Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Language and Pretense

With one of my favorite things in the world being language, and one of my least favorite things being pretense, I've got to fire a quick one off this morning before I head down to the gym: President Obama's Latinization of English speech.

Don't worry, this won't be anything political about what we should or shouldn't do regarding the nation of Honduras, but it is a strong-held belief about the way we should say 'Honduras.'

If we were in a coffee shop or diner right now, I could *speak* this entry, but we're not, so you're going to have to bear with me. For a person speaking English, for consistency's sake, an Anglicization of place names is the smoothest, least-pretentious way to speak. So France is "Franse," not "Fraaahnce." In that same vein, Honduras is "HAHN-DUR-US," not the forced "OWN-DURE-US," that we're hearing from our President.

For some reason, people wanting to express some type of sophistication or political correctness feel the need to do this with Latin American proper nouns, even though the same standard doesn't seem to apply anywhere else. Someone would take the "H" out of Honduras, but when could someone speaking with a straight face take the "S" out of Paris? (As they would if they were speaking in that city's mother tongue).

They wouldn't.

They wouldn't over-Germanize words, either. Our language is crawling with German roots and proper nouns of German origin, but I don't see anyone going out of their way to turn "Ws" into "Vs." Besides, even if they that when talking about listening to 'Vagner' or the author 'Max Vay-ber' there's no attempt to put some kind German accent spin on it.

You know why we don't do it?

Because it'd sound silly.

But somehow we can do it with Spanish, and, at least to someone, somewhere, it makes sense. It's not consistent, it doesn't show extra sensitivity or awareness, and quite frankly, it makes the speaker sound like a pompous ass, all the way from here to TUH-GOOSEY-GALPA!


mariannika said...

Love this post!

This is one of my super-huge, drives-me-crazy pet peeves. I find it to be so pretentious. I actually had a conversation with someone who was talking about her trip to "España," complete with a Catalan lisp that shouldn't have been there - "When we were in (Stop. Think. Wait. Ok, now trill it out) Ethsssssspanaya..." etc.

kad barma said...

One possible reason is that Americans aren't always the ones who are listening.

Let's say, for example, we're in a "hearts and minds" struggle against folks like "OO-go SANCH-ez" for influence in Latin America. And, lets say, to the Latino ear, "hawn-der-rus" is a perfectly grating example of Gringo arrogance and cluelessness about the countries in our hemisphere. In that case, a respectfully utilized "own-DU-ras" says a little bit more than just our tin Gringo ears can hear.

It's also worth considering that the strength of English is its propensity to incorporate words and sounds from all languages, and to melt the pot more quickly and easily than any other. For example, already, "our" generation says "TAH-co", whereas, our parents still say "tack-o". Yeah, we might sound pretensious to mom and dad, but I think we're all the better for moving closer together in the middle to where we all might begin to speak the same language.

Or, put another way, my kids have a working knowledge of a lot of Japanese words from their Manga and Anime and related video games, and I think it's nothing but a good thing. Just think how quickly we all learned to say "Dice-K" for D-A-I-S-U-K-E, and how rube-like we consider anyone still tripping over "die-es-sue-key". The pretension, the way I see it, would be to insist on "our" pronunciation, when it's his name, and the world's words.

The New Englander said...


Thanks for adding those examples and points.

Kad, thanks for adding the hearts and minds piece, which might also be why #44 says "PAH-ki-stan" as opposed to the old "Packy-stan". If there's anything we can do to build international goodwill at no cost to us, I'm all about it. For me, the thing that's missing, though, is consistency.

If we're going to put an accented lilt on a name like 'Sotomayor' (again, the written format here is holding this discussion back), I would say let's add an Italian equivalent for names like 'Scalia' and 'Alito.'

With Mariannika's example of the friend who visited "Espana" the word has been changed entirely...again, I *get* it and support the idea of cultural understanding, but the silliness factor comes in clearly when I try to imagine someone saying with a straight face that they had just come back from Deutschland. I've never heard any American do that, and I would have a hard time taking someone seriously if they did..or if they insisted on Munchen and not Munich (at which point I would just be confused).

