Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Ironically, one of the things that English-speakers find most difficult to understand when they come to Spain are English words or names pronounced by Spaniards. That's not surprising; French names and words are very difficult for us English-speakers to say correctly. That's because French possesses sounds that English doesn't (front rounded vowels, nasal vowels, that French R) and English possesses sounds that Spanish doesn't (the W, the SH, both TH sounds, the J, the V, and several of the vowels, especially the schwa (the "uh" vowel sound) and what's often called the short I, as in "hit" or "sit". Spaniards give all vowels what some would call in English a "long" pronunciation. What we do when we hit a French sound that's not native to us is to pronounce the closest English sound to it, and that's just what the Spanish do when they run across an English sound they can't say: they substitute the closest Spanish sound for it.

Both the W and the V sounds are pronounced by Spaniards sort of like the English B, so "whiskey" is pronounced "BEE-skee", "web" is "behb", or if you're Catalan, "behp", and "Vermont" is "behr-MON". "Virginia" is "beer-HEEN-ee-yah". "Woody" Allen is "Boo-dee". Clint Eastwood is "Cleen EASS-boot."

The J usually becomes a Y, so "John Wayne" is "Yohn BYE-nay". Michael "Jordan" is "YORR-dahn". "George Washington" is "Yorr BAHCH-een-tohn" (or "BAHSS-een-tohn"). "Jack" Daniel's is, of course, "Yahck".

The SH generally becomes a CH sound, as in "Chicago", pronounced in Spanish with a hard CH, "Chee-CAH-goh". "Shakespeare" is "CHAY-speer", making him sound like a tea-drinking Nazi war criminal. It may also become an S, as in "George Bush"--"Yorr BOOSS". New "Hampshire" is Nueva "HAHM-seer".

The two TH sounds--one voiceless, as in "three" and the other voiced, as in "bother"--come out differently. The voiceless TH generally becomes T, so "birthday" is "BEERT-day" and "Elizabeth" becomes "Eh-LEE-ssah-beht". "Perth" is "Peart". "John Wilkes Booth" would be "Yohn BEEL-kehs BOOT". The voiced TH is unpredictable, but often comes out as a T, an S, or a Z. "Brother" would be "BROH-tair". Or "BROH-zzehr". "Martin Luther King" is "MAHR-teen LOOT-hair KEEN".

This is occasionally slightly funny. I went to the bakery a couple of days ago to get some chapata bread and they had this pie on display made out of some egg custard with ham and cheese on top. It was labeled "Kiss de jamón". Question: What product were they purveying? And why was it called a "kiss"? No, it has nothing to do with tourists, everyone in this neighborhood speaks Spanish or Catalan.

Let me go off track a minute. I've corrected thousands of English-language compositions in my time. I consider myself a pretty tough grader, but I'll let spelling mistakes on difficult words slide if the word is used correctly and the writer obviously knows what it means. There are a lot of words in English that are simply very hard to spell correctly, and occasional mistakes are quite acceptable as long as there's not a pattern of error. I think most American teachers these days probably would follow this rule if more of them knew how to spell. I'm very tough on punctuation, though, probably because all my English teachers in junior high and high school were very tough on it. Mrs. Duke in 10th grade English gave you a zero if you had any punctuation mistakes, for example. I figure that there are very simple rules for punctuation (yes, I know I don't follow the rules myself with quotation marks, but I do follow my own coherent system just because I like it better. When I teach I teach the standard rules) and that it's just plain carelessness if you don't learn them. Especially on my Up-Shit-Creek-With-a-Turd-for-an-Oar list are people who commit comma splices and run-on sentences. Spaniards do this all the time. They don't learn the goddamn punctuation rules in Spanish, which aren't that different from those in English, because the teachers don't care about things like paragraph breaks or not sticking eight goddamn sentences together with nothing but goddamn commas. They do care about spelling, though. Hoo, boy, do they ever care about spelling. Spanish is a language with relatively few sounds compared to English, and it also has very regular spelling rules, again in comparison with English. The only real problems native speakers with eight years of school behind them ought to have are with the letter H, which is silent, and with B and V, which are pronounced the same. Anyone who finishes high school should be able to spell Spanish perfectly. High school and university teachers, if they are hard-nosed, will flunk students over one spelling mistake--in science or social science classes, not only in language and literature. This is considered being tough but fair, because after all, it is highly uncultured to spell words wrong and everyone knows it. So we Americans and the Spanish are exact opposites: we let spelling slide but are fanatics about punctuation, and they don't bother even teaching punctuation but are psychos about spelling. Go figure.

Back off track again. English-language figures with three or more names, like Martin Luther King, generally have two first names and one last name. Martin Luther King's surname is "King". James Earl Jones's surname is "Jones". This generally works for Americans, though not always, and it works less often in Britain, where David Lloyd George's surname is Lloyd George, for example. Spanish people, though, have one first name (or a compound like José Luis which everyone recognizes) and two last names, first the father's and then the mother's, though they may use only one. My wife's name is Remei Guim Galofre, and she uses the name Remei Guim, though she adds on the Galofre for legal papers and bank accounts and phone bills. Some people use both surnames, like the businessman and jailbird José María Ruíz Mateos, always called "Ruíz Mateos"; Rodríguez Ibarra, the prime minister of Extremadura, Durán i Lleída, a leader of Convergence and Union, and García Lorca, the poet. Most people who use both surnames have a very common first one and use the second one to distinguish them from all the other Juan Garcías out there. Occasionally you'll see someone who drops the first surname and uses only the second, like Pablo (Ruíz) Picasso or (José) Antonio (González?) Banderas. Or official national bimbo Ana (García) Obregón. Catalanists will use the second surname if it's obviously Catalan in origin, if their first surname is obviously Spanish. Durán i Lleída is an example. The soccer player Óscar García Junyent is another. Alfred Rodríguez Picó, the TV3 weatherman, is one more.

Anyway, though, this difference confuses Spanish newspapers, who often refer to King on second mention as "Luther King" as if Luther were his first surname. James Earl Ray is often double-surnamed as "Earl Ray". Frank Lloyd Wright was identified in the Vangua in a headline as simply "Lloyd" just this week, something like "New blueprints by Lloyd discovered." I've seen Lee Harvey Oswald referred to as "Harvey" and John Wilkes Booth referred to as "Wilkes"--which, ironically, the real Booth used as his first name.

The urban legend about whatever starlet / bimbo / old hag / ho--it depends on which country you're in--had her breast implants explode on an airplane is told in Spain about Ana Obregón.

By the way, Spanish TV women's-show hostess Belinda Washington claims, first, that that's her real name, and, second, that she's a descendant of the real Yor Bahsseentohn. Impossible. Washington died childless. As far as anybody knows, anyway.

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