Mark Liberman of Language Log has a very suggestive entry about the disfluency of the Wolof elite, as described in Judith Irvine’s “Wolof Noun Classification: The Social Setting of Divergent Change” (Language in Society, 7: 37-64 (1978)), at least as he remembers it:

…upwardly mobile men among the Wolof nobility cultivate inarticulateness as a sign of status. They make morphological errors—for example simplifying the Wolof system of noun-class indicators by moving nouns into the default category, as a child or a beginning adult learner might do—and they may even develop a speech impediment. If I remember right, men who rise in traditional Wolof society show these changes over the period of their life from youth to middle age, while less successful members of their cohort stay as glib and morphologically correct as ever.

He correlates this with the famed verbal skills of the griot class, “who are the lineage genealogists, musicians, and general carriers of gossip” and “serve as spokesmen for important members of the high-status group.”

So one of the symbols of high status is hiring someone to speak on your behalf; and skill in speaking comes to have low status, rather like skill in typing once had, back when it was something that only secretaries and journalists did.

A fascinating concept, and it may explain why American politicians seem to make a point of mispronouncing foreign names. They’re above all that.


  1. aldiboronti says

    I rather think an opposite dynamic is at work in American politicians. That is, it’s not a mark of eliteness but a sign to voters that ‘we’re just plain folks, we have trouble with those fancy furrin names too.’

  2. Back in the early ’90s during Desert Storm, I remember hearing that it was a deliberate effort to dishonour the Middle Eastern leaders: that mispronouncing their names was an attempt to insult.
    Of course, that was probably an excuse for what I thought at the time was utter incompetence and now could be a sign of … er, being too good to say them right?

  3. At every place I’ve worked, there is an inverse correlation between quality of written communication and rank in the company. Managers, directors, and C?Os especially seem to revel in sending out inscrutable email, written in a shorthand almost like a 12 year old’s instant messages. Grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and plain old unclear writing get more common the closer you get to the top. The exception is the CEO himself: there’s probably a whole department that edits all email “sent” by him.
    Are they trying to impress us with how busy they are? Or show that they’re so important that it’s OUR problem to translate their scrawlings into some sort of sense? It’s not working on me.

  4. I’m not sure if this really relates, but: At the graduation ceremony I attended after teaching a year at a locally founded new community college in China, all the teachers and school officials spoke in Mandarin, while the mayor and other local politicians spoke in Cantonese. Even in my daughter’s preschool, the stern academic teacher spoke only in Mandarin, while the motherly teaching assistant talked to the kids in Cantonese.
    In Pohnpei (Ponape), those who need to only master the intricacies of formal “high language” gradually as they get older, starting well past puberty. In fact, there is a lot in any language that is not mastered until well after puberty.
    Maybe Japan is more like the Wolof case: older men can get away with being horribly inarticulate on occasions when they play the role of alpha male, on the receiving end of honorifics. Of course, being inarticulate and relying on intermediaries to “clarify” has political advantages in any fractious hierarchical culture–like most bureaucracies.

  5. I agree with the first commenter, that it is probably an attempt by politicians to avoid seeming too intellectual. American voters don’t like intellectuals.

  6. “… that mispronouncing their names was an attempt to insult…”
    Akin, perhaps, to Churchill’s pronunciation of “Nazi” as “Naaazi” rather than the correct German “Naatzi”?

  7. Wasn’t Al Gore dissed by the press for *correctly* pronouncing various Serbian names during a debate in 2000?
    Apparently he was supposed to intentionally get them wrong to avoid putting too much pressure on his less articulate opponent (!)

  8. Americans in general seem not to try to pronounce foreign names correctly. I think you had a thread earlier in which I opined that it seemed to me sometimes to be “linguistic laziness.” Several persons pointed out that the altered pronunciation is natural, which is how language changes. That may be true, but now I’m thinking there may be some truth to there being some laxity, hostility, or laziness involved.
    When I do find someone who pronounces foreign words as in the language of origin, it’s an exception rather than the rule. But then again, most native-born Mexicans I meet mispronounce English. Bush and other politicians are showing that they are “men of the people,” as opposed to “those elitist intellectuals.”

  9. There was an article I read in the an online news article about John Kerry and his ability to speak French fluently or fairly fluently. If I remember correctly, the article mentioned that the French ambassador spoke to Kerry in French and Kerry pretended not to understand him because he was running to be the Democratic candidate. Another example of a politician not wanting to appear intellectual.

  10. Ian: You’ve got the story somewhat wrong; read about it here.

  11. In my experience, a lot of non-Americans mispronounce foreign names too.

  12. Without disputing that some of the pronunciations transcribed seem egregious, it should be noted that even with the best will in the world, most anglophones are going to have difficulty producing a thoroughly correct pronunciation of “Abu Ghraib”. I know that until fairly recently I’d have been unable to produce a voiced velar fricative without extensive coaching.

  13. Australians routinely mispronounce foreign names as well although perhaps not as badly as Americans do on average. There’s a reluctance here to pronounce the long “a” for fear, I think, of sounding too posh (a crime against egalitarianism) . This means that they are largely incapable of pronouncing correctly many names from their South East Asian neighbourhood.
    Europeans also often try to force foreign words into their style of pronounciation but the most meticulous people I’ve met with regard to correct pronounciation (as in trying to pronounce a word as it would be pronounced in its country of origin) are the Swiss. I suppose it helps to be a polyglot nation to begin with.

  14. Mr Hardy, are you an Australian?
    (The hat knows that I have my own reasons for feeling obliged to add this non-post.)