Also, point well taken about incorporation of words and the 'tah-co' instead of 'tack-o.' Still (again wish we could be saying this in person, would demonstrate) I would say 'tah-co' in the same general accent I would use for the other words in the sentence. The same would apply if I were ordering a "KRAYPE" as opposed to a "KREP." To lilt into some other tongue while speaking would sound about as authentic as me suddenly dropping my 'r' from the middle of words to cop a blue-collar Massachusetts accent, which I would imagine not only make me sound funny, but would come off to someone who 'really' spoke that way as insulting, or at the very least, fake.

I would not ever intentionally butcher a word to show American arrogance, but if Iraq's capital is "BAG-dad" and if France's capital is "PAIR-iss" then I'd keep the "G" in Argentina and say the country 90 miles south of the Florida Keys is "KEW-ba" and not "KOO-ba." And so on..


kad barma said...

How about a few more "for examples" regarding place names:

Who still says "pee-king" now that we know better?

Ever try to ask for directions to "war-chester"?

There's a practical spot where people need to be understood, and it's right in between pretention on the one hand, and ignorant arrogance on the other. We Americans have to face that we are far too often found on the arrogant side of things, and woefully misunderstood as a result, while somehow believing that the whole rest of the world is pretentious for persisting in their belief that Mumbai isn't really, nor has it ever been, Bombay.

To paraphrase Jimmy Kennedy from 1953:

"Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks".

I work in a global company where English is coincidentally the common language. Even my American ears cringe to hear the American butchery against place names and other expressions that cease to have meaning whenever they're pronounced "our" way.

Ironically, it seems to only feed American arrogance and ignorance to have Europeans and Asians for whom English is also their first language adapting to our manner of expression in order to be understood. These Europeans and Asians are smart enough to know that arrogant ignorant American folk are too stupid to understand them any other way, so they "dumb it down" for us, and laugh about us behind our backs.

Among English words I've found most Americans are often unable to use or understand properly, regardless of how prounced would be:

360 degrees -- you know, 180 degrees is actually the other side of the cirle.

Ghandi -- The man's name was "Gandhi".

Hoi polloi -- it's actually Greek for "the common people", meaning that we Americans not only get it backwards, but the "the" we insist to put in front of our use of it is redundant.

Eye-talian, Eye-rack, Eye-ran -- It's It-aly, Ee-rock, Ee-ron.

Hindi/Hindu, Moslem/Islam, etc. etc. etc. -- Hindi is a language. Hindu is a people. Moslem is an adherent. Islam is a religion.

(Americans are so stupid about place and people names that it's no wonder we're reviled by so many in related areas of the world).

Of course, there are still others that we make up and refuse to believe aren't really words at all:




I have friends from own-Du-ras. I have no friends from Hawn-dur-as. If you think me arrogant to respect their word for it above yours, well, then, I'm arrogant.

Just don't expect, on any visit to the place, to be treated any other way but the way you're treating their name for it.

kad barma said...

A few questions for the martially inclined:

Do we go to war with "muh-TEER-ee-uhl", or "ma-teer-ee-EL"?

If a lot of folks use the former, does it make me pretentious to use the latter?

The New Englander said...


Good points, and I like the examples of the things that get switched around all the time or the way words get misapplied...if I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone use "belligerent" to mean "very drunk" I might be able to buy a round..

One question, though -- how would you pronounce the name of the country that sits between the Pyrenees and the English Channel? If it rhymes with "dance" I reserve the right to some good-natured teasing!


mariannika said...


I don't disagree with you but I think there is a difference between being culturally competent, which I totally support, and being a pretentious moron, which I don't.

My friend who went to "España," for example. There was nothing culturally competent about what she was doing - she went to Spain for two weeks and came back speaking English with a lisp because "In España they speak with a lisp and that's proper pronunciation." but she was speaking English, not Spanish (which she could have been doing because I speak Spanish. She, um, didn't). She also "forgot" that we call red wine "red wine" here and ordered "tinto" when she went out. I think (hope?) we can agree that that's not cultural competence, that's being a pretentious moron.

That being said, I think the most important thing is to understand and to be understood. We can't let our ideas of how we think things should be, or what we're comfortable with get in the way good communication - we have to be open to the fact that things aren't just how we perceive them.

BTW, my favorite made-up word? Impactful - it's run rampant in the non-profit community and drives me nuts.

The New Englander said...

Kad (and all others interested in the debate),

I just checked out with a bunch of military logistics folks on the materiel thing. Everyone I talked to (okay, six people does not a scientific survey make) agreed that they said it the second way listed by Kad, but (and this is the key for consistency) in the same accent they would use for all other words in the sentence. No dramatic French pronunciation of the 'r' in materiel.

