Foreign pronunciation

The other night Karen and I had dinner with a couple of friends, one of whom was telling us something about her research involving Latin America. All of a sudden, in the middle of this stream of English, [onduɾas] pops out instead of [hɑndɚəs] (for ‘Honduras’, of course). A little later, I decide to ask her: why does she feel compelled to pronounce a place name like that in Spanish rather than in English? We spent most of the rest of the meal on this topic, which turned out to be more interesting than I initially imagined.

Her immediate answer to this question was what one might expect: Honduras is a Spanish-speaking country, the name is pronounced [onduɾas] in Spanish, and thus this is the correct pronunciation. Putting aside the fact that many Hondurans (or, if you prefer, Hondureños) aspirate word-final /s/, I countered with this: “But you wouldn’t say [paʀi] instead of [pæɹɪs] for ‘Paris’, and you wouldn’t substitute ‘Germany’ with ‘Deutschland’.”

The rest of the conversation went on to reveal the real, and mostly non-linguistic, reasons why one might choose to pronounce place names (and, more obviously, personal names) in some approximation of the original language. Many of these reasons amount to showing respect for people from those places (or with those names). The selectiveness (why Spanish, but not French) has a lot to do with the fact that my friend has Spanish-speaking colleagues and students — her research and teaching interests involving Latin America, as I noted. And finally, Spanish being her second language, my friend just enjoys practicing its pronunciation, and doing so with appropriate words even while speaking English is fun for her personally.

As both dinner and this conversation were coming to an end, though, my friend had a question for me. “So Eric, there’s a fork next to your plate there. Why did you choose to eat your dinner with chopsticks?”

14 thoughts on “Foreign pronunciation

  1. Lisa Davidson

    For a long time after I lived in Barcelona, I insisted on pronouncing my Catalan friends’ names as I would if I were speaking Catalan. Names (especially people’s names, but perhaps also country names) seem to have a special status in some sense. My Catalan friend Ricard’s name is pronounced as [rikɑrd], not [ɹɪkʰɑɹd]. Who am I to reassign his name? Likewise, I always thought it was funny when Catalans called me [lizə] (since orthographic singleton ‘s’ is /z/ in Catalan). In this case, it wasn’t like they couldn’t pronounce my name, but I guess the interference was too much for some of them.

    (I’ve given up on calling him [rikɑrd] these days, but at least I don’t call him “Richard”!)

  2. Bruce Hayes

    I recall from the 1980’s, when my country was attacking Nicaragua, that it was obligatory on our local lefty radio station to break suddenly into full-blown Spanish phonetics (tense /i/, tapped r, etc.) when pronouncing the name of this beleaguered nation. While I fully sympathized with the station’s denunciations of President Reagan’s murderous policies, I couldn’t suppress the feeling that this pronunciation was extremely pretentious.

    Self-diagnosing, I would say that the reason for my feeling was as follows: (a) Shifting phonologies in mid-sentence is virtuosic, and can only be done by skilled bilinguals–I can sort of do it myself, but it distracts my attention from what I want to say. (b) Therefore, the speaker must have been showing off his/her fluent Spanish, arguably with the intent of demonstrating superior solidarity with Reagan’s victims. That’s the part that bothered me–those like me who don’t speak Spanish, but sent their money to the fund for Nicaraguan orphans, were also serving the cause, and there’s no reason that the broadcast should have expressed a snobbish attitude to them.

    Perhaps my feelings were unjust, but the point I’m trying to make is actually about phonology; i.e. that a rapid phonology-switch should be considered a virtuosic display.

    This might explain why Lisa eventually gave up her habit of commemorating her happy stay in Catalonia with rapid accent-shifting–i.e. it was social pressure from monolingual English speakers.

  3. Eric Bakovic

    I have the same feeling as Bruce notes here — in fact, my friend and I talked a lot about what we agreed to call the “showing-off factor”, which for her seemed to be mixed in with the personal enjoyment factor noted in my post.

    At the same time, I share Lisa’s sentiment when it comes to personal names. If someone introduces themselves to me with a non-English pronunciation of their name, I don’t anglicize it if I can help it. I draw the line at personal names, though; place names are pronounced in whatever language I’m speaking.

    Funny that Bruce should mention Nicaragua. I think that the phenomenon of pronouncing this country name with Spanish pronunciation was made fun of a lot in the late 80s and early 90s. For example, in the infamous “Cornholio” episode of Beavis and Butt-head, Mr. Van Dreesen (the hippy-teacher character) is heard to say “Nicaragua”, “El Salvador”, and “Panama” with Spanish pronunciation, and Beavis (as The Great Cornholio) specifically picks up on “Nicaragua”. (The other country names are really only particularly notable for their final stress; I think “Nicaragua” just stands out more.)

  4. Travis Bradley

    I remember from grad school a Catalan course that was being offered one semester. A professor of mine commented that she always noticed people in the department (which was one of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese) giving the language name “Catalan” a Spanish pronunciation when speaking English, e.g., “Hey, I hear Felipe’s [kataˌlan] course is very interesting.” (as opposed to saying it in English. Funny thing is, I don’t think that these same people would have pronounced the names of other languages as in those languages when speaking English, e.g., *I’m satisfying my language requirement with français.).

