“Should Paris become Pair-EE?” The American media’s pronounced struggle with foreign languages

A fan of the U.S. is seen with lips painted in the colours of their national flag at the men’s skeleton event during the 2014…
A fan of the U.S. is seen with lips painted in the colours of their national flag at the men’s skeleton event during the 2014…
Image: Reuters/Arnd Wiegmann
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The United States recently surpassed Spain to become the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world, behind only Mexico. Yet in 2015, Vanessa Ruiz, a bilingual news anchor in Arizona, was loudly criticized for pronouncing Spanish words with a Spanish accent on English-language television. She defended herself by insisting that she said such words “the way they are meant to be pronounced.” She added, “Change can be difficult.”

With striking inconsistency, domestic English-language broadcasters—and some listeners—are making the change Ruiz recommends: attempting international place names with a local accent. Americans, famous for butchering foreign words (EYE-rak, EYE-ran), are trying to globalize their speech by saying words like Chile, Niger, and Pakistan with attempted Spanish, French, and Urdu accents.

Listening to the radio, non-Spanish speakers might need a moment to understand that CHEE-lay refers to a country. “Chili is the food, chili is c-h-i-l-i—it is incorrect,” says Ximena Aliaga, of the Chilean Mission to the United Nations. “It sounds more sophisticated to pronounce it correctly.” She explains that the switch to CHEE-lay was an unintended consequence of the highly publicized 2010 mine collapse in Chile, recently dramatized in the controversially English-language film The 33.

Changes in pronunciation often follow current events, according to Mark Memmott, National Public Radio standards and practices editor. When a location is in the spotlight, people reexamine how they say it. After correspondent Corey Flintoff weighed in while covering the Ukrainian revolution, NPR decided that Kiev was KEE-yev instead of Kee-YEV. That was December 9, 2013. A year later, when Scotland was voting for independence, NPR listeners heard a new pronunciation of another capital: ED-in-BURR-ah. Last year, someone from Argentina became AHR-gen-tyne instead of Ar-gen-TEEN when a staffer from that country weighed in.

“A subtle change to get it right is not going to confuse an American audience,” Memmott says.

But can the average citizen be expected to speak properly accented Ukrainian, Scottish, or Spanish? Anatoly Liberman, a professor and linguist at the University of Minnesota, thinks not. “Most people do not know the correct pronunciation of foreign names, and if they did they wouldn’t be able to imitate it because that would require mastery of foreign phonetics,” he says. “When you begin to do it, you have to ask yourself how far you are going to pursue this path. Should Paris become Pair-EE?”

Adds Liberman, “I see absolutely no need to become foreign in one’s own language.”

It can be hard to keep up with the changes. Recently the Latin American mission priest Junipero Serra (that’s hoo-NEE-pair-oh SEH-rah) merited his own updated pronunciation during coverage of his canonization. In a memo Memmott wrote, “We advise that folks pay particular attention to separating the ‘NEE’ and the ‘pair’ so that it doesn’t sound like we’re saying ‘NEEP.’”

Many left-leaning, maybe college-educated Americans strive to be culturally sensitive, sympathetic, and aware. Sometimes it seems like they’re willing to follow endless, even ridiculous, twists and turns of language and vocabulary to be “correct.” This phenomenon was parodied by Saturday Night Live in 1990. In the skit, a Spanish-speaking news anchor tries in vain to get his Anglo coworkers to stop over-pronouncing. The character seems to discourage English-speakers from attempting a Spanish accent. Perhaps it is a testament to the ascendancy of Hispanophones in the US that twenty-five years later Ruiz essentially requests the opposite.

But Liberman, a native of Russia, feels that pronouncing a word from one language with the accent of another is not incorrect. “We cannot pronounce sounds the way they are pronounced by foreigners,” he says. “You have to be consistent.” The whole trend, he says, is “a product of conscious and conscientious effort to sound local, which means more politically correct. It’s a matter of following fads.”

In the world of public radio, Paris will keep its S-sound, and Rome will never become Roma, Memmott says. It’s the less well known place names that could change. NPR guidelines encourage reporters to be sensitive to the native pronunciation, but to use “what is comfortable to the American ear.” It is this subjective balancing act that yields new “correct” ways of saying things. The trouble comes when speaking correctly gets in the way of being understood.

Roughly a third of the US used to belong to France, another third to Spain or Mexico. The country west of the Mississippi is full of foreign-language names. Is it culturally insensitive, or “wrong,” to use the centuries-old anglicized pronunciations of Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and everywhere in between? Ruiz would seems to say it is.

“When new words appear suddenly, there should be an attempt to pronounce them properly,” says Liberman. “If they are established names,” he says, “they should remain in the form in which they already exist.” But he wouldn’t be surprised if the changes continue. “If someone will tell us to say Koo-bah, we will say Koo-bah,” he says. “We are obedient people. And so quick to be offended.”

Considering the number of Spanish speakers and listeners in the United States, Memmott says he hopes Americans will improve their Spanish accents. He sees it as culturally sensitive, and won’t rule out an eventual switch to KOO-bah.

Fifty years ago Canada created The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to reckon with its long Francophone history. The commission’s work led to the Official Languages Act of 1969, which effectively guarantees English and French equal status in all governmental usages. As of the 2011 census, 22% of Canadians considered French their “mother tongue.” Today almost 17% of the US speaks Spanish, according to the Madrid-based Instituto Cervantes, and the Hispanophone population is growing. Choice of accent aside, these figures suggest that bilingualism in the United States is something to be reckoned with.

Change is possible, after all: Since the mine disaster, the Spanish-accented pronunciation of Chile has become almost universally accepted. But Aliaga, of the Chilean Mission to the UN, admits that sometimes “I say I’m from Chile, like chili pepper,” just to help people understand what she’s talking about.