February 25, 2012

Stop Correcting The Mispronunciation Of Foreign Words

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What is the issue?

“What do you think, Geoffrey — should we get an appetizer? What about the bru-shedda?”

“Great idea Cheryl! They do a really good job with that here. [To waiter] I think we’ll start with the bru-SKedda, thanks.” Poor Cheryl.

In high school I worked at an Italian restaurant, and I overheard a conversation similar to the one above at least once per shift. On especially exciting (and mystifying) occasions, waiters themselves would take a moment to kindly dispossess diners of their unfortunate ignorance and softly inform them that, in fact, they meant to order “bru-skedda” with a very explosive “k.” As you’d expect, such lingual evangelism was usually met by customers with a look that said, “You can shove your bru-skedda right up your asse-holé.”

And who could blame them? You hear it all the time, even outside of restaurants. “Ugh,” someone will exasperate, “I hate it when people say ‘bru-shedda.’ I mean, that’s why everyone thinks Americans are so stupid.” For years now the aggravating habit of correcting the mispronunciation of foreign words has been seeping into the realm of acceptable behavior like pus seeping into an infected wound. The intent seems obvious: to impress others with an infinitely varied potpourri of knowledge with regards to far-flung cultures and languages. Sadly no one ever tells these people the regrettable truth: their potpourri smells like shit. And as anyone who’s been there knows, it’s never pleasant to be downwind of such phonetic ostentation. Instead of being impressed by the display of cosmopolitanism, we’re repulsed by it on nearly every occasion. With such a miserable success rate, one wonders at the persistence of such pretension.

I use the word “pretension” deliberately, for more often than not those who engage in this behavior are simply pretending. Pretending at knowledge of a language they studied for a semester or two and then put to diligent use during some time abroad (cloistered in an American institution, speaking mainly English all day, but that’s neither here nor there now, is it?). The American worldview seems to be marked by two extremes: the rabidly xenophobic on one end and those with an annoying penchant for overblown displays of sophistication on the other. Thankfully most people fall somewhere in between. But many have this burning desire to prove that the iron fetters of middle-class upbringing and education have been flung aside in favor of charmingly informed worldliness.

Although it occurs not just with food and not just in Italian, I’ll use bruschetta as the most irritating example of this pretentiousness. Maybe they heard Emeril talking on TV and loved the musical sounds tripping upon his Italo-Bostonian tongue. Could be they know that the David wasn’t sculpted by Michelle-angelo, so they extend the rule to all “ch” combinations they see in Italian (in which case, praise for being observant is in order). And yes, it is true: in Italian, in the word “bruschetta,” the “sch” is pronounced as in English, “SCHool,” “SColiosis,” “SCurvy,” “Antonin SCalia SKims through SCatalogical magazines.” However, as it turns out, the Italian language has more than one pronunciation rule. Go figure.

I say if you’re going to feign erudition, might as well go balls out. There’s more to a correct pronunciation of “bruschetta” than just the “k” sound. You’ll want to be sure, as of course you’re aware, that your “r” is pronounced as an alveolar tap, retracting the tongue tip behind the alveolar ridge before striking the ridge in passing. Obviously, though you’ll pardon me explaining it to the Unwashed, the “u” will be the pure close back rounded vowel, pronounced endolabially, with no wretched diphthong leakage. It seems silly to mention this, but certainly you’ll double the “t”s, since in Italian doubled consonants require gemination and you’d be completely mortified to have your double “t”s sound as a single “d.” Lastly, only a simpleton, we’re talking a real fucking jackass, pronounces the “a” as a schwa, or neutral vowel, as in “thE,” or “dUH,” or “jUst shUt thE hell Up.” You employ a gorgeous open front unrounded vowel, as pure as the driven snow in Turin. Oh, I apologize. Torino. How foolishly and chauvinistically American of me.

The intellectual dishonesty of what I’ll call the “Bru-skedda Position” is so glaring that I wonder why more people don’t object to it. Frankly I think it’s cowardly not to follow the logic to its conclusion: if it’s not too much trouble to learn the basic pronunciation rules for Italian, surely it wouldn’t be asking too much to extend such diligence to every one of the world’s roughly 2,197 (known) languages. Anyone who subscribes to the “Bru-skedda Position” I would expect to have no trouble with the native-sounding pronunciations of:

- Chow mein. [chau (tone 1) and meing (tone 4). Duh.]

- Smörgåsbord [Hint: the first sound is not “sh.”]

- Foie gras [with the “French R,” the voiced uvular fricative.]

- Fogo de chão [watch those nasal vowels, please!]

- Kie?basa [no, that’s not really an “l.”]

- Weihenstephaner Hefeweißbier [you might have to put down the Brezel and concentrate on this one.]

You go to Frederick’s of Hollywood and buy your wife some sexy “lin[nasal]-zhuh-REE” and gaze at the magnificent artistry of Starry Night, painted by a very guttural “van Gokhkhkhkhkhkhkh,” not bothered by the fact you’re still saying “van” as in “the car your Mom drove you to soccer practice in.” You shake your head at the political excesses of Iran’s “Makhkhkh-mood Akhkhkh-ma-DEEN-a-zhad.” The tones of your flawless Mandarin ring like bells as you discuss the Nixon/ Mao Summit or Tiananmen Square or the artificial manipulation of the Yuan over kung pao at General Tso’s.

But be reasonable, you say.  Who could possibly know how to pronounce everything in every language? I certainly couldn’t.

But I’d argue that what matters is the accepted pronunciation. If I ask for “bru-shedda,” don’t give me that look of forced confusion. You know I mean the damn delicious toast-and-tomato appetizer. If someone wants to talk about “Angela” and not “AN-gay-la” Merkel, I know they’re referring to Germany’s rather homely chancellor. The primary function of language is to convey meaning, not intellectual or cultural superiority.

So the next time someone orders “bru-shedda,” try letting it go and enjoying the meal. Cringe if you must when they accompany you to a performance of “Don Geo-vanni,” because chances are you’ll run into some confusion with your first Götterdämmerung, and you’d feel hurt if someone corrected you. As long as the meaning is clear, accept it. If you have to, remind yourself that you know how to pronounce “gnocchi” and let that calm you down. If you’re going to have a conversation in English, then damnit! Have it in English.

Of course, “bru-shedda” won’t get you very far when you’re actually in Italy, but that’s another story. TC mark

image – Peter Kaminski
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