Pronouncing loan words in English
April 27, 2014
I was browsing Quora today and came across an interesting question – one whose answer was too long to go into a forum answer, and demanded a blog post all of its own. The question was about how to handle loan words, and cited the example of the word ‘Avatar’ which is apparently borrowed from Hindi (who knew?). The author asked for advice on how to approach the pronunciation of loan words in English. You can find the thread here.
English is particularly tricky when it comes to loan words, because there’s so damn many of them, from so many different origins! While many of us are as blissfully unaware of our French, Spanish and Nordic loan words as I was of ‘avatar’ being Hindi, those of us who speak other languages have a uniquely uncomfortable perspective on the issue of pronouncing these words in the middle of English sentences. Answering this question, and particularly dwelling on the issue of ‘awkwardness’, I was reminded of a conversation I witnessed when my half-French friend Jenny asked my monolingual friend Kate if she’d ever seen the film ‘Moulin Rouge’. Jenny pronounced Moulin Rouge in French (notably, with the French ‘r’ sound, which I think is what caused the confusion). Kate looked nonplussed for a second and said no she didn’t think she’d seen it; Jenny went on to quote from the film, and Kate said “Isn’t that from Moulin Rouge?” (pronouncing it the way English speakers do). *Cue awkward silence*
Following this exchange from the sidelines, I understood exactly what was going on. When Jenny said Moulin Rouge I understood her, but I knew Kate wouldn’t be able to make out what she was saying. When Kate said she hadn’t seen it, I knew she probably had but she didn’t know that was what was being asked. I didn’t know how to intervene without sounding like a know-it-all, so I let it run its course and sure enough, when Kate recognised the quote from Moulin Rouge, it came off as though she hadn’t been listening, and the result was predictably awkward.
This potential for misunderstanding and awkwardness is present in most scenarios where a word (or film title) is borrowed from one language into another. I spent a semester studying in Strasbourg, and every time I talked about it to anyone, I struggled with how to pronounce it, because we don’t have a ‘translation’ for Strasbourg in the same way that the French do for Edinburgh (Edimbourg, funnily enough). If I said ‘Strasboooourrrr’ like the French, in the middle of an English sentence, it would sound pretentious. So I would say ‘Strazboorg’ or even ‘Strazburg’ instead, which made me feel like an ignorant English speaker butchering the French language.
In the end, I started adapting to the person I was talking to – Jenny the half-French friend, and all the English-speaking friends I made while I was actually in Strasbourg, would hear me talking about Strasbooourrrrr, but pretty much anyone else would get Strazburg. Same goes for words like ‘croissant’ – it pains me to anglicise the word, but if I’m speaking to someone with no knowledge of French, anglicise it I will, or risk being written off as a pretentious know-it-all, while if I’m speaking to someone who does speak French, I’ll give it the French pronunciation because I know they’ll understand.
Loan words are just awkward things, and I always feel like I’m misusing them no matter which option I go for (hence why I now tend to refer to my semester abroad as “the time when I was in France”, omitting any mention Strasbourg at all). Usually there’s a kind of spectrum between complete anglicisation (think gia-la-pee-nose for jalapeños) and an over-the-top national-identity shift mid-sentence: one or two pronunciation options that rest somewhere in between. What’s the best way to deal with loan words? Should it depend on whom you’re speaking to, or should you go with what feels comfortable for you?