Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Words I Hate Today But Reserve the Right to Change My Mind About Tomorrow


Over the last two years, I’ve been lucky enough to be interviewed on perhaps three or four dozen radio shows. During these interviews, a lot of the same questions crop up – stuff like “Are you bothered by ‘between you and I’?” (Yes.) And, “Is it wrong to say, ‘try and’?” (It should probably be avoided.)

But only one question is guaranteed to come up every time. It’s the one that precedes the formal interview: “How do you pronounce your name? Is it CAAH-sa-GRAHN-day or CASS-a-GRAN-day?”

In other words: Should we pronounce the A sounds as we would in Spanish or Italian, or should we anglicize them? Both are correct, obviously, but I opt for the latter pronunciation. When saying my own name, a Latin A sounds downright pretentious. The anglicized Cassagranday sounds to me more relaxed and less affected.

It’s the same reason I don’t roll my Rs when I order a burrito or belly up to the barista at my local Starbucks to order a “cwoissan.”

The way I deal with foreign/adopted words is: If there’s an accepted American pronunciation, such as “cRoissant,” I use it. For less common words, I try to observe true-to-their-mother-tongue pronunciations only to the extent they can be spoken in an American accent.

I happen to know the correct pronunciations of “Al Qaeda” (the Q part, anyway) and Kadafi. But they both involve consonant sounds that don’t exist in English. So I pronounce both Qaeda and Kadafi as if they started with a K sound, and thereby eliminate the danger that someone will try to perform the Heimlich maneuver on me.

Foreign words in English are wonderful when we can reach a sort of harmony with them. But “haute,” to me, just doesn’t sit right on an American tongue.

Don’t construe this as anti-French sentiment. I love French. In fact, French class is where I first discovered my passion for English grammar. So my dislike of “haute” is in no way a lack of appreciation for the French language.

Say “haute couture” with a French accent and it sounds nice. Say it with an American accent and it sounds not just silly but self-conscious. Compare this to, say, “aujourdhui” – pure music in a French accent and good clean fun in an American accent as well. But “haute” is another beast.

I suspect I'm not alone. This would explain why why, though I often see “haute” in print, I almost never hear it spoken. Most telling of all, this may be why the how-to-pronounce-it recordings of two major dictionaries disagree.

Click the little sound symbol on Dictionary.com’s pronunciation for “haute” and you’ll hear “ought.” Click on the entry below, the one authored by the American Heritage Dictionary, and you’ll hear a slightly fancified version of the word “oat.”

And that, to me, is why we haute to find a replacement for this word.


Joel said...

Yes. Completely. I'm not trying to be weird or anything but the blog is just resonating with me today.

Do you remember the SNL skit with Jimmy Smits in which they over-pronounced a bunch of Latin words? Beautiful.

June Casagrande said...

Yes! They were all playing TV reporters and I think I remember Victoria Jackson overpronouncing "encheeeelada" or something like that.

Then there was the sketch with (I believe) Alec Baldwin as a French teacher who demanding that his students all speak "French," for example, when asking to go to the bathroom. Yet, it turned out his idea of "speaking French" meant just any old gibberish as long as it was pronounced with a French accent and over-the-top musical lilt. (A few years later I bought a voice-recognition French language software program that did the exact same thing.)

Joel said...

Yep, that's the one. And someone did burrrrrrrito. Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc. As I recall, they even distorted a few basic English words, just to be sure that the skit was over over the top. It was a very gratifying moment for me, in part because I seem to be functionally incapable of rolling an r (besides English, the languages I studied were all ancient, and none of my teachers made too big a deal of pronunciation). And, yeah, it was really starting to get on my nerves every time I heard a journalist say "Nicaragua."

I think I remember the Baldwin skit. Alec Baldwin is great for an over-acted accent. He's done some great hamming on SNL with a British accent too. Seriously, I like him as an actor; but he can be funny too--on purpose.

It's funny--speaking of the software--how often life imitates satire. Sometimes it's so funny that it's not funny anymore. But I won't get into politics (though I think I remember hearing you say something in a radio interview about what I consider to be the most persistent and egregious presidential mispronunciation ever; I'm not saying who the president is or what the word is, but it sure makes it hard to take him seriously when he's talking about Iraq's neighbor to the east developing a certain weapons and energy capability). Sorry, that was mostly a tangent.

This whole subject is consistent with the general blight of grammar snobbery: hyperactive application of rules or patterns that belong to a different language or era and otherwise improper extrapolation of rules out of context. But then, despite the dangers of snobbery, there are folks (e.g., the unnamed president) who could stand some rectification.


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