Is It Spanish Pronunciation “As It Is Meant To Be”?

Sep 4, 2015 by

[Thanks to David Benkof for bringing this issue to my attention and for the great discussion that ensued.]


Ms.RuizA recent New York Times article titled “Arizona News Anchor Is Drawn Into Debate on Her Accent and the Use of Spanish” brings up several important issues about the use of Spanish in the United States, the nature of intra-linguistic and inter-linguistic variation, and the English-only debate. While no sane person can deny that Spanish is playing an increasingly important role in the United States, there are several aspects of these issues that need further clarification.

According to the article, Ms. Vanessa Ruiz, a news anchor for 12 News in Arizona has been “embroiled in a debate regarding her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts”. Although it is hard to tell from the article’s meager examples what exactly she pronounces in a controversial way and how exactly she pronounces these words (or how other English speakers in Arizona pronounce the same words), it appears that she pronounces Spanish-origin personal and place names the way (some) speakers of Spanish pronounce them rather than in the traditional English way. For example, she pronounces the name of the third largest city in Arizona, Mesa, as “Mess-uh” rather than “May-suh” as other locals would say it. The article further states that Ms. Ruiz “defended her pronunciation of Spanish words during English broadcasts, saying she delivers them the way the language is intended to be spoken”, which begs an immediate question, “intended by whom”? (Or “by who?”, if you prefer!). After all, pronunciation, like other aspects of a living language are not God-given and set-in-stone. Speakers of Spanish pronounce numerous words differently, depending on where they come from. As David Benkof wrote on his Facebook post,

“If there IS a right way to pronounce a Spanish word, is it the way it’s pronounced in Mexico City? In Buenos Aires? In Madrid? In Barcelona? All are different. And it’s sometimes pronounced differently among rich and poor Spanish-speakers, 18th-century and 21st-century Spanish speakers, and immigrants to Spain from North Africa vs. mestizos in Puerto Vallarta.”

A well-known example of regional pronunciation differences in Spanish is the pronunciation of a word- (or syllable-) initial fricatives: European Spanish speakers say [θjelo] for ‘sky’ where Latin American speakers say [sjelo], and the like. As Ms. Ruiz claims to be “paying respect to the way some of Arizona’s first, original settlers intended for some things to be said”, one only hopes that she is consistent in her Mexican pronunciation of Spanish words. (One has to wonder, of course, why she also considers those Hispanic settlers from Mexico to be “Arizona’s first, original settlers” rather than the indigenous native North American groups such as the Navajo; after all, the return to the native North American place names is exactly what has happened to the country’s highest mountain, Mount McKinley, now Denali, which also apparently lost 10 feet of its height!)

Whatever pronunciation Ms. Ruiz chooses to use as her “correct Spanish pronunciation”, it is not self-evident that pronouncing foreign words—even names—exactly as in the original language is what speakers of the target language do or should do. To quote from David Benkof’s post again:

“Shall we stamp out the American pronunciation “Japan” because Japanese people actually say “Nihon?” Should we start expecting news anchors referring to Middle East news to say “Yerushalayim” instead of Jerusalem and “Yisrael” instead of Israel? But wait – maybe they should use the Arabic words for those terms. Or they should use the Hebrew terms, but try to pronounce them the way they were pronounced in Biblical times, because hey – that’s the way they were “meant” to be pronounced.”

In earlier posts, I have already discussed the absurdity of insisting that speakers of another language pronounce, spell, or decline proper names derived from your language the exact same way that you handle them “in their original language”. One much-discussed example of this is the insistence on the part of some Ukrainian speakers that the name of their country appear without the definite article in English and with the preposition v ‘in’ rather than on ‘at’, which has been the traditional Russian usage (although it has to be admitted that the use of v Ukraine is growing in Russian, whether or not at the Ukrainian insistence); see discussions here and here. How place names are pronounced and declined is, after all, subject to the language-internal rules of the target language, which can be rather complex, as is the case for example with gender assignment of foreign place names in Russian. In some cases, the pronunciation of a given foreign name is decided on a case-by-case basis: for example, in Russian we say [vəʃington], with the stress on the last syllable, and an initial labio-dental fricative, but Shakespeare’s first name is spelled with a “Ui” in the beginning and pronounced with an initial sound more akin to the English labio-velar glide /w/. Yet, the USS Prince William is sometimes spelled with “Ui” and sometimes with a “Vi”, and can be pronounced accordingly; both spellings are found in the Russian Wikipedia article on the ship. Prince William the person is virtually always spelled “Uilliam” though. The name of the 28th U.S. President is always rendered in Russian as “Vudro Vil’son” and pronounced with initial labio-dental fricatives /v/ in both names. Why, you might wonder? “Because”, as we say in Russian.

