Would you like to share a final vowel?

There was an interesting post yesterday over at Language Log (by newest Language Logger Ben Zimmer) about the “perilous portmanteau” that people have been using as a nickname for Supreme Court nominee Judge Samuel Alito: Scalito, a blend of (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia and Alito. There has been a flurry of discussion about this blend in the news and on several blogs, much of it linked from Ben’s post. Here I’d just like to focus on the third update to Ben’s post, part of which reads (emphasis added):

Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard also takes offense at Scalito: “The nickname is misleading. The two men may share a vowel at the end of their last name. But, needless to say, they’re different people.”

At first, I’m thinking: this is so off the mark! Scalia and Alito share the whole VCV sequence ali, which is towards the end of Scalia and at the beginning of Alito. [Added later: another, perhaps better way to put it is that the first two syllables of both names includes the ali sequence, which is rhythmically identical in both cases.] That’s what makes the blend work (as a blend, putting aside how you might feel about its use). I had to read more of Continetti’s article in order to find out what he really meant.

Luckily, I didn’t need to go further than the very next paragraph, where all became clear:

I, too, in case you haven’t noticed, have a vowel at the end of my name, and so I find myself obliged, as a strange point of ethnic pride, to point out Scalia and Alito’s differences.

Continetti’s point seems to be that having a vowel at the end of your (last) name more or less identifies you(r name) as being of Italian (or at least “ethnic”) descent. I’m not suggesting that we hold Continetti to this point (at least not phonetically, where it’s easily counterexemplified by “non-ethnic” names ending in phonetic [i], orthographic ‘y’), but I do wonder why he chose to focus on a phonetic/orthographic fact about the two names that has nothing to do with the blend itself, nor with the main point of the article (the differences between Scalia and Alito as people and as judges). The only think I can think of is that it was just a strategy for inserting himself into the equation; the second quote above might as well read: “As a fellow Italian-American, I find myself obliged to make clear the differences between these two judges, who just happen to both be Italian-American.” So why even mention the final vowel business?

[Update: Ben Zimmer continues the discussion of “Scalito” here.]

6 thoughts on “Would you like to share a final vowel?

  1. Bob Kennedy

    I’m zeroing in on the [i]-final topic, despite that neither Scalia nor Alito fits the bill.

    “at least not phonetically, where it’s easily counterexemplified by “non-ethnic” names ending in phonetic [i], orthographic”

    I’m guessing you meant for a [y] to end this clause. But, despite my own [i]-final “non-ethnic” last name, I’m wondering if there are any counterexamples. The orthography may be enough to confound it, assuming in part that anyone who associates a name with a non-Anglo ancestry also knows how to spell the name in question.

    What might be more of a tip-off is the stress pattern – anything [i]-final with non-initial stress sounds ethnic; e.g. Morelli, Continetti, Pirelli. But by accident the same set of surnames is coextensive with surnames spelled with final “i” rather than “y”. Names spelled with final “y” are either trochees (e.g., Kelly), dactyls (e.g., Kennedy, Connelly), or (um) the-one-with-middle-stress but including an onomastic prefix like M(a)c or Fitz (e.g., McCauley).

  2. Bob Kennedy

    I think I left out my main point in the previous comment, which was this: it may be possible that Continetti knows there are linguistic ways to detect the “ethnic” (i.e., non Anglo-Irish) origin of a surname, and he might also have ways of doing so without relying an orthography (that’s what I put across in the previous comment), but he can’t speak about it in any other terms than orthography.

  3. Ben Zimmer

    Surely “people with vowels at the end of their names” has long been code for “Italians” or “Italian-Americans”. A Google search turns up hundreds of examples (e.g., “When [Mary Cacioppo] told the Democratic Party chair that she would like to run for office, she was told that people with vowels at the end of their names did not get elected.”)

    The vowels are understood, orthographically, to be ‘a’, ‘i’, or ‘o’. OK, sometimes ‘e’. Those are far more “marked” than Anglo-Irish names ending in ‘y’, hence easy to identify as “ethnic”.

  4. Bob Kennedy

    Ben, I’m not sure if you were replying to Eric’s post or my comments to it, but if you were replying to my comment: I agree that “people with vowels at the end of their names” is code for “Italian American”. I was just trying to test Eric’s suggestion that phonetic counterexamples (i.e., truly vowel-final but non-Italian surnames) would be easy to find.

  5. Eric Bakovic

    First, Bob’s right, I meant to write “orthographic ‘y'” but originally tried using angled brackets, which is code for HTML (though not in the same way that “people with vowels at the end of their names” is code for “Italian-American”). That’s been fixed.

    More substantively: Bob’s also right that “non-ethnic” names ending in vowels are generally limited in the ways he outlines. I find the rhythmic generalizations particularly interesting: just shifting the stress in Kénnedy to the penultimate syllable (Kennédy) makes it sound “more ethnic”.

    This reminded me of the name “Kennelly” (the last name of a former grad student at Rutgers and was then known as “Brenda Kennelly”, who then moved on to Utrecht and is now known as “Sarah Kennelly”). I believe the name is Kennélly, with penultimate stress; moreover, Kénnelly sounds odd to me for reasons I just can’t put my finger on. (I’ve always assumed, though perhaps incorrectly, that this name is “non-ethnic” just as “Kennedy” is.)

  6. George Gibbard

    On the stressing of non-ethnic names — the beginning of a paper by
    Anthony Dubach Green

    “While the Irish dialects of Connacht and Ulster show initial stress on almost all words, in the Munster dialect, stress is attracted to heavy syllables (by which we mean syllables containing a long vowel or a diphthong, not CVC syllables) in a complicated manner.” The first piece of data given is that if the second syllable is heavy, it is stressed, even if the first syllable and the third syllable are heavy too. According to another site, the Gaelic form of Kennedy is ó Cinnéide, where the Kennedy part means ‘helmet headed’, so presumably both this name and Kennelly would be stressed differently in different parts of Ireland.

    Incidentally, the same site says Buachala (ending in a vowel!) means
    ‘cowherd’ and is Anglicized as Buckley.

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