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"co-LOME-bee-uh" versus "CALL-um-bee-uh"
March 13, 2013 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Why does the U.S. media pronunce certain non-English names with a native accent, while other names are "Americanized" in their pronunciation?

Perhaps an example is the easiest way to demonstrate what I'm talking about. Sometimes I have heard the names of certain South American nations spoken by newscasters and journalists by their Spanish pronunciations. For example, "co-LOME-bee-uh" versus "CALL-um-bee-uh" for "Colombia" – the latter being the "Americanized" pronunciation, the former the native Spanish pronunciation.

What are the rules for when a word needs to be pronounced one way or the other? Does it depend on the speaker's background, or do journalists learn specific guidelines for when to pronounce a word the "native" way? Or is it a total crap shoot?

(Spanish seems the most common language to get this treatment. I can't remember ever hearing anyone in the media attempt to pronounce a Chinese or Arabic word like a native would.)
posted by deathpanels to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have never in my life heard the pronunciation you're describing as "Americanized." Columbia, like Columbus, has the accent on the second syllable.

But in general, it seems like a crapshoot. My general impression is that liberals skew more towards pronouncing things "correctly," but that may be colored by years of Bush Jr. butchering the language. (An example that I have heard is "eye-rack" vs "ee-rock" for Iraq.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:34 PM on March 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Actually, an even better example - with a different bias - might be Mexico. It's a word that exists in two different languages - same spelling, different pronunciation. (English: Mecksico, Spanish: Meheeco.) It seems pretty consistent to use the pronunciation appropriate to the language you're speaking. This is true of countries that actually have different names in other languages - Germany springs to mind.

The liberal thing is my perception of the trend towards abandoning imposed, colonial names in favor of names in the local language. (Bombay is out, Mumbai is in.) But those aren't pronuniciation issues, really.

I would be really curious to see a breakdown on the pronunciation of Iraq by political affiliation, though.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:42 PM on March 13, 2013


Don't don't why, but the best example is probably Nevada: residents are adamant about the Americanized Ne-VA-da (vad like "glad"), while most other Americans use the Spanish pronunciation, Ne-VAH-da.
posted by supercres at 8:50 PM on March 13, 2013


There are no rules. It's personal habit, often informed by either the individual's knowledge of other languages/cultures or their desire to appear to other people that they are more worldly/cultured/educated than others.

Personal example: I've been to Italy three times and have some knowledge of Italian. I am really self conscious about whether I should pronounce bruschetta as "broo-SKET-ta" or "bruh-SHET-ah", because I want to be correct, but I also don't want to sound like a pretentious jerk, or worse, have people not know what I'm talking about.
posted by Sara C. at 8:50 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


U.S. journalists seem to follow prevailing trends that can be pretty arbitrary. Remember the nonsensical shift from "mos-cow" to "mos-koh"? Absolutely no logical reason for that switch ("koh" is no closer to the native pronunciation than "cow"), but almost all tv journalists made it.
posted by kalapierson at 8:51 PM on March 13, 2013


Mefi's own escabeche wondered about this on his blog: linky link
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 8:56 PM on March 13, 2013


I imagine this has a lot to do with the speaker's personal connection to the local language. A Spanish-speaking journalist on the ground in Bogota is probably saying the country's name differently than Brian Williams is back at the desk. This, of course, only works when the name is approximately the same in both languages - don't think anyone is ending their segments with "from Munchen, Deutschland."

The liberal thing is my perception of the trend towards abandoning imposed, colonial names in favor of names in the local language. (Bombay is out, Mumbai is in.)

With India specifically, this is not a matter of personal preference or politics, it's a matter of being factually correct or not. Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai received their new/old names officially.
posted by charlemangy at 8:57 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, I believe the BBC has an office that decides pronunciations and then issues memos (or a journalist can phone them up). So if your non-US English language media is primarily the BBC that's why they seem more consistent.