  5. Lance

    I recall my extemporaneous speaking coach in high school listening to me give a six-minute talk on French politics, mentioning Francois Mitterand and Jean-Marie Le Pen and so forth, and saying afterwards, “Your French pronunciation is terrific. Lose it.” His point being that, when speaking to the average forensics judge, being comprehensible is more important than being correct.

    Of course, we also anglicize, say, the names of popes (did John Paul II really call himself “John Paul”?), and sufficiently old monarchs of Europe (Phillip of France, Catherine of Russian–though not “John” for “Ivan”, I suppose). Indeed, to the point of calling Jeanne D’Arc “Joan of Arc”, even though she was not in any way of Arc, but was the daughter of a man whose surname was “D’Arc”. With modern leaders–you wouldn’t expect to hear a reference to “Francis Mitterand” or “John Chrétien”; of course, I’ve yet to meet an American who pronounces Tony Blair’s first name with the T unaspirated, so I suppose that respect for foreign cultures only goes so far.

    It’s definitely the case, I believe, that a speaker is far more likely to give the proper native pronunciation of a word which is also used in English, such as “Honduras” or “Catalan”, than the speaker is to substitute a native word, such as “francais” or “Deutschland”. That does, though, beg the question of French names: people wouldn’t say “Espana” for “Spain”, but why the anglicization of “France”? (He said, too busy to look up the IPA. Y’all need an IPA typewriter for this blog.) Or “Paris”, say. But on the other hand, when’s the last time you heard anyone refer to “Chartres” as if it were pronounced like the English words “char truss”, as opposed to “short” with a different vowel?

    Conclusion: I’m not a sociolinguist. But if I were, I’d have some much better sense of why you see this kind of variation, with some foreign names but not others anglicized.

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  8. Greta

    I’ve always struggled with this question, and even more so now that I am dating a French man. In the beginning, I erred on the side of calling him [‘æɹ.ɪk] in English rather than [e.’ʀik] in French, mostly because it’s so unnatural to switch stress patterns. Maybe it was laziness and maybe it was fear of seeming pretentious. In any case, one day he asked me to call him by “his NAME”, meaning [e.’ʀik]. So, being lazy, I started compromising – calling him [‘æɹ.ɪk] when speaking English (unless feeling highly energetic) and [e.’ʀik] in French. THEN, ONE DAY his mother heard me call him [‘æɹ.ɪk] several times. She asked whether the [R] sound was too hard for me. The tilt of her eyebrow, and her surprised “mais…” (pronounced [ba:]) when I sweetly responded with a lilting [e.’ʀik] made me change my rules. Now I call him [e.’ʀik] whenever SHE is around and {insert-term-of-endearment-here} otherwise.

    Language is all about politics.

  9. Kevin

    I find American pronunciation of foreign words and place names very unappealing and flat, hence my attempts to pronounce those places I’ve lived or visited and know well (mostly Israel and the Middle East) as people in those places would pronounce them.

  10. William

    I’m experiencing flashbacks of my experience living in a very left oriented group house in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood in Washington, DC in the early 90’s. Several of my house mates habitually shifted in mid-sentence from English to the Spanish pronunciation of a Latin person or place name, especially when referring to Nicaragua or El Salvador. I found this to be irritating, pretentious and PC. I still do. NPR’s Mandalit del Barco comes immediately to mind. While I respect her pride in her Hispanic heritage, as well as her considerable journalistic skills, I find myself turning the volumn down when when she delivers a story. I know. Not very PC.

  11. Martin

    I struggled with the choice between pretentious and wrong pronunciation for years. As a US correspondent, I sometimes needed to pronounce names that don’t come up particularly often in the media of my target country, but when they do, they’re typically pronounced as if by someone who doesn’t know their original pronunciation: Arkansas [ʌɹkʌnsʌs], Utah [utʌɦ], etc. So what does one do? Meet the rather non-existent expectations of the majority, or sound like an ignorant to those who know the American pronunciation — “the idiot’s reporting from the US and doesn’t even know how to pronounce the names.”

    As much as I look down on the pretentious pronunciation when I speak privately, that was my choice in the end — in order not to undermine my potential credibility with those who “know.” In some instances, I actually decided to make ultrabrief references to both pronunciations, along the lines “Chicago [ʃɪka:gɘu] commonly pronounced [tʃikego] in [my language]…” and I went on with the story.

    Hey, I’m innocent! When faced with the options of being seen as either pretentious or wrong, give me pretentious…

  12. name meanings

    There is really no reason to change the way a place name sounds just because you are speaking another language. It can also change the meaning of a place name when it is not pronounced correctly.

  13. Costa Rica Real Estate Prince

    Nice post! I like the humor on the last part when a friend asked Eric why did he chose to use chopsticks rather than fork, LOL! I think one the main reasons why there is such a misunderstanding between two different races is the language barrier. Either one cannot speak the language or cannot pronounce it correctly. Sometimes, it is good to learn other languages aside from English which I believe is the international language. But still cannot help it that there are some parts of the world which are non-speaking English countries and in order to communicate with them, you have to learn their Spanish tongue in particular.

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