Tuesday, February 07, 2006

You say "Fuh-TAH," I say "FUT-uh," let's call the whole thing off...

Over the last several years I have noticed a trend of people ostentatiously pronouncing foreign words, especially place names, the way (they suppose) a native speaker would. To take the example in the title, when I was younger American media commentators referred to the primary component of the PLO as “Fuh-TAH,” and now I often hear it as more like “FUT-uh.” Spanish names are often subject to this effect too; I often hear, say “Nicaragua” pronounced more like “NEE-kuh-LAH-wuh” (where the third syllable is that Spanish “r” sound that lies somewhere between the English “l” and “r”). The more traditional pronunciation in English is “Ni-kuh-RAH-gwuh.”

This is to my mind an annoying example of modern political correctness. Political correctness more generally is an exercise in signaling, i.e. the expenditure of effort to persuade someone that you possess a certain trait that is not directly observable. In the case of PC, adopting particular (often cumbersome) phrases as a way to avoid offense is a way to signal that you are not like “those people.” “People of color” marks you as culturally attuned and sensitive, but “colored people” marks you as a knuckle-dragger. (I have touched on this a little bit here.)

This trend is annoying for several reasons. First, it is selective. While people often make this effort for Spanish names and words, they don’t much bother with other languages with which they are less familiar. Almost no one, for example, pronounces “Kyoto” or “Guangzhou” the way a native speaker of Japanese or Chinese would. (And if they did while speaking in English to another native English speaker they would, frankly, sound ridiculous.) Nor for that matter is the capital of France pronounced “pair-EE.” Curiously, the city of “Lyon” is almost always pronounced, to a first approximation, as the natives do. This may be the exception that proves the rule, in that Lyon is not as well-known as Paris, and so pronouncing it “properly” may provide more of an opportunity to show off. In general, the desire to pronounce some foreign place names correctly (especially those in Spanish) is undoubtedly related to the increasing prominence of “Latino” culture and people in the U.S., combined with a desire to appear tolerant.

Second, it is often done to appear worldly without having to go through the trouble of acquiring familiarity with differences among cultures, which might include an appreciation of the virtues of your own. (Mark Steyn once dismissed multiculturalism by saying that “[t]he great thing about multiculturalism is that it doesn't involve knowing anything about other cultures--the capital of Bhutan, the principal exports of Malawi, who cares? All it requires is feeling good about other cultures.”)

Third, it is an obsession only of the “tolerant”-to-a-fault West. No one in his right mind expects Argentines or Koreans walking down the streets of Buenos Aires or Seoul to pronounced “Nebraska” or “Atlanta” the way the locals do. Japanese unapologetically convert foreign words into forms Japanese can easily pronounce. The one exception to this rule, which again serves to prove it, is foreigners who are eagerly learning English because they mean to immerse themselves in a foreign culture.

Or maybe I’m just cranky.

A partially (but only so) related phenomenon that I have noticed is the spread of English (as in England) usage patterns among a certain sort of American. Americans famously have usage patterns that differ from those of the land of the mother tongue. But there is a host of a national radio program who invites her listeners to “call us on xxx-xxx-xxxx,” when the conventional American form is “call us at…” More often than before one hears people bemoaning having to “stand on line” or even to “queue” (as opposed to “wait in line”), or that their mother-in-law is “in hospital” (instead of “in the hospital”). Perhaps this is another culture-war thing, an effort by the speaker to signal that he is much more like the Europeans than a Neanderthalish Red-stater.

Of course, for Spanish names naturally native speakers will tend to pronounce it in the Spanish style. When I was a kid in Houston we used to speak often of the nearby “San (rhymes with “ran”) Juh-SIN-toe” Monument, commemorating the battle where Texas won its independence, but apparently the largely Latino population now pronounces it “San (rhymes, more or less, with “Khan”) Hah-SEEN-toe.” Here is an interesting discussion of whether such pronunciations when speaking in English reflect courtesy, affectations, or linguistic imperialism. We will know, I suppose, if the biggest city in California once again becomes known as “Loess AHN-heh-less.”


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