One of the more irritating politically-correct
fashions involves English speakers who feel it necessary to pronounce
Spanish words with Spanish accents. The other day I was interviewing
a college student for an internship position. She showed up wearing a
standard leftist nonconformist uniform--nose ring, messy hair with
a few streaks of unnatural color, jeans ripped just so, ratty t-shirt
advertising something or other. (Note to college students--this is rarely
a good way to impress folks. Even the former leftist nonconformists tend
to think it's silly.) Anyway, we were discussing her previous work
experience, and she said the following:
"Well, last summer I worked with Doctor
</Speedy>, and he suggested--"
I immediately lost the thread of what she was saying as a certain
sombrero-clad mouse dashed into my mind. I had to struggle not to laugh
I forced myself to tune back in. "The previous summer," she said, "I was on a trip to
Central America, which was really cool--"
--I looked down at her resume, saw "Nicaragua," and cringed, knowing
what was coming--
"--and we spent lots of time in
Christ. Don't people realize how silly it sounds to flip accents in
mid-sentence? What's particularly absurd is that people only
seem to do this when they're pronouncing a Spanish word. (I am advised that this does sometimes happen in other languages, including French. I confess I haven't heard much of it, though of course most of my experience is in English. Still, within English, the phenomenon seems limited to Spanish words.) A few moments
later, for example, this girl and I moved on to discuss other trips she'd
taken. She said she'd been to France, Britain, and Germany. She
most certainly did not say that she'd been to
<British accent> Britain
</German>. I have no idea why we should flip accents at all, but if we do, I cannot fathom why we'd want to do it
only for Spanish.
Okay. I can foresee some objections:
But that's the way it's pronounced! No, it isn't.
I've heard Spanish speakers, including Central American Spanish speakers,
say "Nicaragua." This girl pronounced it with what sounded like a bad
It's polite! Well, it's hard to see how it's polite if
you're merely mangling the pronunciation in a different way. Moreover, I
don't speak Spanish, nor do I come from a Spanish-speaking country.
Neither did she. To whom was she being polite?
People just don't seem to do this in other languages. For example,
when I speak French, I do not say "Oui, je connais M.
</American>," nor do I say "J'aime le
</American>." I use the French pronunciation of the name
(roughly "Rosenbairgh") and the country to the north of mine (roughly
"cah-nah-DAH"). I act this way because it's simple courtesy; I'm speaking
French and it will be easiest for listeners to understand if I use French
pronunciations. In fact, a friend of mine had some difficulty in France
because she pronounces "Canada" with a Midwestern twang (roughly
"KYAN-uh-duhr"). Unsurprisingly, nobody knew what she was talking
Moreover, I do not get pissy when French-speakers "mispronounce" my
name slightly; it contains sounds that are difficult for many
French-speakers to pronounce (just as the deep U and the rolled R of French are difficult for many English speakers).
My name in French is simply pronounced slightly differently from my name
in English. I am not offended by this. It takes a small mental
adjustment when I switch languages, and that's it. In fact, I sometimes
use a translation of my name when it's just too much of a
tongue-twister for a particular language.
Likewise, if I am speaking English (whether in France or anywhere
else), I do not use the French pronunciation of words. Nor do I say
"Paree" for Paris--that sounds silly and pretentious, especially when
I'm talking to another native English speaker.
"Apple" is to "pomme" as "Rosenberg" is to "Rosenbairgh," as "Paris" is
to "Paree." For place names, one uses, as best one can, the pronunciation of the language one is speaking. For personal names with no established pronunciation, one gets as close as one can to the native pronunciation with the phonemes one has at one's disposal. Is that so tough?
The basic problem, of course, is that the letter string "P-A-R-I-S"
is pronounced differently in English and French. Now, we can handle this
in one of three ways, and it depends on the kind of difficulty we're
willing to endure:
1. We can change the spelling in each language to more closely
correspond to the pronunciation--we can spell it "Paris" in French and
"Paree" in English. This seems to be the rule for transliterations from
non-Roman alphabets; the current leader of Russia is "Putin" in the US but
"Poutine" in France.* It's a
bit much, though, to expect every single sign in France to say
"Paris/Paree/Pari/etc." You'd need to carry a lookup table with you so
you could figure out where you were going.
2. Alternatively, we can make the spelling consistent across languages
(making it easier to find one's way, Google things, etc.) and accept
that it's going to be pronounced differently in different languages. This
requires a lookup table for verbal communication in the foreign
language--a tourist who goes around bellowing at the natives
for directions to "Pair-izz" is obviously not going to have much success.
3. We could maintain the spelling and have everyone learn that "Paris"
is pronounced "Paree," etc. That seems optimal, but it does have some
problems. First, it essentially requires a lot of rote memorization, and
things that are rote-memorized tend not to stick in one's mind, especially
when they're not frequently used, so we're back to lookup tables again.
Second--and perhaps more important--people still won't pronounce
it all that well, as some people have great difficulty pronouncing sounds that aren't in their native language (my mother, for example, simply
cannot approximate the French pronunciation of "Paris" and chokes when
faced with "Bretagne.")
As far as I can tell, the limitations of human language and memory
abilities force us to accept #2. In reality, of course, we use a whole
mess of different systems, including some that seem completely absurd
(Germany's six names, for example). But there is simply no reason for a
native English speaker to use a foreign pronunciation--unless they're
trying to put on airs.
*Though it does happen within alphabets. The French word for London,
for example, is "Londres." I have no idea why this is, given that the
French pronunciation of "L-O-N-D-O-N" is a much better approximation to
the English pronunciation of the city's name.