One could argue that instead of insisting on changing the English pronunciation of certain foreign words, which Ms. Ruiz appears to do, according to the New York Times article, she employs code-switching in her on-air speech, jumping from English to Spanish and back. To that, I would object that code-switching, a common enough phenomenon in the casual speech of bilinguals, is not situation-appropriate when it comes to TV news broadcasts, a pretty formal setting, as opposed to a casual chat between friends. I don’t expect that the defenders of Ms. Ruiz’s way of speaking on air would be as kindly inclined if she insisted on her right to use the infamous quotative like (for example, in the speech of a teenager citing/imitating her mother’s speech: “And she’s like “You have to do you homework!””). This quotative marker allows one to render direct speech without having to use “air-quotes” or some other way to indicate the use of a direct quotation (which is done in written English through the use of appropriate punctuation), as well as to render non-lexical aspects of speech, such as intonation, speech impediments, and the like. In his book And God Said, Joel M. Hoffman discusses a similar quotative marker in Biblical Hebrew, leimor, and the ways it has been rendered in various English translations of the Bible. A thoroughly colloquial translation of the Bible might have something along the lines of: “God blessed them, like, Be fruitful and multiply”. However, most people would sense some stylistic awkwardness in this use of very colloquial elements in a Biblical text; whenever I discuss this issue in my classes, I always get a round of embarrassed giggling from the students. Although news broadcasting is stylistically different from Biblical texts, it is also too formal for colloquial elements such as the quotative like; code-switching would, for many people, fall into the same category of colloquialisms.

All in all, as sympathetic as I am towards the use of Spanish and other Heritage Languages in the United States, I find Ms. Ruiz’s use of the “Spanish pronunciation” on air rather objectionable. To paraphrase the Book of Ecclesiastes, there’s a time for Spanish pronunciation and a time for English pronunciation, and for me at least, TV news broadcasts fall into the latter category.

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  • And a humorous take on the issue:

  • johnwcowan

    I haven’t listened to her, but when I hear a Spanish-speaker on the radio in NYC, I expect to hear Spanish words and names pronounced Spanish-fashion, just as if I were listening to Spanish-language radio, it would be natural for English words and names to be pronounced English-style.

    • Do news readers on Spanish-language radio or TV really pronounce English place names or names with a proper English pronunciation? I’ve never heard such a thing! (Not that I listen to a lot of Spanish-language TV or radio… or Mandarin, or Cantonese, or Filipino… for that matter). But one certainly doesn’t hear American/British names pronounced the English way on Russian TV/radio/films or whatever… I wonder if other readers may have input about how this works in their countries/languages — do they pronounce English place names the English way in France, Norway, Poland, Brazil, or wherever? Let us know!

      • johnwcowan

        I meant Spanish-language radio in NYC, where there are several such stations and the DJs and announcers tend to be fully bilingual.

        • Oh I understand that you meant in the US. We’ve got plenty of Spanish-language TV/radio here in California too, for sure. The point is I’ve never actually heard them use English pronunciation for English place names. But I am also broadening the issue to how it is done across languages and culture. Always fascinating to learn about other places…

          By the way, I wouldn’t apply the same standards to DJs as to news anchors: the speech of DJs is far less formal, I am sure. I would not cringe at them using quotative “like” for instance. News people, that’s a different story. Do you disagree?

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            Not to argue but to add.