It's equally sensible as saying the French coastal city of 'Nice' the same way you would refer to your brother's daughter, or not referring to 'Lyons' as you would zoo animals, but where the silliness comes in is where someone is suddenly jumping accents or even languages to show some kind of cultural connection, as in the case of Mariannika's friend.

I'll never refer to Worcester as "Warchester," (as Kad said wisely, that would go against the practical point of being understood) but I'll also never over-emphasize the 'uh' over the 'ur' way that I end the word as a way of saying I understand the city or its people (even if I drive through it on 290 a few times a week and stop for coffee!) Ditto for Mexico, which I'll rhyme with Texaco, as opposed to "MAY-hico."

If people want to say "MAY-hico" I'll respect their right to say it, but will still find it a bit silly and forced...and will respect their right to call me insensitive, and hope we can laugh about it over a beer!


kad barma said...

France ("frantz", not "frahhhnce") is a widely accepted anglicization (anglicisation?) of France ("frahhhnce", not "frantz"), and makes a confusing example because the first is an English word, and the second isn't, even though you can't tell the difference by looking at them.

I agree, things are much more obvious in the case of "Spain"/"Espana". (Please forgive the absence of a tilde, because my American keyboard lacks it). If someone were to say "ess-pan-ya" as opposed to "ay-spahn-yah", I'd say they were getting it absolutely wrong, and not feel the least bit pretentious to say so. After all, Spanish words need to be pronounced with Spanish pronunciation. (The fact that someone might prefer the Castillian pronunciation is hardly the point here, though I will mention that the lisp that sounds so silly to us has a more erudite connotation to the Spanish). Anyway, we here in the US know what we mean by Spain, the same way we know what we mean by "France" without the ahhh, and using a word that doesn't exist in our language ("Espana") is absolutely ridiculous when trying to be understood here, and it's certainly fair game to construe such folk as pretentious.

In that sense, "hawn-der-as" with the English "H" is a lot more like "Peking" and "Bombay" and "Constantinople" than it is "Espana". There really are no such places, and our collective ignorance of where the country of Honduras-with-an-H might be on a map is exhibit A for why that's also a reasonable statement. Of course, to many, the "H", like the "AN" in France, is the anglicized right of all English speakers to have it any way we please. This, to me, is most like my parents talking about eating "tack-o's", and I take that to be a poorer reflection on them rather than a sin of arrogance or pretension on my part.

My friends from there all say "own-DU-ras", (i can't even begin to figure out how to type out the phonetics of the Spanish "R" sound, but, trust me, there's more than just the lack of an "H" and some rounder vowel sounds to the word), and I'm extremely comfortable with the pronunciation that way, and hopeful more Americans will grow to "get it", too.

Yes, it's "tek-suhs", not "tay-hahs". Just ask the folks who live there.

kad barma said...

I meant to add, that I think Nice pronounced like niece is by far the best example offered so far. Nobody saying Nice rhyming with "ice" is making any sense to anybody. We accept the "niece" version as standard English pronunciation not because there is any standard English pronunciation, but because it's the way the word is pronounced regardless of its spelling or language of origin. One word, one pronunciation.

I'm opining that the H-less version of Honduras (own-DU-ras) ought to be heard and accepted in much the same way. It is for me, anyway...

C R Krieger said...

I have to admit that I was confused from the start.  I thought the lisp came from Zaragosa, as a way not to embarrass a certain monarch.

And, I don't blame the Americans, I blame the English.  I am guessing they are the ones who said it is Cologne and not Köln and Munich and not München.

And Naples vs Napoli.  On the other hand, we seem to do a better job with cities in the Far East.  But, then, the British were rulers in the Rhine area up until, what, 200 years ago? (Rhein)

The good news (for me) is that we have standardized on English in the aviation dodge.  But, you can still get in trouble.

Rabbit R..., a young F-4 front seater, was leading a three-ship from Camp New Amsterdam (Soesterburg), The Netherlands, to Aviano Air Base, in Italy.  The weather went down and he sent his two wingmen down first, one of whom went off the end of the runway and the other closed the runway by taking the approach end arresting wire.  So, Rabbit diverts and is sent to Istrana.  As luck would have it, he went over to the final controller frequency, but couldn't contact them.