Before we fall down a Columbia pronunciation hole, I'm pretty sure the OP is referring to a difference of how of pronounce the middle syllable, not the first nor the emphasis (though when I change the middle syllable, I think I change the first one too).
posted by hoyland at 9:03 PM on March 13, 2013


See also the recent switch from Eye-ran to Ee-rahn.

You'll never hear a newscaster call "Paris", "Pah-ree", though.
posted by empath at 9:12 PM on March 13, 2013


Many Americans, especially journalists, try to be particularly fastidious about their pronunciation of Spanish terms, as if to demonstrate a certain level of cultural awareness. You can often sense them consciously switching into something that's not their own accent for Spanish words, in a way you don't see them do with Italian or French or German. How often do you hear Americans switch into an Italian accent when saying the word "ghetto," which derives from the Italian word "ghetto" and means the exact same thing in both languages? Rarely if ever! This discrepancy seems a bit irrational to me.

However, anyone who's genuinely comfortable using the correct pronunciation of terms borrowed from a certain language is free to do so. For instance, I've studied Italian, so I know that "ch" always sounds like "k," as in "bruschetta" and "maraschino." I also know there's no "zh" sound (the middle consonant of "vision") in Italian, which is part of why it sounds so different from French. I haven't studied Spanish, so I don't worry as much about pronouncing Spanish correctly, but some of my knowledge from Italian and through osmosis is helpful with Spanish. That's all fine. It's also fine not to be familiar with any given foreign language. I do think Americans should have some rudimentary knowledge of how pronunciation works in Spanish, French, Italian, and German, at least so they're not embarrassed when trying to say certain words. With Italian this would largely be about how the letters "g" and "c" work; with German, it could be as simple as knowing how "ie" is pronounced differently from "ei." Clearly Americans aren't universally expected to know French, but I think it's reasonable to expect people to be able to say common terms like "raison d'être" without being too far off from the proper pronunciation. Most Americans will say it in an Americanized way, which is fine, but Americans who happen to be fluent in French might naturally say it with the proper French pronunciation, and that's also fine. (I've limited my comments to Americans only in order to talk about what I'm familiar with, not to suggest that these principles don't also apply in other countries.)
posted by John Cohen at 9:17 PM on March 13, 2013


the best example is probably Nevada: residents are adamant about the Americanized Ne-VA-da (vad like "glad"), while most other Americans use the Spanish pronunciation, Ne-VAH-da.

Not anywhere I've lived (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin): the former pronunciation is the usual one and the latter is rare.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:18 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a great SNL sketch from the 90's about this very topic. It's from an episode hosted by Jimmy Smits and is about a Latino journalist in a meeting with colleagues about coverage of some Latin American news item. The other (white) journalists go out of their way to pronounce every Spanish proper noun impeccably, then common loan words like junta and guerrilla, and then the lunch menu comes around and they start overpronouncing common food words like taco and burrito. Meanwhile Smits pronounces all these words the typical Anglophone way and looks at everyone like they're crazy.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 PM on March 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


I know exactly what you mean, and my observation is this mostly only happens with Spanish (you don't hear "Pari" for "Paris" or "Beijing" spoken tonally with a 3rd tone and 1st tone). The reason is probably either because the newscasters are Latino/a/Hispanic or because there are a lot of Spanish speakers among the US population so some newscasters feel it's appropriate to try to pronounce the words in a native way. In the latter case, it feels to me a bit "trying-a-little-too-hard" awkward, but maybe other people feel differently about it.
posted by Dansaman at 9:49 PM on March 13, 2013


I wonder how much of this flows down from the state department, too. If people covering foreign policy hear government officials pronouncing a country's name a certain way, they're going to start doing it, too -- you saw that during the Iraq War, for example.
posted by empath at 9:53 PM on March 13, 2013


Remember the nonsensical shift from "mos-cow" to "mos-koh"? Absolutely no logical reason for that switch ("koh" is no closer to the native pronunciation than "cow"), but almost all tv journalists made it.

