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Some observations

from Monday, April14th of the year2008.

I have been meaning to write for a couple of days, but I have been living in a house with No Internet, which is actually pretty amazing. When is that last time that’s been the case?

An Observation about British Food. I think, you guys, that we are over the hump with this. Now, it’s easier to eat well than it is to eat badly. Jaffer and I have eaten basically nothing but excellent, excellent food for the last seven days, which is a real triumph. Of course, the trick is to make as many meals as possible happen at either St John or St John Bread and Wine. bacons.JPGI went the other night and ate Cuttlefish in Her Owne Inke, Pig’s Ear and Sorrel, Ox Heart Salad, and an epic, delicious Steamed Lemon Sponge. I salivate now just at the thought. Also, the variety of bacons available for purchase in the market is inspiring and wonderful. Also: the video player at St John Restaurant is amazing and you all need to go right now.

An Observation about my Visual Proclivities. I had to meet a friend at the National Gallery, but arrived very early, as is my wont, and wandered around the 16th century Italian art galleries for twenty minutes. I went to the gift store afterwards and saw the following postcards:


My first thought to myself was, “Ooh, that’s a handsome G!” And so I marched up to the lady and was like, “How much for that G?” and she said, “Sir, those are just the letters to tell you the names of the artists reproduced on the cards. They are not for sale, I am sorry to inform you.”

It is a handsome G, though.

Some Observations about Chronic Mispronunciation in England and among the Elderly. I was walking down the street and noticed a series of ads for the wonderful, the copy of which reads, “This Weekend, Go Somewhere You Can’t Spell:”


Now, of course, England People and America People and basically Anywhere People have their own pronunciation preferences and I’m not going to get into a whole conversation about that here. What I wanted to talk about is this completely insane English practice of re-accenting foreign words.

I have a friend who came to visit me in New York just after he and his family had come from the Vèneto. See that accent there? That’s where the accent goes. Now, in Italian, you can print the accent or not, but everybody there would certainly pronounce it as I have just rendered it. My friend went to about as fancy a sequence of schools as money can buy, and is generally well-read and -travelled. So, what is it that would compel him to say Venèto? He wasn’t hesitating, either, it was like, Venèto this and Venèto that. What instinct governs this rule?

More jarringly, a few weeks ago, an English artist friend of mine – my age! – was talking about other artists’ use of color and referenced the Spanish artist Joan Miró. Now, I think in basically all contexts, the accent on that Ó is both printed and pronounced. Homegirl, similarly, has had as posh a schooling as is available on this Island, and he was saying it not once, twice or thrice but like four million times with the accent on the first i. Míro. Now seriously, you guys? What is this about?

I was thinking about this in the context of some other weird interviews I’ve had recently, where people ““ usually around my parents’ ages ““ have seemingly deliberately mispronounced the names of other artists ““ sticking H‘s up in Antony’s name, rendering the J in Björk’s, even pronouncing my own name Nicko, despite the IPA guide I put at the end of my bio (“His name is pronounced [ˈni ko] [ˈmju: li]).” Nobody is asking for people to render Sigurðsson or Hrafnhildur with native perfection, but, where does the tongue twister leave and general politeness take over?

[A note to my Webmistress. Is there a way to have a style sheet for single letters as themselves? As in “it was a U-shaped road” ““ aren’t you meant to make that U a special sans-serif deal? I know Jenny has blogged about this most cleverly, but I can’t seem to dig up the entry…]

When I was growing up, my father would chronically mispronounce my friends’ names if they were remotely not New or Old Testament; he too is well-travelled and read, and is not what could be described as culturally insensitive. I think what it does is establishes the Mispronouncer as the linguistically dominant party in a conversation, as if somehow the introduction of a foreign word is an offense to the sovereignty of his knowledge (not to offend him, a loyal reader of this space! Perhaps “offense” is too harsh a word: a grain of sand in the espadrille of his knowledge?). I know that I engage in a lot of this kind of play to reinforce that language is there to be played with – replacing w‘s with v‘s, older pronunciations, older spellings, and I know that what it does it shines the light of my own life on the sentence that I’m speaking; it’s on purpose. I do tend to try to leave people’s names out of it, preferring an aggressive nickname to an aggressive mispronunciation, because at the end of the day, your name is your whole joint, you know?

The other advantage of a deliberate mispronunciation is that it can be subtly dismissive of a topic that you, the Mispronouncer, are somehow ashamed to admit to knowing too much about. 123632__mia_l.jpgOne time I have caught myself doing this is with the artist M.I.A., whom everybody had been talking about in, like, 2003. So as not to appear deliberately branché (BRAHN-shay) about her music, I caught myself talking about her like, “Oh, I was just listening to…how do you say it, is it Miyya? Emm Eye Ay?” and of course, it’s an asshole move, and it slows the pace of conversation. I heard myself do it, and vowed never to do it again.

