Toby Young

Toby Young explains why mispronouncing "paella," maybe isn't such a bad thing.

on Oct 15, 20090

In episode six of Top Chef: Las Vegas I refused to pronounce paella correctly; in this episode, I was rude about the French and their armpits. At this rate, I’ll have no friends left by the end of
the season!

I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain myself. First of all, I don’t think I will have offended any Spanish-speaking people by pronouncing “paella” as “pi-el-a” rather than “pi-ay-a.” I’ve spent a lot of time in Spain— mainly eating in Spanish restaurants— and my pronunciation has never been corrected. On the contrary, Spanish waiters are usually quite amused by Anglophone pronunciations of the dishes on their menus. Spaniards would no more expect me to say “pi-ay-a” than I would expect them to say “London” instead of “Londres.”

In my experience, the only people offended by Anglophone pronunciations of non-English words are upper-middle-class, politically correct English-speaking people. They mistakenly imagine that other, less privileged groups will be offended by your “imperialist” attitude and take offence on their behalf. In fact, to imagine that those who don't speak English as a first  
language are  a poor, victimized group, requiring the protection of  the privileged elite, is far more condescending than mispronouncing non-English words in the first place.

What makes this patronizing attitude so irritating is that the finger-wagging liberals who usually correct my pronunciation are completely inconsistent. For instance, they don’t pronounce “Mexico” as “Me-hi-co” or “Paris” as “par-ee”. So why “pi-ay-a”? That was the point I was making on Episode Six.

I suppose being corrected in this way is progress of a sort. When I was a graduate student at Harvard in 1987, I used to pop into Au Bon Pain every morning in Harvard Square for a coffee and a croissant. Almost without exception, when I pronounced “croissant” in the French way — ie, without sounding the “t” — the person serving me would say, “Do you mean a croissant?”, emphasizing the “t” as if talking to an idiot. At first, I used to have fun with this: “What,
you can’t understand me unless I pronounce the word incorrectly?” But in the end I just gave up and started emphasizing the “t” myself. It seemed so much simpler.

Of course, the French do care about foreigners mispronouncing their words— which is why we Brits try usually try and mispronounce them as often as possible. We call it “Franglais” and it falls under the heading of “friendly banter” rather than “racial insensitivity.” It’s part of our long-standing rivalry—and, believe me, they give as good as they get. They refer to British people over there as “roast beef,” except they pronounce it “ross buff”. C’est la vie.

I think we just have to abandon the idea that there is a correct and incorrect way of mispronouncing any word. A world in which all ethnic  groups speak slightly differently, following their own, idiosyncratic rules, is preferable to one in which everyone is forced to pronounce things the same way — "pi-ya-a" — by a bunch of guilty white people. In the end, that's far more "imperialist" than saying "pi-el-a".

17 comments
Upoznavanjezena
Upoznavanjezena

Ues, but not everthing black and white, something is gray :) Miranda

Viewer 10
Viewer 10

I agree totally, Toby. I work in theater, and we do productions in english that are translated from many different languages. If an american cast are performing a russian play, or a polish play, they often keep the original names from the source language. But they would NEVER use the russian or polish pronunciations. In the same way that russians or poles would never use english pronunciation when they are performing translations of english language plays. No one ever questions this in theater, so I'm surprised that such a big deal was made of this in a culinary situation. There's so much cultural crossovers in both art forms, you just have to accept it and not be so sensitive. Languages can hold their own, and it insults another culture's language to suggest otherwise.

Candacey
Candacey

You say tomato... I really don't care about pronunciations anymore. I've given up on people mispronouncing things, unless they insist that their way is indeed the 'correct' way to say it. Then, i have to admit, i get ticked off. But there are so many cultures and borrowed words that its impossible for everyone to get everything right all the time. I don't even correct people that say my name wrong anymore. Of course f your pronunciations sounds like a bad/embarrassing word in the same language you should probably make an effort to say it right though..

inglophile
inglophile

Heh. Toby, I wonder if anyone here read your 'Spectator' column on this?! 8-). Sorry, I meant 'columm'...

Hispanic from California
Hispanic from California

I am a Hispanic from California and grew up in a household where both English and Spanish were spoken on a regular basis. I agree 100% with Toby. If the word is not native to your tongue one should pronounce as best as they see fit. I am not offended when a person who has English as a first language mispronounces a Spanish word because it is being said in English! The same goes for a native Spanish speaker mispronouncing an English word while speaking Spanish. Toby's imperialist notion is right on the mark as well.