"koh" is much closer to the way many other versions of English pronounce it. Perhaps that had an influence? (or maybe they found that BBC guide hoyland mentions). Same for Iran.
posted by pompomtom at 9:53 PM on March 13, 2013


We even do it with other versions of English. It's newscaster trendiness, There was something going on, maybe the Falklands dust up or the first Iraq adventure, where there were a lot of British talking heads on US TV and, all of the sudden, it became SHED-ule instead of SKED-ule for US newscasters. (schedule - I can't do he upside down e, ae. umlaut kind of pronunciation descriptions). Point is, a decent amount of it is trendy newscaster pronunciation. (also, no native says NAW'lins.There are a number of variations among natives but NAW'lins is for movies and TV commercials. AND - there was no "Big Easy" until the movie by that name came out - RANT). And there is always the drawn out Fraaance for the young US liberal arts majors.
posted by Carbolic at 10:08 PM on March 13, 2013


Short version - pretension
posted by Carbolic at 10:09 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I lived for a year in Melbourne, Australia. People probably think I'm being pretentious when I pronounce it Melb'n instead of Mell Born, but I'm just saying the name of the city correctly. All I mean is, it's not necessarily pretension. Lots of people are just trying to say place names in what they think is the correct pronunciation.
posted by fullerenedream at 11:08 PM on March 13, 2013


There's a difference to me between pronouncing something correctly and doing what the OP is talking about.

Most people who know their geography know that it's pronounced MEL-bern and not Mell Born, for example. Or the varying pronunciations of Birmingham depending whether it's the one in England or the one in the US. Or that it's Louie-ville and not Lewis-ville.

In my opinion that's a different question from whether to lisp the c in Barcelona.
posted by Sara C. at 11:28 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's pretension when you pronounce something in a way
other than you normally would for affect
posted by Carbolic at 12:40 AM on March 14, 2013


Most people who know their geography know that it's pronounced MEL-bern and not Mell Born, for example.

Pronounced by whom?
posted by empath at 12:56 AM on March 14, 2013


Pronounced by whom?

I'd argue that exonyms are distinct from questions of pronunciation.
posted by zamboni at 1:41 AM on March 14, 2013


Related concepts, though, with the same kinds of political considerations.
posted by empath at 1:54 AM on March 14, 2013


Melb'n.
posted by pompomtom at 2:21 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


There is a great SNL sketch from the 90's about this very topic.

Which fortunately can be found online here.

NPR's anchors tend to pronounce foreign words in the usual Anglicized way, although some of their Hispanic-American reporters will really go "authentic" on the accents of Spanish names, for example. Eleanor Beardsley reports from Europe, and she does the same with French names (most commonly, "Sarkozy"). So I'm sure it's up to the individual, though some outlets surely have standards for consistency.

Like the SNL sketch satirizes, it can be jarring, especially because I'm sure other countries wouldn't be expected to make much effort in pronouncing English names with the respective accent. And I'm sure no native English speakers take offense.

Sports announcers often have pronunciation guides to work with (especially during the current World Baseball Classic), though even those are usually a compromise between an American and native accent.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 2:49 AM on March 14, 2013


The term of linguistic art here is hyperforeignism (a specific type of hypercorrection). The one that currently gets my goat is Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan as "pah kee STAHN" -- c'mon, just say PACK iss tan, dude.

I think it is interesting as a cultural artifact which names get picked for this treatment -- as noted, nobody says "paREE" (except perhaps those trying way too hard to impress), let alone "Roma". It's one thing to selectively upgrade to a hyperforeignism, it's another to assent to a re-romanization in the style of Mumbai or Beijing. It also makes sense that Ukraine went through a debate and decided to drop "the", and please would we all stop too. Still, I can't for the life of me understand why the official English name of "Ivory Coast" needs to be Côte d'Ivoire.

