Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Linguistic Concept of the Week

The question of how to pronounce names and words from foreign languages in English is a fraught one. One option is what is sometimes called ‘foreignism’: try to pronounce the word ‘authentically’, that is as a native speaker of the language it comes from would say it. But this can come across as pretentious and showy, like you’re trying to draw attention to your extraordinary knowledge of foreign cultures. If it contradicts the pronunciation of someone earlier in the conversation, then this is likely to be taken as a put-down and make them feel judged. Worse still, if your pronunciation is too authentic, and the word obscure enough, people might not even be able to understand you.

On the other hand, opting for ‘nativisation’ – pronouncing the word as if it were English is problematic too. Some foreign words are so well established that you would look foolish insisting on phonetic pronunciation, and might not even be understood – for example, saying croissant as ‘croy-sant’. Even if its clear what you mean, the unwillingness to make any effort or compromise might seem arrogant or culturally insensitive. It could send the implicit message that foreign languages are not worth knowing, and so denigrate them.

The drawbacks of these two approaches are bad enough – see The Economist on Obama vs. Palin on this score. However, there is an outcome worse than either of them, one that combines the pretentiousness of foreignism with the ignorance of nativism, and without the brownie points that would come from either. That possibility is hyperforeignism, where a word is said in an ostentatiously foreign way, but fails to achieve the authentic pronunciation.

An example of hyperforeignism that tends to irritate me is the pronunciation of chorizo as ‘choritso’, neither lisping the z, nor pronouncing in the English way like at the start of ‘zoo’. This version of the word suggests that you’re pretentious enough to try and say the word authentically, but not committed enough to authenticity to find out whether it is Spanish, Italian or German, or to learn the differences between those languages.

The trouble with hyperforeignisms is that they are almost impossible to avoid, unless you are intimately familiar with every language. For example, I’m pretty sure I’ve said Copen-hah-gen’. If you’re lucky, nobody will know enough to notice, but just think: how many times have you made a dick of yourself in this way?

Step forward, internet. Forvo is an awesome pronunciation guide which aims to record native speakers saying every word in the world. So now you can check before you use foreign words to avoid missteps, and put your grateful friends and family right when they inevitably slip up.

Particularly impressive is the database of names, which should be made compulsory for football commentators. Just think, if Joe Kinnear had known about this, Charles N’Zogbia might still be at Newcastle.