Anyway, this sort of deliberate mispronunciation of foreign words can, I think, be culturally useful in Island places; in a sense, it nativizes and neutralizes the intense ““ and debatably problematic ““ amount of foreign influence in an otherwise closed culture. It says, your word has been transformed by its introduction to this conversation, house, location, culture. It’s a fascinating move; I just wonder what Miró and the good inhabitants of the Vèneto have to say about it. Maybe they don’t mind. I have found that people with, for instance, the Icelandic name “Daníel” (which is a spikey, three-three syllable affair) will readily introduce themselves as “DAN-yell” in non-Ice contexts; similarly, when in France I will spondee-out “Nico” as is the native custom.

croissanwich.gifThis is not to say, however, that I’m proposing that everybody be super NPR about pronunciation or that anybody should ever rock out a fully rolled “Croissant” up in the Dunkin’ Donuts (has anybody ever tried to render the word Croissan’wich in this fashion?). NPR is the worst, when they play that racist-ass generic third world background noise (goats, chickens, children weeping) and then say that they are reporting live from Baghdad, rendered like بغغغ-ضاااااااض or God forbid, somewhere in the Quechuaphone world.


  • but how about URINAL? (you RINE el.)

  • “Pliis ecall mai Stailet,” brought to you by The God-Forbidden Quechuaphone World.

  • interesting you mention about miró – in australia he is pretty much universally pronounced as míro, in spite of the accent. and which i really only paid proper attention myself a few months back while visiting the tate modern. a particular australian horror, in referring to the item last presented in photographic form in your post, is the “crussent” which makes me want to run and hide at the best of times, but when it happens in paris… ouch! oh and you’d want a span tag with a new class set up to change the font-face around your U. it’s certainly possible.

  • My favourite is De-BOO-see for Debussy. The first time I heard it, I was like….who? Seriously? France is 30 miles away people…get it together.

  • I think that English people are not very susceptible to other languages in general, and if they have learned any, it’s usually French, where the accent does not imply emphasis. I’ve been going around saying Mir-O and Gau-DI for ages and no-one is taking a blind bit of notice even if they have just got back from Barcelona.

  • You actually bring up an odd question – why do we in English value the foreign-language pronunciation of foreign words in the first place? It’s a socio-linguistic thing, not at all a given. In French, foreign words are pronounced as spelled. My favorite example is Dante. It would be simple enough to add an accent aigue to that e, and you’d pronounce it roughly as in Italian. But no, that won’t do, and the man’s name is shortened to one syllable. The z in Mozart (and Nazi, for that matter) has no “ts” sound. Kind of like you said it when you were 6, the first time you read it aloud, before someone corrected you.

    Beethoven is apparently unpronounceable, so the French say something like “Bétove.”

    I think the prestige associated with pronouncing words “correctly” – even though we’re still really really far off, what with our diphthongs and wacky r’s – has to do with English’s polyglot nature. We’re used to importing any useful combination of letters we see, and have been since the language was born in like 1100. But that also contributes to the language’s unpredictable variations in pronunciation (how were you supposed to know that that z was really a ts?!)

    I really like that koala, though.

  • Regardless of how to best pronounce her name, I would like to take a year off of my Ph.D. to study composition with M.I.A.

  • Apropos of the G: When my daughter was four, I took her to a kids’ program at the art museum. A docent handed out paper and colored pencils and invited the children to copy anything they liked. Rather than copy a painting, my daughter copied the label of a painting: Charles Willson Peale. 1787. . . . I thought it was a smart, subversive move on her part.

  • I love this post, but I want to rise — or sit — in defense of the elderly. We, at least many of us, did not travel easily to other countries. We studied Latin or at most French in high school from teachers who were not themselves sensitive to intonation. When Nico’s generation is my age they will have had a very different lifetime of linguistic sensitivity than I had. (But their hearing may not be any better.) I don’t think I am a Deliberate Mispronouncer but it has been pointed out to me that when I try to speak Cockney I sound Polish.

    Couldn’t Venèto be a reasonable extrapolation from Venezia?

  • Speaking of NPR assholery that left me floundering linguistically, I was listening to something about Tibet, and the American(?) man they were interviewing kept saying “hem-all-Yi-Ahs” instead of “Him-uh-lay-uhs”.

    Is this normal? He did it about eight times, and otherwise had no discernable accent.

