, and the deliberate omission of a similar device for the subject. Read more, and you’ll encounter speculation that Latino names seem more palatable (to voters) when they could be mistaken for Italian names.

Hold on. Where do these claims come from? I suppose, knowing the prejudices some people hold, that it might be true (a) that Villaraigosa really is hard to pronounce, (b) that this may be a detriment to the candidate, and (c) that non-Latinos are more accepting of Italian names than of Spanish ones. What would be nice is a survey or even just a focus group to suggest that these issues generalize to the population.

Turns out, as the story explains, Villaraigosa is a blend of Villar and Raigosa, the last names of Antonio and Corina, respectively, prior to their marriage. I’m calling it a blend since the two components share the [r]; the fact that it’s a blend rather than a hyphenated compound (e.g., Villar-Raigosa) might make it troublesome for Latino voters too. Being a linguist I hazarded a guess of [(Vì[y]a) ra (gósa)], but me and the other phonolobloggers might be at an advantage here. I think its biggest obstacle is its syllable count, which could be as high as five, creating numerous stress and foot structure options.

Apparently I was not far off – the piece does offer a fo-NEH-tick rendition, as below:

It’s Villa, as in tortilla.
It’s Rai, as in rye bread.
And Gosa, as in Sammy Sosa.

So the middle syllable, according to this, does not have a reduced vowel in its Anglicized form: [(Vì[y]a) (rài) (gósa)]. This stress pattern hardly seems difficult – it’s the same as aerodynamic.

A quick trip to a local NPR station (with a detour to install Real Audio) brought me to this clip, in which the name is consistently shortened to four syllables: [(vìra)(gósa)]. This is a slight head-scratcher – clearly different from the five-syllable form, but also not seemingly difficult. What’s the big deal?

Anyway, aside from missing a chance to clarify the obvious – that Villaraigosa’s own pronunciation of his name is not the same as what is locally standard – the piece nearly leaves you with the implication that, you know what, maybe some long names aren’t so tricky after all.

But it ends with a punchline: That’s a lot to remember, but it could have been worse. Corina’s last name could have been Huitzilopochtli. Which I guess is funny, and a whole lot harder than Villaraigosa for an English or Spanish speaker to produce. But given the prior references to ethnicity and language contact, I couldn’t help but read this as basically xenophobic, that we should all be relieved that we hardly ever have to deal with Aztec names.

One thought on “How hard can it be?

  1. Pingback: There’s a pattern here to see » Linguistic candidate coverage

Comments are closed.