Thursday, May 28, 2009


I've mostly given up politics here, but once in a while - sort of - at an angle... for instance, there is this exchange going on n the blogs: Mark Krikorian at the Corner comments on how to pronounce "Sotomayor" - response is predictable, and he comments again. The first time he's bland - "So, are we supposed to use the Spanish pronunciation, so-toe-my-OR, or the natural English pronunciation, SO-tuh-my-er, like Niedermeyer? " - the next time, he's a bit more pointed:
This may seem like carping, but it's not. Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that's not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

Response has not been favorable, at least not from the lefty blogs (and since I certainly don't read The Corner, without lefty blogs, I'd never have heard of this "controversy". I notice as of today, they are yukking it up about this, as if every word they say about it didn't make them look a little more ignorant...). Is it a "controversy"? Right wing responses to Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the court have not edified - a good chunk of the commentariat is going straight to the race and gender stuff, though I suppose a few are trying to gin up controversy about her record or comments made through the years... I don't know. If the pronunciation thing is anything more than bloggers pissing on each other over a snide remark someone made - that's very sad.

The follow up comments at the Corner are particularly sad. They do tend to get to their point - that Sotomayor is a weird foreigner (born in the Bronx! or whatever) trying to ruin our beautiful mother tongue... they might be taking the piss, of course. The simple answer to the initial question is - try to pronounce a person's name the way they do, or your best guess, if you haven't heard it. Along with a corollary - don't get too worked up when people mispronounce your name, unless you've corrected them recently and they're being stubborn - or taking the piss. I suppose it's equally true - when you are in a country where people speak a different language, do your best to make pronouncing your name easy for them.

What's sad, though, is that under it all, this is a pretty fascinating subject: the political, social, linguistic implications of names - of words and pronunciations, as words flow between languages. It's a window on the ways languages functions - how they evolve and interact; questions about names are themselves fascinating to look at. The ways questions like this are handled change between cultures - I've had Chinese friends, and Vietnamese friends, for example - immigrants, as children, now naturalized citizens - the Chinese friends, more than one of them, adapt English names. The Vietnamese friends do not. Does that mean anything, other than the different communities take slightly different approaches to how they relate to English in America? You see it in other areas too, more public - sticking with Asian names, for a long time, in film books, and film writing (to name one example), Japanese names were given in western order - Akira Kurosawa; but Chinese names are usually given in Asian order: Wong Kar-wei. There are bound to be interesting historical reasons for that...

As for pronunciation - the obvious problem the Corner people have is that they are underestimating the English language. It is, after all, a notoriously greedy language - it takes in anything, accommodates other languages - there is no standard way to pronounce words in English, partly because English from the first was made up of French and Latin and Anglo-Saxon and big chunks of half digested Celtic languages, all of them maintaining their collection of sounds, while redistributing them around the letters used to represent this mess... and it continues apace. Never mind arguing how to pronounce Sotomayor in English - try to get people outside New England to pronounce "Quincy" correctly. (For that matter imagine a Kennedy pronouncing Sotomayor.) The idea of defending proper English pronunciation from the incursion of Spanish derived pronunciations is defending something that doesn't exist from something that made English what it is...

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