Just Say it in American

Here I am, back from a long break, and the best block of content that I could think of was a guide on how to pronounce foreign words in English. How does this have to do with Christianity? Let’s just say that you will find out later. But in the spirit of writing about religious topics, I will begin by referencing an issue related to Islam.

Months ago, Fox News contributor Judge Jeanine Pirro made a statement (in the form of a question) about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar that resulted in the judge’s two week suspension from her news network. “Think about it,” she said. “Omar wears a hijab, […]. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia Law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”

Of course this statement is itself incredibly controversial, and I will not defend it in this post. In fact, I will not condemn it either, or analyze its content in any way. Instead, I will focus entirely on how Pirro pronounced the word “hijab.” Her casual critics highly ridiculed her for this pronunciation, casting it as an over-Americanized, culturally insensitive, and almost quasi-redneck way of saying the word. What they may have forgotten is that Pirro’s parents are from Lebanon, a country whose primary language is Arabic, which is, of course, the language from which the word “hijab” comes from. Moreover, rhyming hijab with “lab” instead of with “job” may actually yield a pronunciation that is closer to a common way to say it in much of the Levant. There is also no relevant reason to make the first syllable “hih” instead of Pirro’s “hee.” There is no clear way in which the former way is closer to the original. What we hence observe is (in no pejorative way) a lot of non-ethnic vanilla yuppies lecturing a Lebanese-American woman on how to pronounce a word of Arabic origin, despite the fact that she (i) most likely uttered it closer to the original Arabic way and (ii) perfectly appropriated the word into American English, removing the awkwardness from the conventional way to say “hijab.” This second point (and its generalized case) is what I will focus on for the remainder of this article.

I have previously written multiple posts on semantics and the use of words. I have also written one article describing how immigrants perceive American culture as naturally lower and less sacred than that of their heritage. Now I will combine some of these topics to talk about pronunciation, particularly of words still not integrated (or those integrated recently) into American English. It is common (from my observation) to view adaptions of foreign words into English phonemes as insensitive, as though the word is being butchered in some way. Yet there is no such perception when adapting words into any other language that I am aware of. In Russian, such adaptions are even perceived (again from my experience) as slightly defiling the Russian language, especially if that word comes from English. Yet in America, it is the foreign word that is precious and sacred, defiled instead by the dirty language into which it is adapted.

One time when I was in middle school, one of my teachers mentioned the launch of Sputnik, the first satellite to ever be launched into space. Being the nerd that I was, I quickly corrected him that the way to say it is more like “spootnik.” He then apologized and repeated the word the “correct” way, proceeding to lightly punch himself in the head and say “stupid American!” It was not at all sarcastic, but rather it was done with full sincerity and shame. Looking back on this incident about a decade later, I see it as indicative of a crisis. In no other culture that I know of is this phenomenon even close to reality. Russians pronounce words from English with total Russian phonology, save some rare cases, and they do so without any guilt, rightfully so. The same applies to proper nouns – names like James, John, and Jack are being fully appropriated into a language with no real ‘j’ sound without any shame, and rightfully so. Yet in America, we have this idea that we can mispronounce a word in a foreign language, while saying it in English. The notion that this is even possible must be completely scrapped. Now don’t get me wrong – I am entirely in favor of immigrants preserving their heritage language and teaching it thoroughly to their children. I am particularly grateful for inheriting the ability to properly read and write Russian, especially when it comes to reading those famous Russian classics in their original language. But until recently, when I referred to the novel “Brothers Karamazov” in English, I said the proper noun“Karamazov” with a full Russian accent, just the way someone would say it in Russian. I have similarly treated other proper nouns from Russian. It is this practice that I will now adamantly argue against. It may seem like a very small matter, yet it is not just a practice, but an entire mentality that I would like to dismantle.

So to all my fellow immigrants to the United States, as well as their children and other linguistically “ethnic” individuals – hear my cry. When you say a word that is in the process of being adapted into English from your heritage language, or when you say a proper noun from your heritage language while speaking English, please, do not be afraid to phonologically Americanize it. You are not mispronouncing the word; you are just saying it in English. It may hurt to do that at first, but that is exactly the problem – that is where we need to change our mentality about the English language. Do not have any insecurity about whether you can say the word correctly in your heritage language; you know full well that you can, and you should say it right in that language when you speak that language. English is not a trashcan that defiles words from other languages, so let us not treat it like one. English is our language too, and its disrespect should bring us no less shame than the disrespect of our ancestral languages.

An obvious question now arises for many of us: what do we do with our own names? The answer is simple – figure out what you want to be called in English, and it had better be phonologically American. Your name cannot be pronounced the same in two different unrelated languages, because these two languages make different sounds. Beyond this point, you can do whatever you want with your own name; it is yours after all. My personal preference with names is that they are straight-up translated whenever possible. So if your name is Juan, Ivan, or Jean, your name in English should be John. International names are translated this way in the Bible (and in much of church history), so why not translate them this way in our own lives? My own first name does not change as much when translated into English, but the way it is pronounced totally transforms. Even the articulation of the syllables completely inverts. But it would be arrogant of me to say that Americans pronounce my name “wrong.” They say it correctly, because they say it in accordance to the conventional pronunciation in English, the same way they say “Vladimir Putin” or “Vladimir Lenin.” But these are all subjective suggestions, and with names you can take a lot of liberties. Just remember that when someone asks you “how do you pronounce your name correctly?” your answer should be “in what language?”

