My Spectacular Pronunciation

The other day I was buying some jamón serrano at the Ballard Market.  The lady always makes me repeat the word jamón serrano, because she never understands me.  This particular time, I repeated it four times for her, but that wasn’t enough, so she called someone else over to translate for her.

I would have pointed at it, but they didn’t have it in the case.  I said it normal speed, properly, then I said it slow.  They I tried to imagine how it would sound in gringofabulous, and then I tried to say that slow.  I could tell she honestly didn’t understand me, and I was starting to feel that brutish foreigner feeling that I used to feel all the time in China.

Finally, she realized what I was saying; I told her to slice it thin with no paper.  If you don’t say “no paper” she’ll take forever to slice it and put wax paper in between each slice, and then when you get home you’ll realize you’ve paid $25/lb for a bunch of paper.

Anyway, the lady works at a deli; I’m not the first person that’s ever ordered jamón serrano from her… she’s been there for years.  How on earth am I supposed to pronounce it?

“Sorry,” she explained, not that sheepishly, “I didn’t understand because you were pronouncing it so beautifully.”

For those poor souls out there who have never heard me speak, it must be said that my pronunciation is spectacular.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I have seduced entire populations of townsfolk into sexual congress with myself just by saying “Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”  I said it just now, to myself, and turned myself on.  It’s a curse.

Here’s the deal with my fabulous pronunciation; as a child I acquired the phonology of Pacific Northwest English, Filipino English, Tagalog, and Pangasinan.  I don’t speak Tagalog or Pangasinan, but I do own the phonology.  I learned French, Spanish, and Italian in my late teens and early twenties, and got the pronunciation down good enough so that even if I didn’t sound native native, people never pegged me as an American.  I also had the benefit of having studied Phonology 200 as an undergrad, so I know my way around labials and fricatives.

I have always been hyper aware of the local dialect in the Pacific Northwest, and in college I made a conscious decision to speak the dialect I learned as I grew up.  Most English speakers can’t hear a Pacific Northwest accent, but when I make “root” rhyme with “foot” and “roof” rhyme with “hoof” and “woof” they absolutely FLY into a fascist pronunciation-punisher-enforcer mode.  “It’s ROOOOOT,” they shrill, face reddening, hyperventilating, making it rhyme with “suit;” shaking with rage, as if the “foot” vowel were the work of Satan herself.  “The way YOU say it just SOUNDS stuipd!”

Note to non-linguists:  when you say “it just SOUNDS stupid” you are a fascist.  ESPECIALLY if you were an English major.

Certainly, there are things that sound stupid to me, as I am permitted as much fascism as the next guy.  Here are things that just SOUND stupid to ME:

  • bruschetta (when you use a the “shooshing” sound).  I learned that word in Italian first, so I tend to say it the Italian way.  I don’t really begrudge anyone for saying “broossssssshhhhhhetta” unless they try to correct my pronunciation.  Also, I have to say it’s weird to me to order a plate of “bruschetta,” because that’s the singular form, it sounds like you just want one piece.  Anyway, who cares, it’s just a piece of toast with stuff on it.
  • Pike Place Market (the venerable Seattle landmark, oldest continuing farmers’ market in the United States).  Look at it.  Look at the words with your eyes.  Pike. Place. Market.  Count all the S’s.  Seriously, count them, with your freaking eyes.   There are no S’s anywhere between the /p/ of “Pike” and the /t/ of “Market.”
  • Harassment  Remember during the Thomas hearings for SCOTUS, when everyone was temporarily saying “HARRIS-munt?”  What happened?  It was like for a brief moment in time, everyone was suddenly from New Zealand… for just that one word.

When it comes to pronouncing foreign words in English, I’m known as one of those people  who casually slips French words into conversation as a way to intimidate other people.  I’m one of those bastards that will absentmindedly just start speaking French to you, you know since we share that fancy East Coast private prep school education.  Oh pardon, tu parles pas français?  Mais c’est pas possible!

(Did you notice how I omitted the “ne”?  yah, I’m that good.)

Actually, I’m not like that.  I do pronounce French words in English with a French pronunciation, but only if I learned them in French first.  So I’ll honk out a gringo “hors d’oeuvres,” but I will say amuse gueule with a French pronunciation because, frankly, I have no idea how to gringo-honk that word.  Also, “gueule” is an awesome word to say in French (wink wink to the fancy East Coast prep-school educated francophones).

