hyperforeignism

Elisa Lively had invited a “well-known world traveller” named Harley Weldon to our monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting event at the Order of Logogustation’s headquarters, Domus Logogustationis. “He’ll regale you with stories,” she promised.

And she was right. He had a story for everything. He held forth in his spot at our table. (Jess, I, and Maury held first, second, and third, respectively; Elisa held fifth.)

“I remember,” he said, with a practiced misty, thoughtful look, to his glass of Bordeaux, “drinking a claret much like this in Beijing. The restaurant had matched it with a dish that, to my surprise, contained prodigious quantities of habanero peppers. I almost thought it was an empanada.”

I held up four fingers under the table in sight of Jess and Maury. Jess smirked. We had been keeping score, you see.

Oh, yes, you can’t see on paper what we were keeping score of. His actual pronunciation was “a cla-ray much like this in bay-zhing,” “prodigious quantities of ha-ba-nye-ro peppers,” and “em-pan-ya-da.” That’s four goofs:

1. Claret is properly pronounced like the last two syllables of “declare it”; it’s an English word based on the French word clairet, which means something else.

2. The closest you’ll get with English phonotactics to the Chinese pronunciation of Beijing is “bey-jing,” with an English-style “j” and not a “zh” as in beige.

3. Habanero is not habañero. It is an adjective formed on Havana – in Spanish, v and b have a certain interchangeability – and there is no palatalization of the n. Also, the h is not pronounced in Spanish – though it has come to be pronounced in the English version.

4. Empanada is likewise not empañada. The latter word actually means “fogged up”. Sort of like his pronunciation.

Our hyperactive foreign traveller, in other words, was proving to be a high-performance source of hyperforeignisms: overcorrecting for difference from English – matching a word to a conjectural “foreign” pronunciation pattern not appropriate to it. The word hyperforeignism is a simple English confection of the Greek-derived hyper and the Latin-derived ism with the word foreign, which came from Latin foris “outside” by way of French forain, plus a hypercorrecting addition of a g to match words such as reign and sign.

“That was quite a coup de grâce to our tête-à-tête,” he said, as “coo de graw” and “teh a teh”; Elisa listened, rapt, while Maury, Jess, and I tried not to choke on our beverages. Drop the end of coup de grâce and it sounds like coup de gras, meaning “stroke of fat”. Amazing how often one hears people dropping all consonants at the ends of French words, even when there’s an e after them. As if to prove the point, he added, “I could have killed for some Vichyssoise.” Yes, he said it as “vishy-swa.”

“I’m no stranger to strong flavours, of course,” he went on. “One time dining with a Punjabi chap near the Taj Mahal I had some Earl Grey with a stunning excess of bergamot. I felt like a cross between Kahlil Gibran and Genghis Khan.” A flurry of fingers up under the table: one for “poon-jobby” rather than “pun-jobby” (the u is to approximate a more central vowel, like English “uh,” in the older British way of transliterating by English spelling habits rather than by consistent phonemics); one for “tazh” rather than “taj” (again like Beijing: there’s this idea many people have that j couldn’t possibly be like our English “j” sound in any other language); one for dropping the “t” on the end of bergamot (it’s not a French word – French for it is bergamotte – and it’s not from the Italian city of Bergamo); and one each for hard “g” in Gibran and Genghis (nearly everyone gets those wrong these days; those names were given English spellings back when “j” before e or i was spelled with a g by habit in English versions. You could protest that by now the usage has changed and it’s no longer wrong in English, just as we say, for instance, Paris like an English word; but if you want to get it true to the original – and the intent of the English spelling, which ironically is what’s misleading us – you would do better with the “j”).

“But I’d still take that over the time I had tea with some Russian mafiya men in a dacha near St. Petersburg.” Two fingers: he said “ma-fee-ya” – actually mafiya is just an English transliteration of the Russian transliteration of the Italian word mafia, which is pronounced in Russian as in Italian with the stress on the first syllable – and “dakha” rather than with the ch like English “ch”. Again: the idea that ch couldn’t possibly be said like English ch in any other language.

That was like a scene from Brueghel.” I flipped up another finger and tried not to roll my eyes: “broigl.” (Brueghel, sometimes spelled Breughel or Bruegel, is a Dutch name, and the ue or eu is like French eu – and the g or gh is, in Dutch, like a voiced “kh,” but you don’t need to do that in English, which no longer has that sound.)

“A festival of machismo,” he added. Another finger: he had made the ch in machismo into a “k.”

“Quite the opposite of that time in Reykjavik, when I was listening to Berlioz with some Japanese-Icelandic friends – did you know they existed? Not even immigrants; nissei or sansei.” Man, this guy was a treat, and he was now overapplying the German pronunciation of ei (like English “eye”): “rye-kya-vik” rather than “rey”; “niss-eye” and “san-sigh” instead of “nee-say” and “san-say”. Also he dropped the z on Berlioz.