There's also a qualitative difference, I think, between saying "Sarkozy" the completely French way, as in the SNL sketch with Spanish names, and giving it Americanized vowel sounds and overall flat inflection while letting the tongue dwell on the "y" at the end in a way that wouldn't be appropriate with an American name. But then there is also a difference in terms of names of individuals and names of objects and places.
posted by dhartung at 3:17 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because the official language of Cote d'Ivoire is French and their government pronounced the French name the official name and requested it be used. That isn't pretension. Or confusing.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:31 AM on March 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


For example, "co-LOME-bee-uh" versus "CALL-um-bee-uh" for "Colombia" – the latter being the "Americanized" pronunciation, the former the native Spanish pronunciation.

It's not the different emphasis on the syllables, but how the vowels are treated. The Spanish pronunciation is two long Os, like co-locate. The English pronunciation treats the Os more like soft Us. cuh-LUHM-be-uh

One of the big things that affects this is whether there are local things that have shifted pronunciations. Columbus and Columbia would seem to obviously be pronounced the same way. Same guy, same origin, same pronunciation. If you are from north central Illinois, it would seem silly to you that the town of Marseilles, IL, and Marseilles, France would be pronounced differently. Duh, it's mar-SAILS. Casimir Pulaski is "pull ASS key" in Chicago, because that's how you say the street. But I'll bet it's "pull ASS kuy" rhyming with "guy" in New York.
posted by gjc at 6:14 AM on March 14, 2013


I don't know about the pronounciation of Marseilles, IL, but the pronounciation for the Marseille in France (spelled Marseilles in English) is mahr-SAYE.
posted by ohmy at 6:58 AM on March 14, 2013


I can't remember ever hearing anyone in the media attempt to pronounce a Chinese or Arabic word like a native would.

Qatar has gone through a few iterations, starting around the run up to the Iraq war.

I would kind of hope the people of Marseilles, IL, Cairo, IL, Vienna, IN, Versailles, IN and so on are aware their town and the place its named after are pronounced differently (in English). Certainly Minnesota is clear on how you pronounce Prague. (I'm less sure they're clear on Montevideo, but I hope so.)
posted by hoyland at 7:32 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"co-LOME-bee-uh" for the river and locations named "Columbia"
"CALL-um-bee-uh" for the country of "Colombia"

I grew up near the mighty Columbia River, so that is how I say it. I am sure a lot the pronunciation of this word comes from the American (and Canadian) Columbia River.

"LUM" = the LOME part of your pronunciation.
Columbia

---

I am from Oregon and we pronounce our state as "Orygun". A lot of people from outside the state pronounce it as "Are-e-gone".
posted by Leenie at 9:24 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Leenie: I am from Oregon and we pronounce our state as "Orygun". A lot of people from outside the state pronounce it as "Are-e-gone"....

I live in Eagle Point, and I call it Oregonoia. For good reason.

Seems to me that a person who speaks the relevant language would use the relevant pronunciation. Transplants sort of pick it up by osmosis. The others will live in confusion, fodder for pedants. I play cards with a person who likes to use French and Spanish phrases to liven up her card-table chatter. She has only the vaguest idea of what they mean, but it doesn't slow her down a bit. Sometimes I throw in a little tex-mex as a rejoinder to her Spanish, in a friendly sort of way, but I lie to her about what it means. My little conceit--think of it as a Calvin & Hobbes moment if you like. I knew her dad: passed away these several years, and he could speak both French and Spanish quite well, so I guess that's where she picked up the phrases.

I lived in Hawaii for a number of years, and by the time I came back to the mainland I was a linguistic mess, but I knew da kine Maui pidgin from da beeg island pidgin. It took me months to broaden my "i" again.
posted by mule98J at 10:00 AM on March 14, 2013


The one that currently gets my goat is Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan as "pah kee STAHN" -- c'mon, just say PACK iss tan, dude.