  15. speedwell says

    I’ve worked as an executive secretary in Houston for some time. Here, it’s fairly common for big-shot executives to mispronounce Spanish street and locality names (sometimes even if the execs are Hispanic themselves). One local boulevard, “San Felipe St.,” went by “Sen Flippy” so much I wanted to scream blue murder.
    After that, I started to take note of mispronunciations of people’s names, and I noticed that the higher status a person was perceived to be, the more likely it was that his name was pronounced respectfully. For example, Mr. Cardenas would be “Cardeenuhs” if he was a delivery driver, but “Cardaynahs” if he was the CEO. It is NOT a coincidence.

  16. Thank you. That’s exactly what I would expect.

  17. Jaime, an adept mopman and capable stocker in my Walmart, is Jaime in the English pronunciation to the bosses, but Hi-Me, in the Spanish, to us, the co-workers.

  18. I think it’s also that English is read partly logographically. The spelling is so irrational that people just look up the closest stored match and use that. I came to this conclusion many years ago when Lansana Conte became president of Guinea and someone of my acquaintaince looked at the name, hesitated, and said Lasagna. You just can’t get that output from that simple input.
    I mean, how difficult is Abu Ghraib to have a stab at? Abboo Grabe, gh as in ghost, ai as in raid, there’s really no choice about how to anglicize it. Okay, it’s not perfect Arabic, but it is the closest English, and it’s unequivocal if you apply our phonetic rules… So I don’t think that’s how people read words.

  19. Speedwell:
    I was born and raised in Texas; you’re right about the respect/power aspects of Anglos’ pronunciation of Spanish. In addition, the Anglicized versions indicate local or insider status. Any native English-speaker in Houston who doesn’t say “SanFLIPee” obviously is a newcomer. (In Austin, the equivalent roadway is “Manchaca,” pronounced “MANshack.”) I wonder how long it takes, on average, for a newcomer to adopt the insider pronunciations.
    While I concur wholeheartedly with all the reasons cited for poor pronunciation of foreign words — arrogance, cluelessness, etc. — there’s the difficulty in hearing, much less producing, sounds that don’t exist in your native tongue.
    And, obviously, context counts — the intent of the exchange and its location. Ordering a meal or conducting business? At home or in a foreign country? A fleeting exchange or the beginning (one hopes) of something more? As with nearly everything we do, deciding how much effort we make to accommodate a foreign language, for how long, is the result of complicated, largely unconscious calculus.
    Finally, what’s the LanguageHat consensus on uttering foreign words and names with widely Americanized pronunciations, e.g., “Van Gogh”? Stick with the standard American “van GOE” or try for something closer to the original Dutch?

  20. My rule (such as it is, and I’m probably not consistent) is to use 1) the consensus pronunciation among English-speakers (thus “van GOE” and “KROOSH-chef”), or in the absense of such a consensus 2) the nearest approximation consistent with the sound patterns of English (thus ZHOR-zhay ah-MAH-doo for Jorge Amado, with English r). But I do use the German ch fricative for Bach, which makes me wonder why I don’t use it for van Gogh. Because it would sound abominably pretentious, I guess. Normal people do say Bach with a kh, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody outside of a Woody Allen movie say “van GOKHHH.”
    A separate question is what to do about binational names, like Alberto Fujimori. In Peru everyone says “fu-khi-MO-ri,” with Spanish j=kh, so sometimes I say that, but most of the time I pronounce it the way it’s written, because, well, it’s a Japanese name.

  21. There isn’t any single English consensus on how to pronounce Van Gogh – most English nationals say “van goff”, in my experience, and I’ve heard of people who say “van gok”. For myself – I don’t talk much about Van Gogh, really, but I’d probably use a velar fricative (the artist himself probably used a palatal, apparently, but there are limits.) I don’t care much about sounding pretentious (although there are, again, limits – I wouldn’t, for example, use the French pronunciation of Paris). The inital G, incidentally, is also a fricative.
    “Abboo Grabe” is probably the most appropriate anglicization of name of the Iraqi prison, agreed. (I try to get closer to the original myself, but I wouldn’t expect it of others). And that’s probably how “Abu Ghraib” would be pronounced if it were English. There may be an element of “default foreign pronunciation” here. (As in the tendency to pronounce the “j” in Beijing as “zh” rather than “dzh”, which would be both more correct and more familiar.) The digraph “ai” in foreign spellings often represents something more like the diphthong in the word “eye”. Do we get many people saying “Abu Gribe”? (I haven’t really been watching the television, so I don’t know.)
    Most anglophones have relatively little idea of how to pronounce Arabic names as transcribed, in comparison to e.g. Spanish or Russian. This being the case, I wonder if some of the more implausible pronunciations reported don’t result from deliberate mumbling, on the theory that it’s better not to try than to be seen to fail.

  22. Fascinating info on Van Gogh’s probable palatal — thanks!

  23. In Vancouver, Broughton Street is a shibboleth, pronounced Brow-ton. Armed with the correct pronunciation, I had a taxi driver from the airport thinking I was a local until we were close to my destination and I revealed I wasn’t, at which point he wanted to take me a mile out of my way. (Fortunately, there are MapQuest and Yahoo! Maps.)

  24. >>One local boulevard, “San Felipe St.,” went by “Sen Flippy” so much I wanted to scream blue murder.
    Ha! That’s funny. As a Houstonian, I want “to scream blue murder” whenever I hear anyone refer to San Fuh-LEE-pay. The “traditional” pronunciation (San Fillipee) is, alas, rapidly disappearing as more people move here from somewhere else.
    Other local shibboleths:
    San Jacinto–San Juh-sinno (not HahSEENtoh)
    Almeda–al MEE-duh
    There are others, of course…

  25. Man, do I love local pronunciations. I share your disappointment at the disappearance of “San Fillipee,” even though I just found out about its existence.

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