  • In defense of those who are not fortunate enough to be able to travel widely and hear words rendered by native speakers, you often have to go with a best guess with certain words.

  • I think we English tend to steam-roller pronunciation, for the most part, the way we steam-shipped round the world in centuries gone by, adding new countries to our Empire. We have the same Empire-building attitude to our language. Consider: a few years ago, a German beer called Löwenbräu (pronounced something like ler-ven-broy) was extremely popular here. But no-one, seriously, would *ever* have dreamed of going into an English pub/bar and asking for anything other than “low-un-brow”. Asking for “ler-ven-broy”, would have been an act of suicidal embarrassment. So perhaps the accents are not so much elbowed to one side (or the other) as just ignorantly trampled underfoot – and new emphasis appears, by default, simply from the spelling?

  • Words come from a cultural perspective, and are coloured as such. Just look at the way I spell ‘coloured’, and not ‘colored’. It tells you , the reader, something about my background (Canadian? British? Australian?)

    In Canada, (especially in provinces such as Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick) we hear both French and English everyday, and differences in linguistic pronunciation (including pronouns) are common place.

    The ‘incorrect’ syllable emphasis of a French or English word comes down to a mater of cultural representation by the speaker, and it is not taken as a blatant misrepresentation of the language of origin.

    However, this wasn’t always the case in Canada. I remember walking around Montreal’s Plateau in the early 1990’s and being yelled at right in the street for speaking French with my obvious English accent. With the French/English clashes in Quebec, it was a tense time. In order to get along, the status quo had to change. Things like linguistic tolerance became paramount, and linguistic preference became synonymous with one’s cultural background. This also included one’s pronunciation, whereby ‘correcting’ it, is generally seen as an act of aggression and linguistic intolerance.

    In Canada, expecting everyone to pronounce words the same way, infers the ‘value’ of cultural homogenization, and in a country with two official languages, this has little merit.

    I must admit, I sometimes snicker when an English speaker pronounce “Rimbaud” as “Rambo”. But it’s equally endearing to hear a Frenchman say: can “I ear with my hears”.

  • My fav is BBC middle east coverage. They’re all “HA-mis” and “HEZ-buh-luh” and “LE-buh-nun”…

  • Basically your Vèneto friend was obeying (and possibly thinking himself quite knowledgeable about) the basic pronunciation rules of Italian, which usually puts stress on the penultimate syllable. But no rules without exceptions, in proper names as well as in ordinary words. So we have Lombardía, but Ùmbria, and signoría, but baldòria.
    Foreign languages are tricky, that is one of their charms! And foreigners speaking foreign languages are sometimes given to hypercorrections, which is why we have phenomena like the French or Italians saying: e his hill today.
    One can observe, and be amused or annoyed. I prefer being amused, and in addition these mistakes often show you something about the grammatical or phonetic principles of the languages in question.

  • Amanda Mae:

    Regarding “Himalayas”:

    I know a well-informed American (he’s lived in India and speaks Bengali) who uses the pronunciation “him-AHL-yahs.”

    Nico responds: Yeah, see, this is one of those things where you just check out the IPA. hɪ’mÉ‘lijÉ™. Although I have desi-tastic friends who put the accent other places, too, so who the hell knows.

  • Thanks Michael V. – “The ‘incorrect’ syllable emphasis of a French or English word comes down to a matter of cultural representation by the speaker, and it is not taken as a blatant misrepresentation of the language of origin.” – is pretty much what I wanted to say.

    Here’s a question: how annoying would it be if I went around talking about how I live in “Paree?” Mispronouncing “Paris” is hardened into the language. Not so many people talk about Vèneto, and not everyone writes it with that diacritic.

    I admit that pronouncing foreign words in an English fashion is a struggle for me, too. My instincts are to pronounce everything foreign as perfectly as possible. It appeals to my know-it-all-ness, and even to my sense that as a musician, I should have a great ear and be able to say things as I hear the natives say them. But I’ve been training myself to say Roo-en when speaking in English, because I’ve discovered that not only is it kind of irritating to non-Francophones to tell them “I’m thinking about taking a trip up to [ʁwɑ̃] next week,” but that, actually, they won’t even understand what town I’m talking about visiting.

    All of which is to say that I don’t think people should be judged based on how they pronounce foreign words, and that maybe the cultural value we put on “proper” pronunciation is misplaced. It may have to do with our post-modern search for authenticity, but that’s a way bigger subject.

    Nevertheless, I must say that my favorite BBC-ism is definitely Ni-ker-a-gyoo-a. Takes the dictate to pronounce every vowel in Spanish a little too far…

  • I wish I had never found out about the existence of the Croissan’wich.