Thursday, December 17, 2009

Globalization casts a long eye on US news media’s world language skills – or lack thereof

There’s an old joke that goes like this:

Q: What do you call someone who speaks three languages?

A: Tri-lingual.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks two languages?

A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call someone who speaks one language?

A. American.

In their unceasing efforts to prove they are cosmopolitan and global, the US news media have once again demonstrated their ignorance of foreign languages and pronunciations.

In all the stories about Tiger Woods’ troubles, the media continue to mispronounce Tiger’s wife’s first name.

This is almost certainly an effort to show how worldly they are when they encounter a name that doesn’t follow the ridiculous spelling conventions we’ve grown up with in American (and British) English.

Thanks to Hjörtur Smárason for confirming my suspicions about how silly the American broadcasters all sound.

Let’s take a closer look at this unreported aspect of the Woods story.

The woman’s name is spelled Elin.

The English version of this name would be Ellen, just Ellen.

But because it looks DIFFERENT, they insist on pronouncing it EE – lin, with an English “Long E” sound. They think that makes it foreign sounding. It makes them sound, well, stupid and ignorant, and Swedes must be chortling every time they hear an American reporting on this story.

Unfortunately, you see, Scandinavian languages, just like other European languages, don’t follow the pronunciation the American journalists are ascribing to it.

If these journalists had bothered to ask someone, they would have found out that the “e” in European languages has more of an English “long A” sound, making the name’s correct pronunciation more like “AY-lin.”

But let’s take it a step further.

The “I” in Elin should be pronounced more like an English “long E” so the actual correct way to say the poor girl’s name is “ay-LEEN”

It reminds me of the sportscaster who couldn’t quite bring himself to commit to the correct Spanish pronunciation of a jockey’s first name Jorge.

The correct pronunciation in Spanish makes the J sound like an H. But most Americans don’t realize that a G before an E or an I is ALSO an H sound in Spanish.

So the correct way to say Jorge is HOR-hay.

Almost certainly uncomfortable allowing his audience to hear what he thought sounded like the word WHORE, he couldn’t bring himself to pronounce the G correctly.

The best sportscaster could say was HOR-gay.

Yeah, that was real better. (Mucho mejor, in Spanish, and that J is pronounced like an H.)

Over to you, EE-lin.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Paul Strikwerda said...

Hi Steve:

I can totally relate to this story. Ten years ago, I came to this country from The Netherlands. It is quite common for the industrious Dutch, to speak at least three languages.

Americans often expect the rest of the world to speak English, and because that's usually the case, they see no need to learn another language.

When I became a news anchor for Dutch radio, I was glad I spoke German, English and French. Later on, when I started my career as voice-over professional, it set me apart from my colleagues (especially here in the States).

Foreign languages open up a whole new window to the world. Anyone should at least speak one other language. But don't worry: it doesn't have to be Dutch!

March 10, 2010 11:36 PM  
Blogger Cookie said...

Actually, you are only part right. It's true the American pronunciation of Elin sounds slightly ridiculous to us Swedes, but we're quite used to it - to the degree that when speaking English, we'll pronounce Swedish names the 'wrong' way.

However, the only place in Sweden where you would pronounce 'Elin' Ay-Leen is in the deep south of Sweden (Skane).

Elin is not from there, and to most of the rest of Sweden people from Skane sound like they have a half-masticated potato stuck in their throat, due to the Danish influence. The US equivalent would be someone from Georgia or Alabama, and the Skane accent can sometimes be impenetrable even to fellow Swedes.

The actual King's Swedish pronounciation of 'Elin' is:

'E' - like the e-sound in beard or weird or feared (is this what you call a "short e"?).

'Lin' - like the American name 'Lynne'

Easy. Elin.

April 18, 2010 3:25 PM  
Blogger Steve Lubetkin said...

Now I'm really confused. Cookie from Sweden seems to be saying that the reporters are right. In English the e in beard, weird or feared is a long e, the name of the letter. So according to your pronouncer, saying EE lin is correct. Unless you really mean the e sound as in best, which is "eh" or short e in English, giving us "eh-lin"

I'd really hate to be wrong about this one. I'd feel REEELY foolish.

April 18, 2010 3:28 PM  
Blogger Cookie said...

Most American broadcasters seem to pronounce it "Eeeee-lynne" to my ears, which is wrong, though what I mean by eeee is the sound in for 'E' 'see' or 'pee' - in other words the sound you'd make when reciting the alphabet. In Swedish that sound is signified by the letter 'i'. Also, the 'l' is pronounced with the tongue slightly further towards the teeth than in american english, but not enough that I'd quibble.

It is decidedly not the 'e' from best, however. More hononymical e:s: Deer, dear, smear, beer, veer, leer, near, tear(drop).

If you really want a Swedish name that gets mangled regularly, Björn Borg is worse. It's actually pronounced
B + the word "yearn" = Björn
Bor(rhymes with "more") + the-y-sound-in-the-word-"way"(or yearn, for that matter) = Borg

I don't know if you were wrong in fact, but in principle you were right on the money :-)

April 18, 2010 4:22 PM  
Blogger Cookie said...

Hmm, 2nd post in as many minutes. Sorry. Something was bothering me, and it turns out I was right. Elin's father is, in fact, from Skåne (Helsingborg, to be exact). So... he would probably pronounce her name Ay-leen, meaning half the time she heard the name growing up, that's how she'd hear it. Damnit, must learn to wikipedia before I post :-)

April 18, 2010 4:27 PM  
Blogger Steve Lubetkin said...

Aha! So it is indeed ay-LEEN and I am vindicated! This whole thing reminds me of a good friend of mine from New Mexico whose last name, spelled Jacques, looks like the French name that most Americans would pronounce "zhahk" except that her family's roots were Spanish, and in Spanish it would be pronounced "ha-KAYSS" with the accent on the second syllable. To make it more complicated, the family had Americanized the Spanish version and were known in New Mexico as "HACK-iss". But when she came to New York, she gave up trying to explain it to people and just went with the idiot Americans who wanted to call her "zhak"...I suppose that's why Elin even lets her husband mispronounce it.

April 18, 2010 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Promotional Products said...

This is great! Thanks for pointing out the error in the mispronunciation of Elin. As an American I had no idea except for how it's pronounced on tv.

May 27, 2010 2:30 AM  

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