The other day my good friend Frankilicious asked me about my pronunciation of Barcelona.  “Why, JP,” he asked, “do you pronounce “Barcelona” with the /s/ sound of “sell” instead of the /θ/ th-sound of “think…”

I already had the answer, but then he continued…

“Because when you say “Shanghai” you pronounce it “Shànghǎi,” and when you say “Beijing,” you always say “Běijīng“” (as opposed to the honking hyperforeignism “bay-zhing”).

… and I was like, damn, this cat has been listening.

To be quite honest, I don’t have  a standing rule to pronounce foreign cities with the native local pronunciation.  Nothing of the sort.  Here’s what’s really going on in my head:

  • I pronounce 上海 Shànghǎi with Mandarin pronunciation, tones and all, because I heard my friend Nick do it, and I wanted to be like him.  Not kidding.  
  • I pronounce 北京 Běijīng and 台北 Táiběi  (Taipei) with Mandarin pronunciation, tones and all, because if I don’t do it, I know I’ll get it wrong when I’m speaking Chinese.  The same goes for 杭州 Hángzhōu. It took me a LONG time to get in the habit of pronouncing those correctly in Chinese, and I’m afraid to let go.
  • I pronounce Barcelona with an /s/ sound rather than the /θ/ th-sound for two reasons:  1)  Barcelona is a Catalan-speaking city, and in Catalan, the word Barcelona is pronounced with an /s/ sound; so when I say it with an /s/ sound, I’m saying it exactly the way my friend from Barcelona says it;  and  2)  that’s the way I say it in Spanish… I don’t speak a /θ/ ceceo dialect.
  • I pronounce “Avignon” with a French accent because in gringo-honk, “Avignon” sounds like a planet or a disease or something.
  • I pronounce “Paris” and “Rome” in English because we have English names for those cities.
  • I pronounce “Manila” to rhyme with “vanilla” because saying “Maynila” with a Tagalog pronunciation makes me hungry for clams.
  • Mmm, clams.

PS:  I’m linking to this article because it taught me the word “commentariat.”  Also, the author fantasizes about switchblades raining from the sky and killing him and everyone in the room. I’m liking to this article because the word “diphthong” won a tournament.

8 thoughts on “My Spectacular Pronunciation

  1. I can beat that! Can’t say I’ve ever heard a 2 syllable “brooshet” (they favor brew chetter round here) but I was once unable to buy tea in a tea importers in Spain. Even allowing for my sloppy pronunciation, ( I tried really hard ) I still can’t help but feel the woman was being deliberately obtuse, what do people normally buy in a tourist trap tea shoppe? It’s not as if she spent her day selling lawnmowers and pork pies.


  2. Reminds me of when I was in Boston a couple of years ago – three of us were sitting in a coffee shop, and the waitress was taking drinks orders. Charlie is British and she asks for “water” – her pronunciation is perfect: “waw-ter”. Textbook.
    But the waitress is confused, “What?”
    Eventually Lynn, with her American accent, explains to the waitress, “Water.”
    Except that Lynn says it with an American accent, “Wadder.”
    “Oh,” exclaims the waitress. “Wadder.”

    I mean, seriously? It’s a drinks order, right? What could “waw-ter” mean, if it’s not “wadder”??


    • Thanks, Greg. I have heard similar stories about the word “water,” it seems to be the one word that infuriates non-Americans the most. It’s surprising to me as well that a waiter of all people wouldn’t get that… but I must say to our ears, a british “water” sounds like “woah-tsah!” it’s not just the flap-/d/, but also both vowels, and the end of the last syllable that are different. Actually, now that I think of it, it’s really only the /w/ that we have in common (besides the spelling). I’m surprised that I DON’T have problems hearing that word!


      • (also, I want to say that even in those signal-loss situations, I try to avoid sounding like I’m correcting someone’s pronunciation; I find it irritating. of course that’s why I still don’t know what the deli lady’s mental phonemic representation of “jamón serrano” is, because I’ve never heard her say it).


  3. JP, I agree that “woah-tsah” and “wadder” sound different, but two things come to mind:

    – It’s a drinks order. It’s probably something that is on the menu … so it’s might be tea (“woah-tsah”), coffee (“woah-tsah”), coke (“woah-tsah”), milkshake (“woah-tsah”), water (“woah-tsah”) … wait just a second!!! Does she mean “wadder”? Oh!

    – There are lots of American accents – east coast, west coast, southerner, Spanish-english, etc. I would have thought that the ear has been trained to deal with variations.

    Haha, I guess not. Yet.


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