Tomayto, Tomahto

This is a topic that was being discussed (with much hilarity, I might add) on the radio this morning, and it was prompted by President Obama’s pronunciations of “Taliban” and “Pakistan”. Phonetically, he pronounces them, “TAHL-ee-bahn” and “PAHK-ee-stahn”, whereas the American pronunciations are, “TAL-ih-ban” and “PACK-ih-stan”. (and now my brain is singing “come Mr. tally man, tally me bananas…”)

I’ve noticed this in many situations, not just from Mr. Obama, but from others, as well. Anchormen (anchorpeople?) will spit all over the camera trying to pronounce “Nicaragua” or cities in Mexico like a native of those countries, rather than just saying the words with their own American accent. I don’t think they understand how jarring it is – they’re going along, reporting the news in an American accent, and I can concentrate on the story. I give no thought whatsoever to the words they’re saying – I’m all about the story as a whole. And suddenly, there’s a micro-pause, and you hear… “neek-ah-RAHG-va” with a badly rolled “r” and a weirdly pronounced last syllable. I’m not even sure how they do it – is it a “v” there? A “w”? A slurred “u”? Whatever it is, suddenly, I’m obsessing over the pronunciation of that butchered word, and I miss the rest of that story, and most likely the next three, as well.

I’ve even had this conversation with Steve. His aunt is a missionary in Bolivia – she’s lived down there for more than 20 years. She pronounces some words differently than we do. For example, “llama” becomes “yahma”, and “Yucca” (Americans generally use a short “u” sound) becomes “Yooka”. She and I had great fun correcting each other’s pronunciation of “yucca” over dinner one night – I’d ask her to pass the “yuhkka” and she’d say, “here’s the YOOka”. And we’d laugh.

But Steve insisted on pronouncing llama – which we had living on our land at the time – the way his aunt did. Yahma. Drove me NUTS. Because nobody else knew what he was talking about. “We have yahmas living in our pastures.” And people would look at him like he had an extra head.

Why do people do this? WHY do they suddenly try to affect a Latin or Hispanic accent for words of that origin? We don’t do it with words of Western European origin – Prairie du Chien, WI, for example, is generally pronounced “PRAYR-ie doo SHEEN”, as opposed to the French accented, “prah-REE dyue shee-EHN” with a kind-of-silent N at the end. (French pronunciation is hard to diagram). On the other hand, I think I get “Des Plaines” pronounced as spelled. Otherwise, we’d all sound like Tattoo, running around yelling “DePLANE!!! DePLANE!!”

But why do we do that? Is it political correctness? Are we so hypersensitive that we feel that we must try to pronounce words the way they do in the original country, lest we offend? Does it make us feel superior if we pronounce things the “correct” way if it’s of Latin or Middle Eastern origin? But then why doesn’t it matter if it’s European in origin? We don’t expect people to alter their accents to sound like us – most people I know really enjoy listening to foreign accents. Nothing is cooler to me than an English, Scots or Irish accent, and I know women who absolutely swoon whenever Antonio Banderas opens his mouth.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe we all just want to be Antonio Banderas.

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11 Responses to Tomayto, Tomahto

  1. Tosha says:

    I’m w/ ya. It drives me nuts.. You’d have a ball in cajun territory!

  2. SKL says:

    I try to pronounce most foreign words in the way they are pronounced in the foreign country, if I know how and if it is something that my listeners will understand.

    First of all, having spent a lot of time with foreigners and learned some of these words from them first (including yucca), I would feel weird distorting the words just because most Americans do so.

    Secondly, again because I have spent a lot of time around foreigners, I know they really appreciate the effort and at some level it’s a matter of respect. If I’m having a discussion with representatives of my Japanese client, I’m going to pronounce words of Asian origin in a way that shows I’ve been listening to them, you know? I get into that habit, and then I’m not going to switch back to the distorted American pronunciation when I’m with people without a recent foreign heritage, unless it’s necessary to be understood. I mean, in a way, Americanizing a foreign word that I actually know how to pronounce is just another type of “political correctness.”

