Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Common Sense as a Second Language

I like to think I’m a sensitive and caring person. I’ve been told that I am on numerous occasions. A previous boss of mine told me I was the most considerate person she’d ever met.

When it comes to respect, I offer it in abundance. I honestly try to treat others as I wish to be treated. That’s a fundamental that was modeled for me from day one. And yet, I seem to have a problem…

You know how we as a nation go out of our way to pronounce Hispanic names with the proper rolling of the ‘r’s, and the ‘e’s that sound like ‘ay’s, the ‘i’s that sound like ‘ee’s, and without any diphthongs? (Do they still teach about diphthongs?)

For example, there’s a reporter on NPR named Mandelit del Barco. Everyone goes out of his or her way to pronounce it “Mon-day-leet del bahrrrrrco”. I get that, and I support that. But here’s where I get a little sketchy.

Why do we do that only for Hispanic names?

I mean, when we were hearing Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sottomayor’s name twenty times a day, it was always done with the proper “So-toe-my-oar” pronunciation. But when we discuss Justice Alito or Justice Scalia, we say their names as if they were not derived from Italian (or any other foreign) heritage. We gloss over the vowels, and neglect the inflection that would give them the character of their origin.

Our oversight extends to other foreign names, too. What about Conan O’Brien? Using the Hispanic standard, we should be calling him Conan O’Brrrrrrrrien. We never say Uma Thurman in that sing-songy voice that the Swedish Chef on The Muppet Show taught us to use for all things Swedish. We don’t call the inventor of blue jeans “Levi Shtrrrrauss”. We certainly don’t affect a British accent when we speak of Paul McCartney, Winston Churchill or the Queen.

We come close when we speak of the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. A few try to slide on the name, and overlook his nationality, but for the most part we hear him called “Sar-co-ZEE” imitating the inflection of the French, but still omitting the appropriate soft “gl” sound that they give the letter ‘r’.

So the question remains, do we apply this courtesy only to the Hispanic because they are such a large part of the U.S. populace, or is there another reason? Maybe we just like the way their language sounds, and we begin to consider ourselves more inclusive if we deliberately affect their pronunciation.

Either way, I’ll be on the lookout for more examples of how we honor, or fail to honor, folks with names from other languages. In the meantime, I’m going to fix myself a burrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrito. Which rhymes with ‘neat-o’, not Speedo.


  1. You know, my stomach was growling before I started reading this post, and now I'm just downright starved. I think I need a burrrrrrito too. Since it's morning, I think I'll have a breakfast one.

  2. I'll pour a margarrrriitta to go with your rolled sandwich.

  3. Ah, just call everyone 'dude' and refer to everything as 'food'. Sorted!

  4. What about the people who can't pronounce or spell simple surnames? Mine isn't hard (maiden or married) and I've had it misspelled a lot.

  5. Hi Leah. Yep, I'd noticed that too. I try to call people what they call themselves, and as far as accents go I can pretty much pull it off. But as the the discrapancy in behaviour to different races, I suspect you nailed it when you said "they are such a large part of the U.S. populace", with a big dollop of Political Correctness on top. Indigo

    P.S. Word verification was "eudik". I'll try not to take it personally.