How to Pronounce “El Paso”: The Fine Art of Pronouncing Foreign Words
You might not think that the right way to pronounce “El Paso” could become the subject of controversy. Moreover, you might not think that such a debate could be relevant to your own life. On both counts, you would be wrong.
In today’s global culture, everyone eventually confronts the problem of pronouncing foreign words. You can sound stupid if you pronounce the word “incorrectly,” but you can also sound pretentious if you pronounce it “correctly.” Which way to turn? In my view, there is no simple rule. However, you can usually find the most appropriate solution by taking yourself and your audience into careful consideration. It’s all about context, and every context is different.
The “El Paso” controversy is a good place to start. Claudia Tristán, a Latina TV reporter for station CBS4/KFOX14 in El Paso, Texas (USA) attracted attention and even harsh criticism for her practice of pronouncing “El Paso” with a Spanish accent.
On social media, she got slammed. One viewer even complained that she “hated” Tristán’s pronunciation. Tristán responded: “I am saying El Paso correctly, in Spanish as it’s written.” She further stated: “I’m a proud bilingual Latina and will continue to pronounce words as they’re meant to.”
Now, just to be clear, I do not mind how Tristán pronounces El Paso. There are only two reasonable options and both are fine with me. The name of the city is so simple that it is almost impossible to misunderstand, no matter how it is pronounced. No one could credibly have been confused by Tristán’s pronunciation. I would not be surprised to learn that many of Tristán’s critics were slightly racist, and some of them, more than slightly.
Still, respectfully, I do not agree with Tristán’s explanation. She states a general principle of pronouncing all Spanish words with a Spanish accent, even when she is speaking English. Tristán seems to believe that there is a self-evident and simple rule for the pronunciation of foreign words. I think that is obviously wrong. One must always balance the respective backgrounds of speaker and listeners.
I boldly stated my point of view in the comments section to a Remezcla blog article (link above). As anyone knows who has ever expressed an opinion on the Internet, the Internet is a fickle creature. You can get plenty of “likes” for pictures of your salad or your dog. Opinions on controversial topics, however, are received less kindly.
I was promptly informed by the Internet that I was “ignorant” (palpably untrue), “illogical” (outrageously false) and “pompous” (point taken).
Here is my soft and subtle response to those idiots.
Tristán’s view is wrong because there is only a “correct” pronunciation for a foreign word in that foreign language. As soon as the word leaps into another language, the issue of pronunciation becomes complex — and there is no simple, universal rule.
The great Dutch painter Van Gogh, for example, is referred to in American English with the pronunciation “van go.” In correct Dutch, however, the name sounds more like “fun hokkh.” In the US, if you are at a cocktail party and someone asks who your favorite painter is, and you answer, “fun hokkkh,” many Americans will simply not understand you. Others will wonder if you have a fish-bone stuck in your throat. Yet others will consider you irremediably and insufferably pretentious. Only the rare and bemused Dutch expatriate will pat you on the back for your guttural accuracy.
Although there is no universally correct way to pronounce foreign words, there is usually a “most appropriate” way, which involves taking into consideration the following factors:
1) how familiar your listeners are with the foreign language;
2) how difficult the word is to pronounce;
3) whether you speak the foreign language;
4) whether there is a widely-accepted local pronunciation;
5) in the case of personal names, how those people like their name
6) how pretentious you are willing to sound,;
7) how willing you are to irritate native speakers of that foreign language.
I was born in Mexico City but when I was in first grade my family moved to Austin, Texas. In Austin, which has a large Latino population, the main “drag” is Guadalupe Boulevard. The standard local pronunciation, used by Anglos and Latinos alike, is “gwada-loop.” It sounds stupid, I know. I do not defend that; but as the saying goes, it is what it is. Even worse, another main thoroughfare, Manchaca Road, is anglicized as “man-shack.” If you ask for directions in Austin and pronounce Guadalupe and Manchaca correctly in Spanish, the locals will be baffled. They will shake their heads and ask: “Whut?”
Unlike some of my compatriots, I do not see much reason to get all encabronado (pissed off) over this. The locals are not doing this because they are racist (although, to be fair, they may very well be racist — but that is another issue). Most likely, people are simply following the local custom. My suggestion is that it is usually appropriate to follow the local custom, even if it is annoying and weird at first.
