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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