When Foreign Words and Native Accents Meet

The politics of saying it right


I live in central Illinois, a region quite rightly not renowned for its ethnic cuisine. But not long ago a decent Mexican restaurant heroically put down stakes near campus. Here’s the dilemma: Do I dredge up my high-school Spanish, put on my best accent, and order pollo? Do I admit defeat and ask for chicken? Or do I split the difference and order, as flatly as possible, “poyo,” which lets me use my Spanish while simultaneously acknowledging that I know my accent’s bad?

The English language is full of loanwords appropriated from other languages, including lingerie from French, trek from Afrikaans, and algebra from Arabic. (No, pollo isn’t a loanword per se—unlike, well, per se—though it’s likely on its way.) But just because a language appropriates a foreign word doesn’t automatically make its speakers willing or even able to reproduce it accurately. So what happens when loanwords and native accents meet? According to a 1994 paper by linguists Richard Janda, Neil Jacobs, and Brian Joseph (on whose website I was finally able to find it), one of three things:

1) The loanword can undergo nativization, where its sound patterns are altered to conform to the borrower’s idea of what a word should sound like. Often, as in barbecue, words have so thoroughly conformed that they seem to have been around all along. In a few rare cases, as in Lima, Ohio (pronounced “Lime-a”), or Versailles, Kentucky (pronounced “Ver-sails”), the nativization now feels a bit forced. (Note that this is not lost on local residents, one of whom confirmed that of course she uses different pronunciations when discussing Versailles, France, and Versailles, Kentucky.)

2)  The loanword undergoes foreignization, a “moderately successful” approximation of the word in its original language. In other words, given the sounds we have access to, we’ll do the best we can: we’re excited to travel abroad to visit our royal friends in “Ver-sigh.”

3) The loanword endures hyperforeignism, where foreign pronunciation patterns are extended beyond their use in the original language. We don’t simply drop the final consonants of Versailles; we do the same for coup de grâce and fleur de lys. Our friends from Versailles (French and American) are mortified on our behalf.

But whether nativized, foreignized, or hyperforeignized, loanwords aren’t produced in a social vacuum. It’s worth considering, then, how social factors affect our pronunciation of these loanwords. One study, published in 1988 by linguists Shana Poplack, David Sankoff, and Christopher Miller (available here), looked at linguistic exposure: the researchers examined the use of English loanwords in francophone neighborhoods in Ottawa, Canada. They found that people who lived in neighborhoods where English was spoken more frequently were likelier to break accent when speaking French to better approximate an English loanword.

But of course, it’s not just a matter of exposure. On Facebook the other day, I asked folks to share their experiences pronouncing foreign words. Here’s some of what they had to say:

A linguist pal, Alan Hogue, brings up understandability: “I think it’s fine to pronounce things the way they would be pronounced in other languages, but you also have to take into account your audience. People who insist on using ‘correct’ pronunciations when they have no reason to believe their interlocutors will understand them come off as very pretentious. … [I]t’s a fine line between being respectful and flaunting your education and how well-traveled you are.”

Another linguist, Melissa Michaud Baese-Berk, mentions audience as well: “When someone asks me where I lived in Spain, my default response is San Sebastián with the ‘correct’ Spanish pronunciation because that’s the name of the city and the only way I said it when I lived there (unless I called it by its Basque name, Donostia, which is a whole can of worms itself). I’m trying to more consciously use the American pronunciation of ‘Sebastian’ because I’m pretty sure people think I’m just being a jerk when I use the Spanish pronunciation.”

A childhood friend, Bill Heidrich, brings up the thorny mattery of authenticity: “i vary depending on my audience. if i’m talking to a spanish speaker, for example, i would say ‘buenos ay-rays’ vs ‘buenos air-eez.’ but i am always self-conscious; on some level it will always be an affectation, inauthentic”

A writer friend is terrified of using hyperforeignisms: “Better to be honestly dumb than pretentiously dumb.”

And finally, from someone who spent several years in a relationship with a man from Latin America: “what spanish i could pick up along the way seemed important and kind to do. Kindness—that’s part of it … ?”

What goes through your head when deciding whether to order the habañero sauce, the habanero sauce, or the hot stuff?

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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