The Politics of Pronunciation

Broad interest was piqued by the flap over Vanessa Ruiz, the Arizona news anchor whose on-air Spanish pronunciation sparked controversy. Some listeners objected vehemently to the way Ruiz, who is American-born and bilingual, rolled her r’s while pronouncing Spanish words, and gave a Spanish lilt to Arizona place names, like “Mesa,” derived from that language. The Times reported that Ruiz “defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken.”

Well, yes... but by whom, and to whom, and where?

Leaving politics aside, Americans know that pronouncing foreign words in English can be a real mishmash. What are the guidelines? Certainly those people who push for Anglicizing everything have some cogent arguments on their side. When I refer to Paris I don’t say “Paree;” Munich isn’t “Muenchen,” and so on.  Words and phrases borrowed directly from other languages, like “deja vu” or “zeitgeist,” moreover are typically not pronounced as they would be by native speakers; to do so – for example, to pronounce the initial consonant of “zeitgeist” as “tz” -- is to imply that you actually speak the origin language. (An amusing video,  called “The Guy Who Over-Pronounces Foreign Words,” hilariously sends up these pretensions.) On the other hand, most American commentators do manage to pronounce “Angela Merkel” with a hard g, as Germans do; the second word of “noblesse oblige” is not given a long i; and so on.  One is tempted to assert a pragmatic commonsense rule: use English pronunciation, unless and until a more authentic pronunciation becomes standard.

But commonsense is not the only factor at play here; far from it. In questions of language, culture and identity, you can never leave the politics aside. The U.S. is a geographically isolated, middle-class country, and also a global economic juggernaut whose language serves as the international language. This combination conduces to a certain complacency, even at times pride, about not knowing “foreign” languages. For more than a century in the U. S., those who speak other languages have been viewed with wariness -- either the unwashed horde of immigrants crowding us from below, or the effete caste of patricians ruling us from above.

As someone who worked hard to learn other languages, I’ve always cringed at this iron provincialism, and I recall my how my heart surged with patriotic pride when American tennis star Jim Courier lost the French Open finals in 1993 -- and afterward, while accepting the runner-up trophy, graciously addressed the crowd in French. But our leaders shy away from such displays. George H. W. Bush, for instance, consistently hid the fact that he spoke fluent French, even refraining from offering ceremonial salutations to his French counterpart, François Mitterrand, for fear of reinforcing the “silver spoon” reputation that plagued his presidency. 

All this goes to show how complicated the foreign-language issue is – especially when the language is Spanish, and especially in a campaign year. On his radio show Rush Limbaugh, who has a good ear for mimicry, frequently pronounces Spanish words with an extra flourish of authenticity... but in his case, the purpose is mockery and, worse, incitement.  Ann Coulter’s new book, meanwhile, is titled ¡Adios, America! The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country Into a Third World Hellhole.  How do you like those inverted exclamation marks? Rarely has punctuation so effectively served the purposes of demagoguery. And in case anyone has any doubt about the nativist ugliness behind this aspect of the language discourse, there’s Donald Trump, telling Jorge Ramos to “go back to Univision!” and advising Jeb Bush to stop speaking Spanish on the campaign trail, since he’s “in the United States.”

The Bushes can’t catch a break, language-wise. As for Vanessa Ruiz, the anchorwoman in Arizona, she couldn’t help tweaking her antagonists a little bit when, in a statement posted on the station’s website, she insisted that “My intention has never been to be disrespectful,” adding that “I am paying respect to the way some of Arizona’s first, original settlers intended for some things to be said.”

Of course, if you’re going to try to retrofit the North American map to reflect the way “original settlers” spoke, well, you might want to be speaking the language of Navajos or other Native Americans, not of the conquistadores.  But that’s almost beside the point. What Ruiz correctly perceived, in the flood of hostile comments from viewers, was that her patriotism and even her status as an authentic American were being challenged -- and she defended herself explicitly along these lines, insisting in a statement that “I am more proud now than ever to be an American, and also, a Latina. Thank you. Gracias.” In so doing she deftly invoked the American tradition of incorporating many cultures into one culture and enriching it in the process.

In some regards our American language provincialism is ebbing, as we respond tactically to a changing world order; last fall Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously spoke in Mandarin for half an hour during a visit to a university in Beijing.  But the coming presidential campaign, inflamed by immigration issues both here and globally, promises to be less than cosmopolitan in this regard, dealing in such absurdities as the recent rumor that Barack Obama renamed Mt. McKinley because “Denali” means “Black Power” in “Kenyan” (a nonexistent language), and reminding us that when silly season meets ugly season, the main pronunciation we hear is the slur.   

Politics has long been preoccupied with the question of who controls the narrative. This year’s campaign is queuing up a related question: who controls the accent?

 

 

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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