Are You Pronouncing These Words Wrong?

27/09/2016 16:14

As a linguistic aficionado, I pay close attention to elocution. You can't tell just from reading my writing, but my enunciation is impeccable. This is why an incident earlier this week was particularly troubling.

At an ice cream parlor on a sunny day, I asked the server which flavours of sorbet he had. "Yeah, we have strawberry," he replied. It was loud outside. Maybe he misheard. I clarified and pointed towards the sorbet section, which was obscured by a pram. "Oh!" he cried. "You mean sor-bette."

I slowly turned around and left the shop, trembling. I still haven't really got over it.

You see, there is no code of conduct for this situation. Nor is there a set way to pronounce loanwords--words borrowed from foreign languages. You can adopt your best Italian accent to order bruschetta, but you might sound pompous if the waiter is English. Besides, you might be getting the pronunciation wrong anyway, meaning you are just speaking in a silly accent that sounds ridiculous to whoever is listening.

So I had the question for my next great investigation: How do you pronounce loanwords without committing a serious faux pas? I scoured the jungle of the Internet to find out.

How many words are on loan?

The previous paragraph was not a happy accident; it intentionally includes three loanwords. The first two are 'faux' and 'pas', together meaning 'faux pas'. This phrase is derived from the French 'faux pas', which means faux pas. We can define faux pas in English ("an embarrassing or tactless act or remark in a social situation" according to Google) but the French phrase is so much simpler that it fell into common English usage.

These kinds of loanwords stand out as loanwords. 'Faux pas' looks Frencher than Gerard Depardieu in a beret. The other loanword in that now-quite-distant paragraph was 'jungle'. Jungle actually comes from the Hindi word 'jungle', meaning jungle. This is an example of a loanword that is so widely used that we don't even know it wasn't ours to begin with.

Should we try authentic pronunciation?

Some say adopting foreign affectations for loanwords is the respectful thing to do. The consensus is that neither British nor American English dialects approximate loanwords very well.

But since we use so many loanwords without knowing it, is it even possible to pronounce them all 'properly'?

We could apply the tonal dexterity it takes to say doppelgänger in its German form, but would we ever think to say gung-ho in Cantonese or bungalow in Bengali? Why treat some, normally European, loanwords with more reverence than others?

You also have to think about your audience. Perhaps an Italian waiter would appreciate the effort it takes to say linguini with a long 'ui', but they most likely would not need you to. If you are addressing a fellow native English speaker, pronouncing loanwords authentically may come across as pompous or show-offy.

Then there is a bigger problem.

Are we even getting the sounds right?

As native English speakers, we may not be aware of the true authentic pronunciation of a loanword. A common example is ordering the German dish wurst with a 'v' sound at the start, when most German speakers would say it with a 'w'. The Spanish pepper habanero does not have the same soft 'n' as jalapeño. A non-culinary example comes with the phrase 'coup de grâce', frequently pronounced as 'coo de gra' by those trying to be accurate, when in French it has an 's' sound at the end.

These are all examples of hyperforeignism: the act of over-correcting the English pronunciation of a word based on an assumed authentic pronunciation.

The truth is, conversations with people giving loanwords the requisite 'respect' by speaking them 'authentically' are often filled with these hyperforeignisms. In these cases the words are being disrespected if anything, and the speakers look slightly pretentious at best and like total idiots at worst.

Plus, hyperforeignism or not, it is possible that your interlocutor may not understand your pronunciation if it deviates from the norm. Native speakers of foreign languages may be able to use authentic pronunciation without difficulty, but there is debate amongst translators as to whether they should or should not for the benefit of their audience.

As we reach this article's denouement, we turn to an unnamed genius, quoted in The American Scholar by psychologist Jessica Love (pronounced 'Low-vay'). On the topic of pronouncing loanwords he said: "better to be honestly dumb than pretentiously dumb."

As William Shakespeare said in Act IV, Scene I of The Importance of Being Ernest: I couldn't agree more.