However, as stated above, there are always exceptions and there is no simple rule. Let us say that you are a Mexican graduate student living in New York, and you are now visiting Austin for the first time. Let us say your name is Guadalupe Manchaca Del Paso. Sadly, my dear Lupe, you are going to have some problems in Austin. It is going to be so hard for you to mispronounce your own name every time you ask for directions. If your mom heard you pronounce your name as “gwada-loop man-shack,” she might hit you with a chancla (slipper), or even something harder. Fortunately for the imaginary Guadalupe Manchaca Del Paso, nowadays we can all use Google Maps.
Let us say, however, that you are a native Spanish-speaker living in Austin. If you are stopped by Mexican tourists asking for the right way to Guadalupe Boulevard, you will probably pronounce it as any Spanish-speaker would. But then, you might want to warn the visitors — be careful, the locals here pronounce it “gwada-loop.”
Another example is the city of Albuquerque. Does anyone in the US really pronounce it Spanish-style, “al-boo-kerr-keh”? Most people, Anglos and Latinos alike, settle for standard American pronunciation: “alba-kerky.” If you want to remain a Spanish purist, go to Albuquerque and try out your Castilian purity. Get back to me on how that works out for you.
An example from another language: former U.S. Congressman and Speaker of the House, John Boehner. If you are unversed in the German language, you might be tempted to pronounce his last name as “boner.” Unfortunately, the word boner is common American slang for an erection. Many people would consider it highly inappropriate to refer to a Congressman as an erection (others might reasonably disagree). More to the point, the German pronunciation would be more like “beuh-ner” (spoken with the lips pursed). Splitting the difference between Teutonic precision and Beavis and Butthead, the Congressman decided his name should be pronounced “bay-ner.” We all went along with the joke. It is an American truism that people can pronounce their own names any way they damn please.
Now to return to my compadres, the problem is especially significant when it comes to pronouncing Spanish words in English. Spanish place-names are all over the US map, and Latinos are the US’s largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority. This is actually a big deal. Perhaps Americans should all learn to pronounce Spanish correctly? It’s not that easy. The US is also home to expatriates from all of the world’s language groups. We have Chinese-Americans, Arab-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, and a few hundred more hyphenates. Are we all going to learn correct pronunciation in Chinese, Arabic, Yoruba and Hindi? What about Marwari? How is your Marwari accent these days? (note: more people speak Marwari than Greek, Dutch, Danish, Czech or Norwegian)
If my theory is correct — that there is no universal rule — then what are Latinos getting so worked up about? Well, we have our reasons.
For one thing, Latinos suffer from more linguistic racism and misunderstanding than any other American ethnic group. As I was working on this article, news reports arose of a lawyer who had thrown a childish tantrum in a Manhattan deli when he heard employees speaking Spanish. He threatened them with deportation. He humbly recanted a week later, after his video went viral and shot to #1 on “America’s most-hated lawyer” charts (and it’s not easy getting to the top of that chart).
In Montana recently, two Latina women (both US citizens) were stopped and interrogated by immigration officials. Why? They were speaking Spanish — which is not a crime in Montana, or anywhere else. In case anyone has forgotten, the current US President came to power on the strength of his virulent anti-Mexican rhetoric. More than 50 million Americans voted for him (about 3 million less than voted for his opponent).
In short, Latinos have ample justification for sensitivity. We have had our names mispronounced our entire lives, and sometimes in a not-very-nice way. We know very well that you will never hear customers objecting that the chefs in a French restaurant were speaking French (the chefs are probably Mexican anyway). I doubt that immigration officials have ever stopped Swedish tourists and asked for their papers after hearing them discuss Abba.
Despite all this, anti-Latino bias should not keep Latinos from reflecting more deeply on our role in a multi-cultural and multi-lingual society. Let us not forget our own complex and painful history. When Latinos express pride in pronouncing Spanish “correctly,” I sometimes wonder, does everyone remember how it was that we came to speak Spanish in the first place?
When Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519, the natives spoke Nahuatl, Mixtec, Yucatec Maya, Tzotzil, Lacandon and dozens of other languages. By some estimates, there were 25 million people living in what is now Mexico. One hundred years later that population had diminished to roughly 2 million, most of them slaves. The Spaniards gave us their language and in exchange they virtually exterminated our people, languages and cultures. It is therefore with grim irony that I contemplate the current fashion for pride in correct Spanish pronunciation. Perhaps we should all pronounce “Mexico” with a correct Nahuatl pronunciation, but I fear it is too late for that.
