She Should Try Italian
An interesting story made the news cycle recently; a Latina news anchor in Arizona had the gall, the temerity, the unmitigated chutzpah to appropriately accent and correctly pronounce Spanish words on TV. And the tar was warmed and the chickens plucked by idiots who adhere to the idea that “this here is uh-MER-ica and she ort to be talkin' like a reg'lar uh-MER-ican.”
Vanessa Ruiz, a broadcaster with 12 News in Phoenix, was born to Latino parents in Miami, grew up in Colombia, studied in Spain, and traveled much of South America and Europe before starting her journalism career in the U.S. She is an intelligent, well-educated woman who understands her heritage and respects its language. And here she is being called down because she doesn't say Spanish words the way Americans – the intellectual cornerstones of modern civilization – say them.
She trips pinhead's triggers by rolling her “r”s. And she sets off lamebrain laments among the clodpoll contingent because she properly pronounces Spanish place names that local yokels long ago bastardized to fit their limited linguistic abilities. “It's MAY-suh, dammit, not MESS-ah. Talk like an American if yore gonna live in America.” Because we all know that the American way is the only correct, legitimate, flawless, inerrant, divinely ordained way to do things, right?
I can relate to her predicament. It's a battle I've been fighting on the Italian front for years. And, as Ms. Ruiz is finding out, it's an uphill fight.
Seldom has George Bernard Shaw's aphorism, “Never wrestle with a pig; you get dirty and the pig likes it” been more true than in the face of stubborn lexical resistance. People know what they know and what they know is right regardless of what you know, you know? I can't tell you how many vacant stares I've gotten from clueless servers in pseudo-Italian restaurants when I have tried to correct their egregiously incorrect pronunciation of words like “bruschetta” and “marinara.” When I explain the proper Italian pronunciations, the blank looks usually transform into simpering smiles. And I know that behind those smiles is the thought, “you poor stupid old geezer,” as if I am the benighted one in the conversation!
The sad truth is that most Americans simply don't give a cazzo volante about what they say or how they say it. As long as they can manage to grunt out a basic level of communication, the finer points of language are pointless and immaterial. They don't care, and if you try to disturb their ignorance they will resent you for it. As Ms. Ruiz is discovering.
Ms. Ruiz commented on Facebook that she was surprised her on-air remarks had led to such a “dynamic conversation.” She went on to say that she intended no disrespect. Indeed, she says her pronunciation is an attempt to offer respect to the heritage of some of Arizona's original settlers. Good luck with that tack, young lady. Timothy Hogan, executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, explains, “My observation is people generally feel threatened by use of communication that they are unfamiliar with.” Bingo!
Ask Giada De Laurentiis. You know what constitutes one of the biggest criticisms haters launch against her? It's not her smile or her cleavage or, most recently, her relationship status. It's the way she pronounces Italian words. People don't like the way she says “spaghetti.” Could her pronunciation be the result of being born in Rome to an Italian family? Ya think? Doesn't matter. People still get all up in her face about it because they believe she is being “uppity” or “pretentious.” Yeah. I hear that one a lot, too. Comes with the territory when your vocabulary is made up of words containing more than one syllable.
One of my favorite excuses for the mangling of Italian words – or any other “foreign” language – is the old “common usage” chestnut. That fallacy holds that an incorrectly pronounced word becomes correct through repetition and common usage. In other words, if enough people say something wrong, it becomes right. My response to that inanity comes from French novelist, journalist, and poet Anatole France, “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”
And the “language is a living thing, always growing and evolving” theory may explain recent additions to the OED like “jeggings” and “staycation” and “twerk,” but it still doesn't excuse the outright mispronunciation of legitimate words.
Americans harbor the conceit that they invented English and that their version of the language is the only valid and correct one. Just look at all the funny things those stupid people from England say. You'd think they'd learn how to speak proper English, wouldn't you? Everybody knows that “can't” rhymes with “ant,” not whatever silly way they say it in England. And how dare all those foreigners from France and Spain and Italy – excuse me, “IT-ly” – all come over here and try to tell us that we are pronouncing their words wrong! The ungrateful so-and-sos. They'd all be speaking German if it wasn't for us, so they can just take what we say and like it.
Come to think of it, the name “America” itself is based on an Italian name, that of Amerigo Vespucci,.......and it's mispronounced by the majority of Americans. Listen to the way the “Sharks” sing it in West Side Story. The members of the Puerto Rican gang pronounce it perfectly. Not that I realistically expect anybody to start saying “ah-MEH-ree-cah” anytime soon, but there it is.
Now, the hot button issue of speaking foreign languages in America is a whole different argument. Although English is the traditionally predominant language in the United States, the country, in fact, has no “official” or “state” language. (Apparently, at least one of the dimmer bulbs on the political Christmas tree thinks that “American” is a language of its own and that Americans should speak “American,” but.......consider the source.) However since English is the predominant language here, its usage should be encouraged, if not mandated. My mother spoke no English when she started school in the U.S. in the 1920s. Now, the current PC way of handling that situation would be to change all the school's signage to something more “inclusive” and to provide Mom with textbooks written in her own language. But in those unenlightened days, rather than forcing everyone in the school to learn her language, she was made to learn theirs before she could advance. And that's the way it should be.
All of which rather circuitously leads me back to my main point: English is English, Spanish is Spanish, Italian is Italian, etc. Every language is “correct” within itself. But when non-native speakers attempt them, that's where the trouble starts because some people are simply not capable of assimilating speech that is not their own. When my sister was learning Spanish, a woman in her class, frustrated with her own ineptitude, put her finger on the problem when she said, “My Southern tongue just won't wrap itself around some of those words.” Some people can't roll an “r” to save their lives, and certain vowel sounds and consonant combinations are just beyond their comprehension. And those are the very people most likely to mangle a word from another language and justify the abuse by declaring, “Well, that's the way we say it in America.”
And therein lies the crux of my issue: so-called “foreign” words are either right or they are wrong. They are either correctly rendered in the manner of those who speak them as a native tongue, or they are incorrect. There is no “American way” of saying an Italian word. Or a Spanish one. Or an Armenian one. Such words are either correctly pronounced as they would be by native speakers, or they are incorrect. Only in America do we have the hubris to take another culture's language, twist it out of shape, and then tell the native speaker that he or she is wrong. When a “foreigner” mispronounces an English word, it's funny. Everybody laughs at his accent and he is ridiculed and stigmatized as being unintelligent. But when an American screws up a word in somebody else's language.....“well, that's the way we say that word in America.”
Bravissima, Vanessa Ruiz. Or should I say muy bueno? You keep right on rolling those “r”s and correctly pronouncing those Spanish words. Don't back down, don't give up, and don't dumb yourself down for the sake of the plebeian ignorant. I'm with you, mia sorella, every step of the way.
Say.......how'd you like to try your hand at Italian?