I had just started the article “Those Ancient Incan Knots? Tax Accounting, Researchers Suggest” by Nicholas Wade in today’s NY Times when I had occasion to grind my teeth: “They believe they may have decoded the first word – a place name – to be found in a quipu (pronounced KWEE-poo)…” What the hell? Is the Times too proud to actually consult a dictionary? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, for instance, which says “Pronunciation: ‘kE-(“)pü.” Or the American Heritage, which says the same thing in its own transcription. You’d think anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Spanish would be able to grasp that qui = /ki/; if you wanted further confirmation, you could look up the etymology—M-W gives the Quechua word as khipu and AHD as kipu, but either way there ain’t no /kw/. But the Times in its corporate wisdom (I’m not going to blame Wade, since it may well have been an idiot editor who added the “information”) says “I ignorantly pronounce it this way, and since I am the Times I am by definition correct in all things, so I will inflict my ignorance upon the public at large.” Well done, O Newspaper of Record!


  1. It’s actually pronounced “Throat-Warbler Mangrove”, actually.

  2. this isn’t the first time this week they’ve stuffed up on pronunciation. In http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/15/arts/design/15abor.html?ex=1124769600&en=67096af771665edb&ei=5070&emc=eta1
    “Noongar (NEW-ahr) or Nyungar people” It’s /’ɲʊŋə(ɹ)/, basically, which is what I think most people reading Noongar or Nyungar might well come up with on their own. NEWahr??

  3. *tears out own hair, runs amuck*

  4. Graham Asher says:

    Perhaps the New York Times was simply reporting how people pronounce it, rather than how various experts think it ought to be pronounced. There’s not much point in preferring a good anglicisation of a hispanicisation of a Quechua word to a spelling pronunciation of the hispanicisation.

  5. Folquerto says:

    Ne vous faites pas de bile. They will never learn.

  6. If you think that however people pronounce written words is automatically correct (and I doubt this is the position of the New York Times), then giving parenthetical guidance on pronunciation seems rather pointless.

  7. Exactly. The whole point of parenthetical guidance is to say “you probably think it’s pronounced some other way, but it’s not, this is the correct way”; why bother saying (in effect) “you probably think it’s pronounced in this incorrect way, and we’re not going to correct you, in fact we’re going to give you a false sense of security”?

  8. KWEE-poo seems fair enough to me. How would you pronounce quinine, also a Quechua word?

  9. The point is not that etymology determines pronunciation, it’s that (in this case) etymology reinforces pronunciation — in other words, anything the Times might have checked would have reinforced the correct form, which is not the one they provided. I don’t say KWEE-poo and I don’t know anyone who does; I’m sure there are plenty of such people, and obviously if they carry the day that will eventually be the pronunciation, but since none of my dictionaries even mentions it as an alternate, that day is far distant.

  10. One scholar, I forget his name, published a theory a couple of years ago that the Incas used Quipu knots mainly for accounting purposes and that the knots are in essence accounting records. It sounds plausible to me. Every great civilization in history has had ‘bean counters’ or accountants of some kind even though much of modern day accounting as we know it today began in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries.

  11. I might add that unlike most Americans, the British seem to be unaware that que- and qui- are not pronounced the same way in Spanish as English. I have always heard them pronounce “Don Quijote” and “conquistador” as don kwee-ho-tay” and kon-kwis-tuh-dor”. On the other hand, Americans generally seem to know that they are pronounced “dohn kee-hoh-tay” and “kohn-kees-tuh-dor” probably because they live in a hemisphere where Spanish is predominately spoken. Some other peculiar pronuciations they have are jagg-yew-ar, and nik-uh-rogg-yew-uh for jaguar and Nicaragua and saem-yew-rai for Samurai (pronounced saem-er-ai by Americans). Of course, I’ve always been told to never mention those kinds of
    to a British English speaker in person.

  12. —those kinds of things—

  13. I don’t say KWEE-poo and I don’t know anyone who does; I’m sure there are plenty of such people, and obviously if they carry the day that will eventually be the pronunciation, but since none of my dictionaries even mentions it as an alternate, that day is far distant.

    I don’t think there’s much chance of that, really. It’s possible that the majority of English speakers who know the word quipu pronounce it “kwipu”, but most of them know it only as an obscure piece of historical trivia. The only people for whom it’s an everyday vocabulary item are academics, and it appears they say “kipu”. Really, the word quipu scarcely enters the English language at all, unlike quinine or the edible seed quinoa, which if its current popularity continues may well end up pronounced kwiNOa in English (KEENwah is preferred for the time being).
    It’s been generally assumed that the quipus are (largely) accounting records for decades at least. The current findings have to do with identifying a knot-code for a place name (Puruchuco) – the idea that they’re accounts is not recent.
    Incidentally, note Guaman Poma‘s illustration of a quipu in the article. Here’s another one.
    This (KWEE-poo) pronunciation in the NYT article is particularly egregious because the spelling khipu appears in a book title mentioned in the article. It looks as though the recent Science article, which is what this is all about, used that spelling too. Surely it can’t have been Wade who added the pronunciation – he must have read the article and/or spoken with its authors.
    I’m British, and I’ve never heard anyone say “kwee-ho-tay” or “kon-kwis-tuh-dor”. (I can’t even imagine someone saying “kwee-ho-tay” – surely you’re more likely to learn how to say |qu| than |x|?) I do notice “saem-yew-rai”, which irritates me no end, since /mu/ and /mju/ are contrasting syllables in both languages.
    I don’t see anything particularly peculiar about the British pronunciation of “Jaguar” – the American pronunciation is different, but neither is Spanish. And it’s nik-uh-ragg-yew-uh. “-rahg-”, maybe (which would be closer to the Spanish), but “-rogg-” is quite unlikely, as that would mean a rounded vowel in RP.