    Third, I want my kids to be exposed to the reality of our global world, and also the multinational heritage of the English language itself. Personally I have always found languages (including English and its origins) interesting, and besides, they are going to encounter many foreign nationals in college / grad school, and hopefully through global travel, so I would like them to be a little more knowledgeable than I was when I entered that world.

    Many of the documents upon which our country’s philosophies and values were built are written in languages other than English. In addition, I think Ben Franklin (one of my favorite patriots) may have spent more of his career in France than in the USA. I’d be surprised if he didn’t read, write, and speak fluent French, and when referring to a French city, pronounce it in French. It’s not unAmerican to acquire and use knowledge of foreign languages.

    That said, I do think it’s ridiculous when people do this just to pretend they are more knowledgeable or more culturally sensitive than they really are. Then it’s obvious to everyone, and this applies to both Americans and foreigners. I had an Indian acquaintance who would put on an accent that he thought was “American” and even dyed his hair yellow. Believe me, it didn’t impress most Indians nor most Americans. So I’m pretty sure my foreign-born friends/colleagues would feel the same way if I “tried too hard” with their languages. This is why I usually won’t try speaking a foreign language with native speakers, unless I am very confident that I have it right.

    • Laura says:

      I don’t have a single problem in the world if people with authority, like you and Steve’s aunt, pronounce the foreign words correctly. You have learned it that way, and, like you say, it would then sound weird and affected if you tried to pronounce it with an American accent. My rant would apply to you, then, as well. But you’re not doing that – you learned the proper pronunciation from day one, and it’s just a part of your vocabulary.

      What irritates me is the newscaster who pronounced Nicaragua one way last week, and this week, suddenly he’s trying to do the “native” thing. Or a President who tries out three different pronunciations of a foreign city before landing on one that he decides is most offensive to that place, because they’re the enemy. I seem to remember Bush 1 doing something like that. Just say the word. If it’s wrong, fix it, and keep it that way.

      Doing these stupid mis-pronunciations or botched pronunciations (copen-HAY-gen? copen-HOH-gen??) not only makes people sound stupid, it’s no way for me to teach my kid the right way to do it. Particularly if I don’t know someone who is actually from that region, and I can’t ask the right way to say it.

  3. nikki says:

    Laura I will write more tomorrow but I just wanted to say that this sentence (and now my brain is singing “come Mr. tally man, tally me bananas…”) made me about pee my pants! I watched Obamas speech and laughed every time he said “TAHL-ee-bahn”!!!!

  4. SKL says:

    I am a lot more concerned about Obama’s lack of loyalty to America than his affinity for foreign pronunciations. He’s not a patriot, plain and simple. I haven’t seen one action or speech where he’s actually put the USA in a positive light. I do think his pronunciation comes from having been brought up (a) with a foreign dad for 2 years, then (b) in Muslim countries for 10 years or whatever. So, fine and dandy, he can do the accent – but his job is to advocate for the USA, and he doesn’t even try to fake that.

    I saw a headline today to the effect that he is trying to exclude Christmas from the White House holidays. Does anyone still believe this guy’s claim that he is a Christian? He is one big lie.

  5. Sue says:

    I think it sounds silly when they try and pronounce it “correctly”! Unless you called that country and listened to how they answered the phone, forget it! You’ll just sound like you’re trying to be important!

  6. Just a Mom says:

    Great post and thanks alot for getting the song stuck in my head now!
    I must admit I didn’t watch much of Obama’s speech. 1.) I was pissed because I was all set to watch Charlie Brown that night and 2.) Every time I heard him pronounce Pakistan I couldn’t stop laughing at him!

  7. Joy says:

    Just so you know, I’ve been humming that song all day long picturing Obama dancing to it!! LOL!!!

    I just feel people should pronounce things they way they “do.” Not try and make themselves “seem” important or “smarter” than anyone else. When you try too hard, it’s noticeable. I’d rather hear someone say something totally the opposite way I would say it than to hear them try to say it the way they do in the given country. It’s normal and natural to say things differently. Ya, you betcha.

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