All the time his back seater is trying to find Istrana in the "Enroute Supplement" and the "Letdown Book" (both of which would provide alternative frequencies).  With no luck on the radio, the airfield not in any of the flight publications on the aircraft and fuel running low, they headed back to Aviano, to land on the taxiway.  Flamed out two miles short.  They ejected safely and the aircraft was a Class 26.  In 1969 dollars, they destroyed a $4.5 million dollar aircraft.

The reason?  Istrana is not spelled with an "A", but rather with an "I".  I don't know what conclusion to draw from this except for the need for better "preflight planning."  However, pronounciation is always going to be a problem, and if you get too fancy you will confuse the person you are trying to communicate with—which may be all too easy.

My view is that if you are travelling or meeting up with someone, you need to know both pronounciations and when to use which one.  The nuclear issue is sufficiently tricky that when in High School speech class I had to give a presentation on nuclear weapons, when I entered the classroom I went to the back of the room and wrote in chalk in big letters, NEW CLEAR.  It worked for me.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


Looks like we've found some common ground here, on the points about the need for clarity and on our non-need to change entire words, like saying "Napoli" if you were speaking English and meant "Naples," as that would just confuse.

I've actually never heard anyone say "tack-o" and I'm guessing we would all agree one how we'd say words like taco, burrito, or the way we'd pronounce a lot of Latin-American baseball players' last names if we could talk in person or on the phone. It looks like we'd agree on Nice, and probably on 'Marseille,' too..

Don't mean this at all as a "close-out" type of comment, but thanks to everyone who took the time to chip into this..as I've said many times before and will again, comments really breathe life into a blog so I'm always psyched to see the back-and-forth (If I didn't care what anyone else thought, I could always write in a hardbound book). And if anyone else wants to add thoughts on Mexico, France, Sotomayor, or Worcester, please throw 'em up..


kad barma said...

My first trip to Singapore wound me up in a cab and struggling to communicate the address of my hotel. This being the city where "The Queensway" seamlessly gives way to "Jalan Burkit Merah", I thought I would have been home free with a clearly enunciated "CON-rad". Nope, my American "N" and "R" and "D" might as well have been the clicks and consonants of Swahili to my Indian cab driver. The Singapore/Chinese/Indian version of "Conrad" sounds NOTHING like "ours", and I was no better at "Temasek Boulevard", either. Only showing the perfectly fluent and English-speaking driver the piece of paper with it all spelled out resolved the differences between our respective and dischordant bastardizations of the Queen's English.

My first and continuing thought is that the ex-pat who had told me to "just ask for the Conrad Hotel" didn't speak a word of whatever it was that the locals spoke, and he was an arrogant jerk for never learning the difference.

The New Englander said...


On the subject of Americans going abroad and making the effort to learn things like language, custom, etc. there's an area where we're in STRONG agreement (trust me, I'm already planning out the all-day/all-night Dari and Pashto sessions this fall and winter and I know it's going to pay off...also going to make a serious effort to learn Khmer, but if it's an English conversation, I'll still call the capital 'Nom Pen' and the Dangs' home city 'Bot-am-bong' without the subtle but definitely present 'r' in the last syllable (bottom borng?)

Glad you added that overseas experience because I meant to respond to something you said about how one might expect to be treated on a visit (very end of comment number four) -- as someone who has learned Spanish and who did once live in Argentina (where it was definitely ar-hen-TI-na as long as Spanish was being spoken), I would definitely be speaking Spanish as best I could, right down to the rolled double 'r', much the same as I would be dropping the 'S' from Paris if I were in France and speaking French. I definitely cringe at the Ugly American abroad who thinks everyone should just speak English, whether that's a camera-toting tourist or rifle-toting soldier.

I recently read something about Americans who are retiring to Latin America as a way to live much better on a fixed income...right away, I thought about the great irony here -- among those pioneering North Americans, I bet there are MANY who once ranted about Latin-Americans' inabilities to assimilate or learn English.

How many of those very same people do you think are learning to speak the native tongue to people in service industries in those countries? To borrow a phrase of yours, that has to figure high on the irony meter..


C R Krieger said...

Local example...Haverhill

Ha ver 'ill

Go to Philly and it is definitely

Haver Hill.

At least it was when I used to ride on the train with my Dad.

Regards  —  Cliff

PS:  On the other hand, it drives my wife crazy for me to say Ball'more for "Charm City."