  14. I thought the odd British pronunciation of “Quixote” was “KWIK-sut”, but perhaps that’s from a previous century.

  15. The English pronunciation of ‘Quixote’ is ['kwIks@t], but that seems to be dying out, in favour of various vaguely Spanish-like approximations; it might even have died out and I might be the only person left who says it.
    I am always mystified, however, by why so many people think that English words should be pronounced as if they were foreign words. The English word ‘samurai’ is pronounced ['sæm@raI], not like the Japanese word [samM4ai] it’s borrowed from; the English word ['dZægju@] comes ultimately from some Latin American language, but that doesn’t bear on the question of what the English word is now.

  16. I thought that the /kwiksot/ pronunciation of Quixote was predominantly a reading pronunciation, i.e. like anemone /ænəmon/ instead of /æ’nɛmɒnɪ/. For me it’s associated with kids who read a lot and encounter these words in print before they hear them. The ‘proper’ (ie standard) UK/Australian pronunciation is certainly /kijote/. on the other hand, I hear conquistador both with kw and with k. The kw pronuncation is probably enforced by related words like ‘conquest’. Your average English speaker doesn’t know that the former comes form Latin via Spanish, and the latter comes from Latin via Norman French.
    By the way, speaking of Spanish words in English, there was a nice doublet on NPR yesterday. In Texas there’s a town called Laredo, right across the border from Neuvo Laredo in Mexico. The reporter said /lərɪɾo/ for the Texan place, but /nwɛvɔ laɾɛðo/ for the Mexican place. Previously I’d only heard either both pronounced as though they were English or Spanish.

  17. I’ve nothing against ['sæm@raI], which is a perfectly respectable adaptation of the Japanese word to English phonology. What I dislike is ['sæmj@raI] or similar, a phonologically unnecessary distortion introduced by a quirk of the orthography.
    It does seem to me that a distinction might be made between loanwords, and foreign words used in (e.g.) English. Although I’m not sure exactly what the distinction is, and the borderline is certainly blurry.

  18. Indeed. I’m frequently tormented by questions of exactly how far to anglicize foreign names and words. Now that I can say Persian names in Farsi, for instance, it’s hard to know how to say them in an English context unless they’re familiar enough to have an established English version (like ko-MAY-nee for Khomeini).

  19. Kirk Sorengaard says:

    BBC World Edition Radio aired a report last week about the Venezuelan government’s distributing a million free copies of a recent rendition into modern Spanish of Miguel de Cervantes’ masterpiece. This act of cultural generosity is part of the Hispanisphere’s celebration of the quadricentenary of the publication of the first installment (of two) of Don Quijote de la Mancha.
    Two UK professors of Spanish literature were interviewed in this report — and thus was I introduced to apparently standard UK pronunciation of “KWIK-sut.” Perhaps the ‘proper’ (i.e. standard) UK/Australian pronunciation is indeed “kee-ho-tay.” Did these UK professors know better, but consider it the wiser to accommodate their UK audience’s common understanding? It is a catchy pronunciation after all. [What jangles my nerves is the UK pronunciation of "mall" (as in "shopping mall") which has the effect on my ears of fingernails scratching a chalkboard; of course a great many Merkinisms must certainly more than jangle the British ear.]
    A couple of “gringa”sounding US profs of Spanish lit were also interviewed. In their sound-bites they referred to Cervantes’ knight errant as we in Lohs Awn-hay-less, CA generally know him: “Dawn Kee-ho-tay.”
    Variety is spicy, so kudos to the Beeb for spreading the word about Don Kwiksot.

  20. I’m becoming intrigued. How does the average Brit pronounce Quixote?

  21. I’m not sure the *average* Brit ever has call to use the word at all, but the adjective derived from Don Quixote – quixotic – is pronounced kwiks-ot’ik (from
    Chambers) and I think some people derive the pronunciation Don Kwik-sote from this… but kee-ho-tay is more common. I haven’t heard
    kwee-ho-tay at all, although conquistador is commonly pronounced con-kwee, and Chambers lists this as a valid alternative.

  22. Chambers is right: it’s been kwiks-ot’ik etc for centuries, probably until cheap Spanish holidays appeared. Of course, if one wanted to be pedantic, shouldn’t one use the contemporary Spanish pronounciation, something like kwee-sh-ottik?

  23. Of course it’s kwikSOTik — there’s never been any other pronunciation of the adjective. I was asking about the name itself, Don Quixote. I had assumed KWIK-sət was like JOO-ən for Don Juan, an archaic anglicization not used since the nineteenth century. But apparently it’s still used in some circles.

  24. The circles who explain to their children or pupils where the word Kwiksotic comes from naturally said Don Kwiksot. Or did until cheap flights. Otherwise we’re off to saying “Paree” and all that.

  25. Back to quipu…an article about the same research in the August 20-26 issue of New Scientist spells it “khipu” for both the plural and singular. Huh!

  26. If that makes it to the Times, I wonder if they’ll recognize it’s the same word?

  27. I don’t think there’s much chance of that, really. It’s possible that the majority of English speakers who know the word quipu pronounce it “kwipu”, but most of them know it only as an obscure piece of historical trivia. The only people for whom it’s an everyday vocabulary item are academics, and it appears they say “kipu”.

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