Wednesday, June 19, 2013

pronouncing words from Spanish

American and British pronunciations of Spanish (loan)words: I’ve had notes for this post in my ‘drafts’ folder since 2006 (when I did a similar post on French loanwords). But today Ben at Dialect Blog posted on the subject. Impetus to get (a)round to saying what I have to say about the subject, don’t you think?  I’ll mention what Ben’s covered, but will supplement it rather than repeating it—so do read his post. 

There are two obvious reasons why American and British English speakers pronounce Spanish words differently when they need to pronounce them in English, and these result in different kinds of differences between AmE and BrE Spanish pronunciations.
First, there’s a lot more Spanish in the US than in the UK. A substantial part of the US used to be Spanish colonies, Puerto Rico is as close to being a US state as a place can be without being a US state (though Washington DC could argue with that statement) and there’s lots of immigration from Latin America. Of the 91% of US high schools that offer "foreign language" instruction, 93% offer Spanish, according to a 2009 Center for Applied Linguistics study (link is pdf). In contrast, in 2001 there were about 55,000 Spaniards living and working in the UK and more recently there have been more than 200,000 British people living at least part of the year Spain (but they're coming back in droves now.), not to mention lots of people holidaying/vacationing there. In the UK, French is the most widely taught language (EU report--link is pdf), though its numbers are going down and the number of teens taking Spanish is going up.  So there's certainly contact between Spanish and British people, but there's nowhere near the same number of people involved or amount of contact between Spanish and English speakers (or their cultures) in Britain compared to the US.

The amount of Spanish in the US means that even the most monolingual Americans hear and see quite a bit of it. If you went to Mass at 9:00 in my little northeastern hometown, you heard it in Spanish. (No big deal worship-wise if you consider that a decade before I was going to Spanish Mass, everyone was hearing their Mass in Latin.) If you go for fast food, you might need to know what pico de gallo is. It's natural to me as an American to pronounce a double-L as a 'y' sound if I see a word that ends in a or o.  One of the hardest things for me to learn in South Africa was to 'granadilla' as gran-a-dill-a even though I so wanted to say gran-a-deeya. (Never had to pronounce it in the US--we say passion fruit.)

Without this repetitive experience of Spanish spelling and pronunciation, the pronunciation of Spanish borrowings can be patchy in the UK. An ex-boyfriend's British father pronounced fajita as fadj-eye-ta (rather than fuh-hee-ta). Jalapeño tends to come out as ha-la-pee-no or even djae-la-pee-no, rather than the ha-la-pay-nyo or ha-la-pen-yo that Americans tend to say--since in the US they are likely to know what the ñ is for (or to have heard lots of people say it). And I've yet to hear an Englishperson say the edible salsa without the first syllable rhyming with gal. (I seem to recall hearing some BrE speakers use a more 'back' vowel in the dance salsa, but still use the more 'front' vowel in for the condiment.) At Dialect Blog there are other examples: paella and cojones. Maybe the food pronunciations will change soon. "Mexican street food" (which is considered to sound nicer than "Mexican fast food") is the big new-restaurant trend in Brighton these days; I counted three newish burrito places in a quarter-mile radius last week. But maybe this won't matter. No one seems very bothered about finding out the Thai pronounciations of any of the Thai dishes we've been scoffing/scarfing here for the past decade.

Of course AmE pronunciation of Spanish is not Spanish pronunciation. It's just a bit more Spanishy than BrE pronunciation, much of the time. One doesn't, for example, roll the 'r' in burrito in AmE.

The best example of unSpanish UK Spanish pronunciation, though, was pointed out to me by a New Yorker in the UK, who was amused by Brightonian pronunciations of the Spanish island Ibiza. The pronouncers in question were studiously lisping the 'z', but pronouncing the first syllable with a very un-Spanish 'eye' vowel. Britons are very studious about lisping  esses in Spanish words. 
Which brings us to the second reason for differences in Spanish pronunciation: the British mostly have contact with European Spanish and Americans with Latin American varieties. And, as you can imagine, there's every reason for those to be at least as different as AmE and BrE are. I’m having a bit of an experience of the differences as I listen to five-year-old Grover’s Spanish lessons. Having learnt generic Latin American Spanish with a Brooklyn accent in high school, in order to help Grover, I have to learn to harden my ‘j’s, lisp my ‘s’s and conjugate verbs for vosotros (Latin American Spanish has ustedes for plural ‘you’, with different verb forms). This has an effect on AmE/BrE pronunciations of recent loan words from Spanish. Dialect Blog discusses this in relation to rioja

Please add your examples in the comments. And Spanish speakers, I want to know: can you tell the difference between a British and an American accent when we attempt to speak Spanish?

Some other items business (read: self-promotion) before I go:
  • I'm in the latest Numberphile video, talking about math vs maths (again!). Have/take a look!
  • I'll be giving my 'How Americans Saved the English Language' talk at Tunbridge Wells Skeptics in the Pub on the 4th of July. Expect (verbal) fireworks! And cake! 
  • If you're on Twitter, I'm there, of course, giving a Difference of the Day five days a week and lots of links to Britishy-Americany-Englishy-language-y things. I also give a much smaller number of links via my Facebook page, so 'like' it if you'd like to get the occasional bit of news from me in your pages feed.