Monday, July 20, 2009

Americans and Foreign Languages

Is there anyone more pretentious than an American pronouncing foreign words? I'm as guilty as anyone of this, and I'm far from the first to point this out. A Saturday Night Live sketch from 1990 depicts white reporters over-pronouncing Spanish words like "Nicaragua", "enchilada", and even "San Diego." Meanwhile Jimmy Smits, playing the lone Latino reporter, uncomfortably reports using the normal American pronunciations.

In 2006, the Winter Olympics were held in Turin, Italy. Or, as NBC relentlessly put it: Torino. The Associated Press used "Turin." Americans have always said "Turin." But NBC decided to use "Torino". Why?

Could it be a national inferiority complex? We don't learn many foreign languages here in the U.S., while most foreigners we come into contact with speak at least some English. But while we may not learn a whole language, we can learn some basic pronunciation rules. This gives us the illusion of sophistication, but I suspect it comes off as pretention. Worse yet, not actually knowing the language often leads us into unexpected pronunciation pitfalls.

The British don't have this particular hangup. Listen to a Churchill speech sometime: his German is terrible; he just pronounces the words as if they were English. Was this just an affectation, though? A show of defiance at his mortal enemy?

Is it more polite to attempt to pronounce foreign words correctly? Certainly not in all cases. For all the Torino talk in 2006, no American says "Paree" for Paris, "Moskva" for Moscow, or "Ciudad de Mehico" for Mexico City. When foreign-speakers refer to these cities in English, they use the English names. The same is true of countries: we say Germany, not Deutschland; Sweden, not Sverige; China, not Chung-kuo. When Americans invert this, insisting on using the foreign name, it comes off sounding a bit desperate: Please, we are saying, accept this tiny crumb of your language; it's all I can manage!

Maybe we would do better to emulate Churchill. Wouldn't be the first time.

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