Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Unbreakable Rule

Despite several rules and conventions about how to pronounce English words, often, the only way we know, for certain, is through experience. Polish for instance could be the stuff to make things shine or it could be an adjective to describe something from Poland. We do it the other way too by spelling words differently but pronouncing them the same. Would and wood for example or sew, so and sow – although sow is pronounced differently for seed planting or a female pig.

Spanish is different though. There is an old and basic rule that says “we have to write as we pronounce and pronounce as we write”. This causes the Spanish speakers major problems when they want to use a word that comes from another language. It's why their pronunciation of some English words sounds so strange to us. In English we just pinch the word. Sometimes we change it and sometimes we don't. We anglicised the Spanish word jerez to change it to sherry but we happily French it up for coup d'etat – as in military coup.

This has been happening for hundreds of years in both languages but the difference nowadays is that the world moves faster. When the Spanish pinched the French word jambon, for ham, it took a long time for it to take over from pernil and to transform into the Spanish style word jamón. Words nowadays can come, and sometimes go, in no time at all; words like selfie or mannequin challenge. Spaniards want to use the words but the foreign pronunciation just doesn't fit the unbreakable spelling/pronunciation rule. On the street this doesn't really matter much - if WhatsApp sounds like wasap to your average Spaniard then wasap it is.

For journalists and bloggers, people who write down current words, this is a bit more of a problem – do they try to be Spanish and write pirsin or do they simply stick with the English spelling – piercing - but pronounce it the Spanish way?

There is, in Spain, and in all the Spanish speaking countries, a learned organisation that tries to maintain the purity and language. They decide which words have lasted long enough to go into the dictionaries in just the same way as there was a bit of press coverage for post truth and moobs getting into the Oxford Dictionary. The idea is to maintain the language so a Spanish speaker in Peru doesn't have any problem with the Spanish of a Honduran or a Spaniard. The Spanish one goes under the name of the RAE, the Real Academia Española.

So the RAE doesn't fret about the mannequin challenge. They will worry about it in the future if it stands the test of time. The RAE follows new words for a minimum ten years before it considers putting them in the dictionary. They can then either push for a direct Spanish translation - desafío maniquí - or they can try to find a way to spell the words so that the sound is reproduced in Spanish. Baseball for example was simply spelled beisbol in Spanish to mimic the original sound. With football they tried a Spanish translation at first -balompié - but ordinary people were having none of that so they went for fútbol which sounds something like the original word but follows Spanish spelling and pronunciation rules.

You can see their dilemma though. Jazz, the word, has been around for ages. Leave the spelling as it is and the Spanish pronunciation is nothing like the English. To get a Spanish spelling that, more or less, maintains the original sound it would have to be spelled as yas. If they were to allow the British pronunciation and spelling they would have to accept that the j at the beginning of the word and the z at the end of the word had two distinct sounds in Spanish. And that would break the unbreakable law.

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