Language use on NPR

In his comment on my recent post on angst, Adam Ussishkin notes this recent piece by NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin on language use on NPR, some of which happens to relate to my two posts last month on foreign pronunciation. Ben Zimmer writes to point to this response to some of what Dvorkin writes in the piece, which Ben found via languagehat. Here’s my favorite quote from the response:

Should we say “Pah-REE” instead of Paris? The former is linguistically correct, but that sounds très pretentious to American ears.
Uh, no. As Language Hat rather patiently points out, those pronuciations are French and English, not right and wrong.

Don’t know if there was meant to be a link to something that languagehat wrote, but a quick search for “french” reveals this recent post, among others.

2 thoughts on “Language use on NPR

  1. Bob Kennedy

    I think there are (at least) two motivating factors at work in the choice of pronunciation for a foreign word: whether the speaker wants to sound native-like, and whether the speaker just wants to sound in-the-know; these aren’t necessarily the same thing.

    It’s most obvious in words that already have an established Anglicization, as all the items in the phonoloblog thread do: Paris, Honduras, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and angst. Saying [ɑ]ngst rather than [æ]ngst somehow marks you as more of a philosopher, while saying P[ɑ]kist[ɑ]n rather than P[æ]kist[æ]n marks you as someone with better than average knowledge of the Near East. I’m not sure if either of these pronuciations is more native-like, but it doesn’t need to be to send the message (although it helps).

    Some of the other examples are more clearly instances of the speaker aiming for native-likeness (to underscore sympathy), like Eric’s Honduras story, and Bruce Hayes’s comment about Nicaragua in the same post.

    Users of non-Anglicized pronunciation can also be blatant about their feelings, like the NPR program director who is “mortified” at the use of MonteVIDeo over Montevi-DAY-o (although M-W lists both pronunciations).

    Adding to the mix is the motivation for adopting a non-Anglicized pronunciation. Some of it can be for the sake of appropriation (like the above cases) while some of it can be for the sake of mock usage.

    I have some unsubstantiated anecdotes to add to the pile; sort them as you like. One is CNN’s Rudi Bakhtiar’s pronunciation of Saddam. I’ve got no recording to back it up, but I’ve heard her render it as [ˈsæt:æm] rather than the more typical [səˈdam]. I don’t know if she still does it, but what was bewildering at the time was the lack of similar treatment for Uday and Qusay, names she readily Anglicized to [ˈɨwdɛy] and [ˈkɨwsɛy].

    A second example is the Anglicization in the title of the musical and movie Moulin Rouge, in which the first word comes out as [ˈmulɑn]. Like the Pakistan and angst cases, this is a use of [ɑ] to sound non-Anglicized, but seems to be a more clear example lacking native-likeness as a goal.

    Indeed, I think [ɑ] (or [a]) stands as the generic foreign vowel for American English speakers, parallel to Language Hat’s theory about [ʒ] for orthographic j. My third example is a relatively obscure item that supports this: There is a Dutch speed skater (and Olympic record holder) named Jochem Uytdehaage. This is another case where I don’t have the audio to back myself up, but I spent most of the 2002 Winter Games within earshot of at least one TV, and I know that one of the broadcasters for the speed skating events settled on [ɑɾəhɑg], in which the only native-like element apparently is the schwa.

    Now the name Uytdehaage looks intimidating to English eyes, but the first vowel (spelled uy) is something like the diphthong in English house. (Hopefully one of the Dutch contributors to phonoloblog can correct me if necessary, or at least confirm that the first vowel is not [ɑ]). But by using the default foreign vowel in the first syllable, the broadcaster was avoiding the trap of spelling influenced [uɾəhɑg]. So at the risk of being detected by a few picky linguists and the occasional Dutch speaker watching the American feed, he uses [ɑ] and sounds informed to the remainder of his audience.

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