            The Russian linguist V.M. Alpatov witnesses that in the language of advertising in Japan they use a plenty of gairago – foreign borrowings, mainly from English. Many of these words are incomprehensible. Their sole purpose is to create a
            sense of belonging to the Western world. There is also a trend of producing multiple wasei-eigo (English words coined in Japan).

            In the musical and advertising shows in Balkan countries (I have impression from Bulgarian, Rumanian and Serbian radio stations) they often strive to pronounce English names with their original accent. I think the reason is the same – stylistic considerations. In newscast however this never happens.

          • Thank you for your comments, Ilya. Very interesting about Japan: its relationship with the Western world is a fascinating topic in its own right.

            As for your description of musical and advertising shows in Balkan countries, it would really surprise me if they actually pronounced (as opposed to what they may or may not strive for!) English names with English phonology, considering that knowledge of English as L2 there isn’t all that great, compared to, say, Scandinavian countries, but even there, I’ve heard Norwegians speaking Norwegians typically pronounce English names with Norwegian phonology. Given that phonetic/phonological aspects of language are among the hardest to acquire non-natively, that’s not surprising. I’ve written about morphological and phonological adaptation of English words in Russian here:

            …and it would be interesting to do a comparative study of Bulgarian or Serbian!

          • Ilya Zlatanov

            I don’t insist that they always keep the original pronounciation, I am just saying that this sometimes happens – unlike in newscast. E.g. in Rumanian adbreaks I hear regularly “Dr. Oetker” with original German umlaut – a sound that is absent in Rumanian. On the other hand the main purpose of musical shows in entertainment, and they may keep the original accent just for colouring. But they use also other playful tricks: Drum and bass is sometimes pronounced in Bulgarian, jockingly, Гръм и бяс (Grum i b’as), which means literally ‘thunder and rage’, Russian Гром и бешенство
            As to the morphological adaptation of English loanwords in Bulgarian and Serbian, the situation in similar to the Russian. In the slang English words are fully “domesticated”

          • Great pun! Thanks for sharing this, Ilya!

  • Jon Aske

    I can see it both ways. On one hand, it seems a bit pedantic for a news anchor to pronounce [mesa] rather than [meɪ̯sə]. On the other hand, to make a big deal of a bilingual Hispanic news anchor who pronounces a handful of easily recognizable Spanish words with a more Spanish-like pronunciation, seems to me to be something that Donald Trump and his acolytes would have a problem with, not people who enjoy diversity. What’s the big deal? It’s just a few words. If it makes Latino people happy to pronounce Latino as [latino] instead of [lətɪnoʊ̯], and even to have a feminine version of this word, Latina, what’s the big deal? These are people who speak English and are not bitter about it, but who would also like to make a small statement to the effect that the other language they speak, namely Spanish, was the language of the lands where they live (which, by the way, were taken over by the United States against the people’s will). So, big deal! Get over it!

    • I am glad you bring in the political dimension to it, because I think that’s exactly what’s at the crux of it. Ms. Ruiz doesn’t just pronounce certain words a certain way (variation, after all, ubiquitous in language), she makes a political/ideological point of it. Notably, it’s only Spanish words that anyone pronounces “their proper original way”, not words from other languages, even where such languages are commonly spoken, even more commonly than Spanish. Nor do Spanish-language broadcasts employ “authentic” English-style pronunciations of English place names or personal names. At least, I’ve never heard that. So it’s not a symmetrical node to where a given word comes from.

      As for this whole people-who-live-there-had-their-lands “taken over by the United States against the people’s will”, it’s not true. Most of the Spanish-speaking people in Arizona and neighboring states came AFTER it was part of the U.S., as can be seen from the “Immigration Explorer” website, discussed and linked to here:

