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
, 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
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 bulgogi and bulgoki.
Likewise, in recent years Calcutta, India, has become Kolkata
. And it was years ago that Peking
, presumably for similar reasons. (The change from Bombay
, 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
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
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.