Actually he still puts the stress on the first syllable; he just pronounces it "PAH-kee-stahn." I would guess that's a result of having a Pakistani roommate in college.
posted by yoink at 10:38 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


My cousins from outside of Portland insist the correct pronunciation is "Organ".
posted by karlos at 10:48 AM on March 14, 2013


I'm sure other countries wouldn't be expected to make much effort in pronouncing English names with the respective accent.

I actually wonder if this doesn't relate a little bit to the fact that most basic cable packages now include Spanish-language channels like Univision. Journalists on Univision pronounce English words perfectly according to Anglophone standards, presumably because they are bilingual and speaking to a Latin-American audience. If Univision anchors can say "St. Louis", there's no objective reason CNN anchors can't learn the proper pronunciation of "Guadalajara".
posted by Sara C. at 12:14 PM on March 14, 2013


That isn't pretension. Or confusing.

Then why, pray tell, don't we have to say Deutschland? Or Sverige? Or Nippon? I do understand the "they asked" rule, but it seems inconsistent, especially given all the official languages recognized by the UN, for example. You don't see us demanding that the French call us "les United States" instead of États-Unis -- and I bet you anything that's what the Ivoirians say.

If calling it "Ivory Coast" in English is somehow offensive, I would completely understand, but that hasn't affected the names of Niger or Nigeria despite the tittering of American schoolchildren for decades. What I'm getting at here is an underlying assumption that speaking English and using the traditional English place names is somehow "wrong" (or perhaps more relevantly, "a wrong").

I would guess that's a result of having a Pakistani roommate in college.

Yeah, but we know he can code-switch -- National Review got itself in a big enough tizzy over that.

there's no objective reason CNN anchors can't learn the proper pronunciation of "Guadalajara"

Well, again I wonder why we insist that there's a "proper" pronunciation of Guadalajara in the first place ... objectively. Especially considering the vast number of place names that do not get the same nativist treatment, and that there are sounds like the trilled R that basically do not exist in standard American English. This leaves aside questions of regional Spanish pronunciation, which varies widely (not to mention vocabulary). Finally, we have disagreement about the English pronunciations of American place names, from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Is the "proper" pronunciation that chosen by the natives? I had a long discussion, once, with a Missouri native about the final syllable in that state's pronunciation (he's an "ee", not an "uh").
posted by dhartung at 4:04 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


The name had long since been translated literally into other languages which the post-independence government considered to be increasingly troublesome whenever its international dealings extended beyond the Francophone sphere. Therefore, in April 1986, the government declared Côte d'Ivoire (or, more fully, République de Côte d'Ivoire) to be its formal name for the purposes of diplomatic protocol, and officially refuses to recognize or accept any translation from French to another language in its international dealings.

So that's why. In other news, this list of country name etymologies is fascinating.



Speaking of Oregun, shall we discuss Willamette?
posted by elsietheeel at 5:25 PM on March 14, 2013


None of which amounts to much more than circular reasoning, if you ask me. Declaring authority over other languages' usage seems to be rather the same sort of offense they are trying to counter, in other words. Put another way, if we did that, it would be branded with the I-word I-mediately.

It's also sort of bizarre that they recognize 'troublesome' uses only in other languages, while retaining the exact same meaning in French.
posted by dhartung at 7:10 PM on March 14, 2013


At my New England liberal arts college, we used to make fun of the kids who would do this: (non-Hispanic) upper-middle-class kids from sheltered lives who'd go abroad to Latin America for a semester and come back full of wisdom about "oppression" and "colonialism" and then go on to work on an organic farm after graduation, etc.