      • Jon Aske

        Like I said, I do not think that pronouncing certain, originally Spanish names (only a few of them and very occasionally, mostly probably foreign names, from what I gather) in a Spanish-like fashion and without causing any misunderstanding among the listeners, is out of place or even objectionable, even in a more formal news context (though a lot of the news these days sound pretty informal and full of colloquial speech) and especially not in a place like Arizona, which has a lot of bilinguals (and used to be part of Mexico, by the way). I still think that people who object to something as minor as this probably have an ax to grind (no bashing intended here). They may be against diversity, or they may be against Spanish, or they may be for the purity of English in formal settings, or for the formality of news reporting, or they may not like to be reminded that the US stole the land from Mexico, or it could be something much more innocent than all that for all I know in some cases. Another possible factor that I think I have noticed/detected is that non-Spanish-speaking immigrants to the US sometimes seem to resent that Spanish has a privileged status as a minority language in this country, one that French and Russian, for example, do not have. That may be another factor to the strong reactions I detect here. Again, I am not trying to bash anyone, just trying to understand why some people are upset about something that to me seems so insignificant and trivial.

        • First of all, let’s clear up this “US stole Arizona from Mexico” nonsense. I refer you to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), a binding international law. U.S. paid a certain sum of money for territories including Arizona, a purchase to which Mexico agreed, whether they like it or not being entirely irrelevant. So to say that “US stole Arizona from Mexico” is like the previous owner of the house I’ve purchased coming back and saying that I stole it: I paid for it and have a legal document that verifies it. If they were to make such claims, it would end up with a lot of unpleasantness for them.

          As for your statement that “some people are upset about something that to me seems so insignificant and trivial”, if it’s so insignificant and trivial, why do you keep writing long comments, eh?! More importantly, the post I wrote EXPLAINS linguistic reasons why her behavior (as described in the NYT article) is “out of place”, same as if someone in her job anchored the news in a bikini or wearing a swastika. She is not behaving in an appropriate manner that her employer would reasonably expect. She is making a political point. If her employer is upset with that, I think it’s perfectly fair of them to bring it up with her. And as she’s making a political point publicly, she can’t expect everyone to agree with her political point (would she even be making it if she expected everyone to agree?).

          It all touches on a larger issue: that many people have come to believe that it’s their “god-given right” to behave in whatever manner they please at any given moment. Decorum, etiquette, societal customs are out the window. But that’s not how it works, and when such people encounter a push-back, they can’t claim to have their rights violated. There are social rules and that’s how things are. Same applies to language: I am not defending “the purity of English in formal settings”, I am simply stating as a fact of life that there are situations that call for a “formal” style of language and situation where “informal” register is called for. Mixing them up—in either direction—results in inappropriateness that can have all sorts of unpleasant consequences, from being fired from a job (or not getting a job after an interview) to becoming a laughing-stock or social pariah.

          The larger point here is that one cannot intentionally legislate in matters of language: it simply doesn’t work. I’ve written extensively in this blog on language laws, which don’t really work. But there are customary ways of speaking, just as there are customs of dress, eating, etc., and attempting to go against them is a bit like fighting gravity.

          • Jon Aske

            I can see we’re going to have to agree to disagree. You are not going to convince me and I am not going to convince you that what is going on here is trivial. There is something, however, that I just have to respond to. To equate the acquisition of the South West by the US to a regular purchase of a house is ridiculous. The only way the situations are equivalent is if the “buyer” first goes into the “seller’s” house, who the “seller” does not want to sell, and then the “buyer” beats up everybody in the house, puts a gun to the owner’s head, and forces them to sign the sale papers. If that is a legal and irreproachable sale to you, then I don’t know what to say. To me it is more the way the Mafia operates. Maybe the sale of Alaska by Russia was a regular sale, but not the “sale” of the South West to the US. No way.

          • You keep giving emotional evaluations, like “trivial” — I am not interested in evaluations, I am simply providing linguistic background for describing what is happening. My point is that this news anchor is making a point, nowhere did I say that it’s a bad, or important, or unimportant thing to make points. But if doing so falls outside of her job description and her employer isn’t happy with that, that’s their prerogative.

            As for the purchase of the Southwest by the U.S., it’s in accordance with the international law. You might not like how international law operates or how law in general operates, but that’s not a problem you can take up with me.