Despite our history, I do not reject Spanish, not in the least. Thanks to this continent-unifying language I am able to travel and make myself understood throughout the Americas. I appreciate the lovely lilt of Colombian Spanish, the vivacity of the Dominicans and Cubans, the flair of the Argentineans and the audacious pungency of the Mexicans. In Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, the locals put a soft “j” or a “zh” into my name, pronouncing it “ghi-jermo” or “ghi-zhermo.” In some parts of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Spain people will drop in the slightest hint of an “l” — “ghi-l-yermo.” In none of these countries do I tell people to pronounce my name “correctly” or “the way it is meant to be spoken.”
Racism is certainly one reason that some Americans get annoyed by Latinos who pronounce words with a Spanish accent. However, it is not the only reason. Some non-racist Americans also find it pretentious and off-putting. Korean-American journalist Queena Sook Kim wrote an article entitled “Why the Heck Do Latino Reporters on Public Radio Say Their Names That Way?” Kim interviewed journalists Gustavo Arellano and Adolfo Guzman-Lopez to ask them why they pronounced their names with such a strong Spanish accent.
In the interview, Arellano suggested that the emphasis on Spanish pronunciation was a matter of growing ethnic pride and a desire for equality. Arellano argued that it’s only fair because Americans are expected to pronounce other foreign words correctly; he cited French as an example (e.g., “c’est la vie.”). Taking a different approach, Guzman-Lopez admitted that he varied the pronunciation of his own name: “Well it depends on whether I felt you could handle a Spanish pronunciation.” Then he justified his use of Spanish pronunciation on the radio as a matter of not displeasing his mother.
With all due respect to Arellano (who is a very funny satirist) and Guzman-Lopez (admirably devoted to his mamá), their answers are not logically consistent. They both confess to pronouncing “Los Angeles” with an American accent. Arellano has admitted that his own Spanish is “atrocious”(he was born in the US). I doubt his French is very good either. Having lived in France for 12 years I can assure him that Americans rarely pronounce French correctly, nor could they if they tried. That is why the title of the movie “Chocolat” (referring to the French word for chocolate) had to be mispronounced for American audiences with a strong “t” at the end. Next time Arellano goes to Detroit, he should try pronouncing the city’s name with a French accent, just to see how impressed the locals will be.
It is hypocritical for people who cannot speak good Spanish to be doctrinaire about Spanish pronunciation. Pointing to racism as justification is also self-contradictory if, like Arellano, you regularly use words like gringo and gabacho (pejorative slang terms for white Americans). I am not arguing a false equivalence between anti-Latino and anti-white racism; I am just saying, racism is racism.
Latinos continue to suffer unacceptable levels of racism in the US, as do African-Americans and Asian-Americans. However, that does not excuse our own racism, nor does it liberate us from the rules of logic or courtesy. If anything is quintessentially Mexican, it is courtesy. When angered, Mexicans will even insult you in a courteous fashion (it is more satisfying that way).
So where does that leave us? In the final analysis, how the heck do you pronounce El Paso? You might think I have made the issue a hard one, but in truth it is so easy that even four-year old Mexican-Americans have fully mastered it (as seen in this adorable video). In the video, the cutest little girl demonstrates that she clearly understands the difference between a Spanish pronunciation and the way most Americans would pronounce the same word. Most Latinos can effortlessly switch between these pronunciations whenever we think it appropriate.
According to the principles I have outlined above, if you are a proud Latina reporter in El Paso, where 67% of the local population is Latino, no te rajes (don’t wimp out). Pronounce your city’s name Mexican-style, and with pride. But if people disagree with you, don’t lecture them on linguistic correctness, which doesn’t really exist anyway. Lighten up. You are just dealing with people who have not yet learned the fine and subtle art of pronouncing foreign words. We all have to live together, and we have more important things to fight about (like immigration reform). Above all, respect your listeners.
Guillermo C. Jimenez is a professor, author and legal scholar living in New York City. He pronounces his name in a number of ways, depending on context, and doesn’t mind if you do, too.