Harley finished his glass of Bordeaux and reached for some of the sausage and cured meat on the table. He looked up and around the room, trying to spot something.

“Do you need help locating anything?” Maury asked.

Harley pointed at a table halfway across the room. “I’ll be right back. I just want to get some Riesling to go with the prosciutto and chorizo.” He stepped away quickly enough that he probably didn’t notice when Jess, Maury, and I all burst into giggles and held up three fingers each: one for “rise-ling” instead of “reez-ling,” one for “pros-choo-toe” instead of “pro-shoo-toe” (in Italian, the “t” is double, like in English coattail, but in English we generally don’t manage that), and one for “core-eed-zo” instead of “cho-ree-so”.

“If he had just managed the ‘ch’ in the right meat, that would have been a start,” Jess said, and tossed back the last of her claret. “But I do hope he brings the bottle. I need some.”

Elisa looked a little confused. “So… what do you all think of Harley Weldon?”

“Oh, his travelogues are most diverting,” Maury said. “He’s learned all sorts of interesting things around the world.”

“Surprisingly enough,” I said, “not including much of anything about other languages.”

“But he used all sorts of non-English words!” Elisa said.

“True, true,” I said. “But I wouldn’t say his pronunciation is wel-done.”

Jess nodded and giggled some more. “Harley.” Or was that “Hardly”?

7 responses to “hyperforeignism

  1. My favourite gripe is “Parmesan” pronounced with a “zh”, which I label as “pretentious” without a second thought — perhaps unthinkingly wrongly. Since the Italian is “parmigiano” [par-mi-ján-o] (with a [j] as in “jar”) where did the first person to say [par-muh-zAHn] get her/his [zh] from? Please confirm that this is a hyperforeignism — or am I wrong and the [zh] is [zhust]-ified?
    (Afterword: I once heard what I thought was a delightful malapropism for this — “Parmesian”, — or is this perhaps may be a correctly Frenchified version? I am thinking of Stendhal’s drama ‘La Chartreuse de Parme’ and guessing that the French adjective may be “Parmésien”. Francophones, correct or confirm, please.)

    • I have sometimes wondered whether there’s a dialectal Italian form with that sound – it’s possible, but I don’t know. At least as likely is that it’s just a hyperforeignism of the French. At any rate, if there were an Italian version it would not be spelled the French way!

      Hyperforeignisms really do have a special liking for that “zh” sound, it seems to me…

  2. Most people who hypercorrect are showing off, letting themselves fall into the kinds of traps you describe, but at the same time, the way some people english a foreign word IS painful. And if you do it correctly, people loo,k at you like you have two heads. Van Gogh, anyone?

  3. Every year during the Cannes Film Festival, someone on television will invariably mispronounce the name of the city and say either as “cons” or (the northern French town of) Caen.

  4. Nicely done, James. But I do have a somewhat related question. Is there a word for over-pronunciation of foreign words? I’m thinking specifically of Jeff Douglas, co-host of As It Happens. He’s not quite as bad as he was, but he likes to pronounce, for example, Spanish words with as Spanish an accent as he can muster. This inevitably comes across as pretentious, if not plain silly. I suspect wiser folks have been talking to him about the fact that in normal English talk we commonly utter a pretty Anglicized version of foreign terms and names (a sort of oral transliteration?).

    • Hmm, I don’t know if there is a specific word for it, though there are certainly epithets, among which pretentious may be chiefest. One example I recall that to my mid merited the descriptor creepy was this ad for Petit Danone, where this kid is talking about the day he fondly remembers when he had his first Petit Danone. Bad enough that he’s rhapsodizing about a yogurt, but when he says the name he not only says it with a French accent but even says it with French sentence-final intonation, which is different from what you would expect from his preceding English sentence: instead of the last syllable on a falling pitch, it’s on a level pitch about a minor third lower than the preceding. It’s like he just pulled off a latex mask and revealed himself to be an alien.

      Your example also puts me in mind of a comedy routine I once saw about TV journalists of Hispanic extraction who speak normal English but, at the end, when saying their names, flip – for the duration of the name – into Spanish (i.e., their phonology becomes Spanish). But of course that’s different inasmuch as it’s their native tongue and how they’re used to pronouncing their own names.

      I have to confess, though, I can sometimes be heard to do the same thing, though I know it can sound pretentious – it’s not because I think it’s the most proper thing to do (we are speaking English, after all) but just because I have this enthusiasm about languages and love the sound of them. My wife sometimes gives me a little smackdown for it. I hope I would have the good sense not to do it on radio. If given the chance.

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