Now, of course, there are other instances where one can take liberties. For example, if you say “That city is pronounced Nizhny Novgorod” it is more acceptable to keep the Russian pronunciation than when you say “Yesterday I came back from Nizhny Novgorod with my family.” In general, to test which way to pronounce the term, ask whether it would be in quotes when written. If yes, it may be reasonable to say it the ethnic way because it is less likely to disrupt the flow of the English sentence, and it is more likely to be a direct demonstration of what something is called or how a word is pronounced. The examples with Nizhny Novgorod should expose these two differences. Similarly, it is perfectly fine to take liberties for aesthetic or humorous purposes. (Those who know me may recall how I sometimes pronounce words in Greek.)

The rule is thus simple: pronounce the word the American way, unless the transcription of your sentence would either (i) put the word in quotes, or (ii) mark somehow that the word is pronounced differently. You may respectfully disagree with my code of diction, or you may simply have a different preference. The purpose of these rules is not at all to police how you talk. The main question is: can you say it the American way, or does it make you feel like you are mispronouncing the word? If it does, think about why, and think about what happens when you reverse the languages.

Now to all the Anglophones who know no other tongue – you too hear my plea. Different languages have different phonology, which means they have different ways of pronouncing everything. This is the reason why foreigners have accents. The correct way to pronounce something in English is different from the correct way to pronounce something in Spanish, or French, or Chinese. Of course, when you learn another language, do your best to learn correct pronunciations in that language. But when you are speaking English, your goal should be to pronounce words correctly in English. American English has American phonology, so you are no more “correct” when you embrace a foreign way of saying something. All you are doing is giving yourself a false sense of being “extra correct.” If someone tells you that you are saying something “wrong” because you are saying it in English (while you are speaking English!), correct them. Give your language the same respect that we immigrants give our heritage languages. If it needs to be said, the same exceptions apply as before with aesthetics, humor, and quotation marks.

As I have written previously, I am not policing your language. I am simply stating that if you violate my rule, you are being illogical. You have every right to disagree as strongly as you prefer or see fit. You may continue to put in the effort to pronounce all the foreign words the “right” way, like they are said in their original language. In that case, I recommend that you start with the words “taco” and “burrito” because you are most likely butchering those. It is true that Spanish has simpler phonology and has fewer consonant clusters than Slavic languages, so it is understandable that Russian or Polish words would be more awkward to Americanize. For this reason, it is often useful to come up with convenient translations instead of simply changing the phonology. One of the most successful such translations is the name of the Russian city, St. Petersburg. The original name of this city is actually in German, and the Russian name is an adaption of the German into Russian phonology. The English way of saying it is completely “wrong.” The word “sankt” becomes “saint” and the main word has an extra ‘s’ in it. But it rings very nicely in English, and it is not awkward at all to say “Saint Petersburg.” The term is appropriated into the English language as perfectly as it can be.

These remarks take us full circle to the hijab example. Saying “hijab” the conventional way is actually fine; the phonology is still American. But there is still an awkward foreignness to it; it feels like the word will remain foreign forever. Pirro’s pronunciation completes the adaption, effectively creating a St. Petersburg effect, only now it is not necessarily even farther from the original language. And that is this “perfect appropriation” that I referred to at the beginning of the article. It is not really the same thing as the focus of the post, but it is in the same spirit.

That is all I have to say for now. I admit that besides the comment about Biblical names, this post has fairly little to do with Christian topics. I very much don’t see myself as someone qualified to write sermon posts, and frankly I would prefer if it wasn’t the direction of this blog. That being said, let’s finish off squarely – may God bless those who read these words

About The Author

Vlad Smetanko is a patriotic American who is an Orthodox Christian from Infancy.

2 thoughts on “Just Say it in American

  1. I very much enjoyed the article. However, I was taught when I was younger, back in Puerto Rico, that while what you say is correct, it does not apply to proper names. The reason being that proper names are identifying “one any such individual” and as such do not translate. Common words and other nouns are supposed to be translated and as you very eloquently address “appropriated into the English language as perfectly as it can be.”

    My question is, Would you agree or disagree that proper names should or shouldn’t be translated, and why?

    The article refers sometimes to proper names, I see mention of St. Petersburg, but the distinction (as far as proper nouns vs other words) isn’t directly address. I am unsure if you have considered this and I personally am very curious as to how you would answer this. Like I said, it is a very good article, and it most certainly hits home for me. I was born and raised speaking Spanish (in Puerto Rico) and I have been living in the US (mainland) for almost 15 years speaking English. I do know exactly what you refer to in regards to “misappropriation” and I will absolutely keep your words in mind from now on concerning words “burrowed” from other languages.

    Thank you for the post and the insight, I eagerly await your response. God Bless.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment!
      I believe I have mentioned given names and even spent a paragraph writing about it. Basically it boils down to “figure out what you want to be called in English, and it had better be phonologically American.”
      Beyond that it really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is to say it with an American accent of some form. The worst is to claim that it is “more correct” to say it with the ethnic accent. Names definitely DO translate, and I think the confusion comes from the fact that they translate very inconsistently. (Juan can be John in one case and remain Juan in another.)
      I hope that helps. I have dedicated a whole paragraph of the article to this topic (7th out of 13), so if you re-read it you might get something out of it. Let me know if you disagree, because I’m certainly willing to debate this and not just assert it.

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