Coh-LOHM-bia was popular, but so were CHEE-lay (Chile, usually pronounced "Chilly" by Americans) and COOH-bah (Cuba, usually pronounced "Kyew-bah"). All caps indicating overemphasis on the pretentiously-pronounced syllable.
posted by thebazilist at 8:12 PM on March 14, 2013


One of the reasons people vary in their pronunciation of foreign place names in English is the unstandardized nature of English orthography. Compared to a language like French or Russian which has clear rules for how written words should be pronounced, in English, as long as something's written in the Roman alphabet, we tend to dump it in and let people guess at how to pronounce it.

As a result English tends more towards "loaning" foreign names, while other languages will simply have their own proper names for other countries and there's no confusion as to which pronunciation is "more correct", similar to how there's no confusion in English as to how "Germany" should be pronounced, because that sounds nothing like what the Germans call their own country in German.

Just anecdotally on "eye-rack" vs "ee-rock" - I've personally always thought "eye-rack" actually sounds closer to the way Iraq is pronounced in Arabic, although it's probably a coincidence that the way some Americans pronounce the initial vowel sounds roughly more similar to the native pronunciation than the preferred "educated" English pronunciation. To my untrained ear, it sounds like the guy is saying "jumhurriyat al EYE-raahk", or maybe "AE-raahk", but certainly not "EE-raahk" - it sounds like a diphthong of some sort even though I know 'ayn is technically a consonant.
posted by pravit at 8:21 PM on March 14, 2013


To clarify, I'm not talking about using correct pronunciation in general in news media. I would expect anyone talking about Marseilles, France to say "mahr-SAY," and to say it otherwise would be confusing and mistaken. I'm talking more about situations where someone goes to great pains to speak a word with an intonation that suggests they are a native speaker (or are familiar with how native speakers say the word), above and beyond the needs of their listening audience. The SNL sketch scenario seems to capture this perfectly, I think, though I'm not suggesting this is a "bad" thing to do – I just want to understand why and how it came about.
posted by deathpanels at 6:14 AM on March 15, 2013


CHEE-lay (Chile, usually pronounced "Chilly" by Americans)

Isn't that how everyone pronounces it?

I've never heard anyone but the most uncultured yokel pronounce it as "chilly". The sort of person I'd expect to snigger at Djibouti or not believe that places like Slovenia and Moldova are real countries.
posted by Sara C. at 9:20 AM on March 15, 2013


-CHEE-lay (Chile, usually pronounced "Chilly" by Americans)

Isn't that how everyone pronounces it?


Really, no. I think I've heard both everywhere I've lived (Illinois, Minnesota... and California before someone snarks about the 'yokels' of the Midwest). Also chil-lay occasionally. I even know a Chilean whose pronunciation wanders all over the place. I'm sure he's consistent in Spanish, but not in English. I'm assuming that his Spanish pronunciation feels odd in the middle of an English sentence so he starts saying it one way and ends with another. When talking to someone I don't know, I'd probably mimic whatever they said for fear of being called out for being pretentious. (I am, however, really sensitive about people commenting on my accent, so I'm probably more likely to do this than the average person. I think, "If they complain about how I said Chile, are they going to keep going?")
posted by hoyland at 5:50 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'd probably mimic whatever they said for fear of being called out for being pretentious.

Just pronounce it like it's pronounced. Chee-lay. It's not an affectation. It's correct, and unlike Paris and Cuba there's no mutually agreed upon American English butchering.

I see no reason to deliberately mispronounce a word out of fear that someone will laugh at you for, like, being cultured or whatever. People who mock others for knowing how to pronounce a foreign word are assholes.

Another thought -- people started hypercorrecting some foreign words because of situations like hoyland describes. An unfamiliar name (e.g. Nicaragua, Kabul) is suddenly thrown into the public consciousness via the media. People in the media want to at least try to get it right, so they do some research and settle on something. That pronunciation is adopted by the type of people who consume global news, but it might not trickle down to people who don't care about this sort of thing.
posted by Sara C. at 11:03 AM on March 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


The accepted American English pronunciation is identical to 'chilly' as can be confirmed in any American dictionary.
posted by empath at 12:40 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


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