Monday, August 10, 2009

Loan Word Phonology and Correctness

I have been accused in the past, and rightly so, of being too particular about the way people pronounce Italian food names. It's a thing I do. Or at least, it's a thing I have done. I've tried to be less of a dick about it than I used to, but it still kind of hurts me inside when I hear people ordering "brooshedda".

But regardless of my own inner and outer battles on the subject, the whole thing has made me think about what standards, if any, are necessary for loan words, particularly in contexts like food ordering. Without wanting to be too terribly prescriptivist, it is my instinct to see the virtue of a compromise between reading and pronouncing a word based solely on native language (in this case, English) phonology and pronouncing it completely accurately, accent and all.

A good starting example, where this compromise has been basically universally reached, is "croissant":

"Correct"English phonologyCompromise

In proper French, of course, it would be pronounced with a uvular /r/ sound and the "-nt" would be reduced to a nasalization of the final vowel. But nasal vowels and uvular rhotics don't really exist in standard English. On the other hand, no one goes around pronouncing the /oi/ as in "oink" or fronting the /a/. We've come up with a happy compromise (actually a couple) that approximates the French word using sounds that English already have readily at their disposal, so that everyone knows what they are talking about.

Another case where this medium has been reached, though with slightly less consensus, is "gyros"*:

"Correct"English phonologyCompromise

There are still many people in the English-speaking world who pronounce this like the kind of scope. Even Wikipedia refers to it as the most common pronunciation. But many English speakers are perfectly aware of an alternative which is close enough to be recognizable by a Greek-speaker yet does not strain the native English sound set with crazy greek nonsense like a palatal fricative. In fact, the Y-sound-for-Gamma is a typical Greek-to-English phenomenon (remember this guy?).

These compromises are possible, and are somewhat in use. So the real question is, what determines when they will arise and when they will overtake more thoroughly English pronunciations in popularity? Does it have to do with commonness of the foods they are naming? Is it simply a matter of stubbornness?

Regardless, here's a couple pointers, in case you're ever at an Italian restaurant with me, for "bruschetta," "caprese," and "peperoncini":

"Correct"common EnglishCompromise

(Seriously, is that last one so hard?)

*There is the extra obstacle here of the terminal -s, which does not indicate plurality in Greek, but rather is a case ending. If you're ordering it, you may as well throw that s in there.