Christopher tm Herdt (cherdt) wrote,
Christopher tm Herdt

Transliterations and Pronunciations

On the reality television show Top Chef, there is an annoying fellow who frequently sits in as judge. He's short, balding, myopic, and acerbic. I call him Bratty Brit. He makes for good television, because you always need someone to despise, and who better than a judge, who delivers harsh criticism while putting forth no effort? And on American television, who better to fill that role than someone with a highfalutin accent?

On an episode a few weeks ago, he was criticizing one contestant's take on the Catalan dish, paella. He pronounced it pa-EL-ah. The other judges pronounced it pa-AY-ah. One judge pointed out the difference and said, "How can we discuss how a traditional paella should be prepared if we can't even agree on how it is pronounced?"

Bratty Brit said that, in English, it is pronounced pa-EL-ah, and that in America they don't go around saying MEH-ee-co for Mexico, now do they?

This is an interesting observation. Although I do wonder how Bratty Brit pronounces words like brioche, croissant, and jalapeño, and how the other judges, for example, pronounce guacamole -- perhaps the most curious case of all, since we keep some of parts of the original pronunciation and ignore others.

I was reminded of this because an acquaintance of mine who speaks Greek gently corrected my pronunciation of moussaka: MOO-sa-ka he told me. When I attempted this at a Greek restaurant a few days ago, the waiter looked at me and said moo-SA-ka? Back to the drawing board for me! At least I did not inquire, as did one of the other guests, about the be-CAM-el sauce (béchamel).

Words borrowed from languages that use a script other than Roman are usually transliterated as best as possible to match the pronunciation. I know nothing of Hangul, the Korean script alphabet, but there must be a letter that is not quite a B and not quite a P, and so we see bi-bim-bop and bi-bim-bab and a variety of other transliterations on menus for Korean restuarants. Likewise, G and K and bulgogi and bulgoki.

Likewise, in recent years Calcutta, India, has become Kolkata. And it was years ago that Peking became Beijing, presumably for similar reasons. (The change from Bombay to Mumbai, on the other hand, is a different pot of dal entirely.)

In the cases of transliterations, we adjust our spellings to fit the pronunciation. But when a borrowed word already uses the Roman script alphabet, we tend not to change it. Otherwise, we would probably write Meheeco for Mexico.

Although country names are a strange case. Why Spain, and not Espanya? Why Germany instead of Deutschlant?

What is behind our tendencies to preserve or ignore foreign pronunciations and/or spellings? It's intriguing. I suspect that Bratty Brit pronounces paella the way he does because he perceives paella to be an English word, borrowed from Catalan. But I think the Americans pronounce it differently because they perceive paella to be a foreign word. However, I suspect that the explanation is more complex and inconsistent than that.

Most of my examples seem to come from food. I certainly wish that we had done a better job of anglicizing more Italian words. Mostaccioli and gnocchi, really?

In any event, I still don't know how to properly pronounce pho, but have noticed that no one seems to mind if I just ask for foh. And I still get my delicious Vietnamese noodle soup.
Tags: catalan, gnocchi, greek, hangul, language, moussaka, paella, pho, pronunciation, simplified spelling, top chef, words

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