          • giovanni

            John, would you consent to the formulation that the Mexican Republic stole it first, and therefore their larceny has higher priority? Arizona wasn’t Spanish speaking at the time of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Navajo, Apache and other cultures were more prominent. Nor was Spanish the language of an overwhelming number of ancestors of the people now moving into the southwestern region of the US. At the time of G-H, loads of them didn’t speak Spanish. Many spoke a variant of Nahua or Mixtec or some other native language. Spanish was the language of elites, mestizos and recent immigrants from Europe. You’re reifying things that are actually much more contingent than you account for. Latinos in this country have a claim on equal justice that isn’t always honored today. But their claim on Arizona, Texas or New Mexico, to the degree it rests on a claim by virtue of being Mexican, is a bit ridiculous, except maybe as measured in the honor code of thieves.

          • Well-said! I was thinking about the real indigenous inhabitants too… except it may be very difficult to track them down now.

  • Thanks for exploring this issue in more depth, Asya. I want to let everyone know that I met Dr. Pereltsvaig when I was a student in her online course “Languages of the World” through the Continuing Studies Department of Stanford University. You won’t be shocked to hear that a good portion of the reading assignments in this course were essays on this blog. The course must have done something right with me, as shown by how I read about an article in The New York Times with my “linguistics cap” on – so much so that my instructor agreed with my points and wrote about my comments here!

  • Gnat

    Someone should tell her to pronounce Spanish words of Arabic origin with the original uvular and pharyngeal sounds.

    • Jon Aske

      This is silly. Nobody is talking about how to pronounce fully assimilated words that were borrowed hundreds of years ago. The only example I have seen is Mesa, the name of a city, which Spanish speakers are entitled to pronounce [mesa] and which even has an obvious Spanish meaning, namely ‘table’. For all I know, the other words that are involved here are city names, country names and personal names. I am sure we are not talking about ancient loanwords such as Eng. sugar or Sp. azúcar that came from Arabic hundreds of years ago. I think before going overboard here it would be helpful to learn more about what words are involved and how often this phenomenon happens in this newsanchor’s speech before putting down the poor woman.

      • The “poor woman” clearly intentionally made a political point, which is exactly what I’ve pointed out in the post. She is not adopting a normal, appropriate linguistic behavior. Regardless of how long ago a word was “borrowed”, if it has a target-language pronunciation, then it has target-language pronunciation. Nobody insists that Spanish speakers SPEAKING SPANISH pronounce Mesa or any other Spanish- or foreign-derived word according to its Spanish pronunciation. But code-switching inappropriately to a given situation is a behavior intended to make a point. And making such implicit political points when your job is to read out the news may not sit well with her employer, fair enough.

      • Gnat

        It was intended to be silly. English is English. If you want a more direct comparison, how about Spanish-speakers’ pronunciation, in Spanish, of place names of Arabic origin? Or of place names of Nahuatl origin? Would she even care? Almost certainly not. If Mexicans of native descent asked that all their names/place names be pronounced according to their native phonologies, even in Spanish, this same leftist martyr would laugh in their faces.

  • johnwcowan

    Jon Aske is entirely right about the U.S. seizure of Mexican lands. When Mexico signed the 1848 treaty, they were a conquered country with their capital under U.S. occupation. There was, indeed, a faction in the U.S. that was in favor of annexing Mexico in its entirety, and there was nothing to stop that happening except internal U.S. dissension.

    It’s true that the U.S. paid Mexico $18M for the land (about $500M today), but that was a derisory sum for 2.37 million km² (about half the size of European Russia, and in relative terms about 55% of Mexico’s pre-war land area). By comparison, the Gadsden Purchase of 1854 peacefully transferred a mere 23,000 km² of Mexico to the U.S. for $10 million.

    • giovanni

      US re-seizure of native lands. Not that facts are likely to interrupt your righteous anger on behalf of the downtrodden and victimized dictatorship of Santa Anna in its attempts to enforce metropolitan control over provinces it was hardly even in communications with.

      To add some linguistics back in, I’d like to know if there is a term for the use of words like “entirely” in the context above (“entirely right”), which seem emphatic not of the adjective they emphasize, but rather of the fervor of the speaker.

      • “Speaker-oriented adverbs”?

        • giovanni

          Nicely done.

          • The terms exists but I am not sure if the case you’re asking about falls under this heading… nor that anyone has even researched this.