Autumn1971
Autumn1971

Well, one reason that Americans often preserve the Spanish (Mexican Spanish for the most part) pronounciations, is that in a large number of states Spanish has been continually spoken for two-hundred years longer than English.

QUIG
QUIG

In my youth, It drove me crazy when my "mum" mispronounced Tai Kwon Do (Ty Con Doo). Now I just laugh at *it like this while wishing I could still get my foot above knee level. I just read one of your "real" reviews for the first time and really enjoyed the wit. Glad to see you on TC, wish you were on every episode.

selina
selina

Haven't you ever heard of Spanglish????? Here, in the US, we pronounce many words differently than you Brits. So what's the big hoo haa? Why do you care how we say paella? Geeze, last time I went to Miami I spoke more Spanish than English. Spanish pronunciations are as common and as American as apple pie.

Rita Maria
Rita Maria

Hi there!

I'm not actually spanish, I'm portuguese, but we have the same background and I can safely say that the 2 L are almost impossible to pronounce to anglosaxons... :)

Really, it's difficult because you don't have in your language... Anyway, that really doesn't seem very important so, no worries!

And please excuse my poor english, but it's my second language and, living in Lisbon, I don't get the chance to speak english that often.:)

Best regards,

Rita

Rena
Rena

I once sat through a English poetry course, listening to an American professor pronounce Lord Byron's Don Juan as Donn JOO-Ann. I suppose that's the way Byron (and Toby), being English, would have pronounced it, but the sound of it was unbearable to this listener. Still is.

brainypirate
brainypirate

Except that earlier in the season they made a point of showing the contestants complain about how they couldn't pronounce the name "Preeti" -- which isn't even that hard of a name to get right.

Maybe it's not a big deal to mispronounce foods (Red Lobster used to run a commercial where they deliberately pointed out the Americanized pronunciation of shrimp scampi--as if a long "a" is too difficult for us yanks), but when it comes to names, I have much less patience. Especially when people resist learning how to pronounce non-English names (like "Preeti")--then I wonder if there's some xenophobia in play.

Maybe it's because I've been surrounded by bilingual folks for most of my adult life, but it doesn't strike me at all odd to hear people jump from an American accent to Spanish, Polish, or Japanese within the same sentence as needed. But more interestingly, I hear more and more people using "authentic" pronunciation for terms that we've borrowed from other languages (my 5 year old nephew already pronounces karate correctly), so I think we're getting better at being respectful to the cultures we've borrowed from.

Eu
Eu

I think Mexico and Paris are the English equivalents of the original names of these places, just like Germany is to Deutschland and Spain to España, etc. That's why the pronunciations in English are different from those in their native languages. Paella, on the other hand, remains a Spanish word.

It is not uncommon for foreign words that are adopted into the English dictionary/usage to retain their original pronunciation. It is often hard to perfectly mimic the way native speakers say them but the idea is to be close as possible.

Rosbif
Rosbif

There's nothing offensive about saying paella any way you want, really--I get a bit tired of folks who make a modest little goof acting like the political correctness squad is coming after them. It's just that, you know, you want people to know what it is that you're talking about. If Toby wants to tell me that he wouldn't raise an eyebrow as a server in a mid-market English restaurant when a diner said, "I would like the rose-bif with some moo-tard", well, ok. Just like I might say "come again" if I were a server and someone asked for a glass of pin-oat nore. Not because of snobbery, but because I'm not sure what the hell it is that the guy wants. At some point, you have to be understood. Spanish servers understand an English person ordering pee-el-a because they get a lot of English diners. But a decent number of food items are pronounced by the norms of one language just so we're all clear what it is that we're ordering or eating.

NatalieHannah
NatalieHannah

Ha! I was a bit ticked when I watched the show and heard you get huffy about your mispronunciation.

But this blog post is very funny... I get where you're coming from. And for the record, I think it's hilarious how the English purposely mispronounce French words... An American friend of mine went 5 rounds with her English boyfriend over the correct way to say "fillet" of fish. Good stuff.

TC Viewer
TC Viewer

Interesting. I am not a priviledged white person yet I DO try to prounounce things the correct way if I can. If I mispronounce something and am corrected I make an effort to pronounce it correctly in the future. Maybe I just feel guilty because I grew up as a lower-middle class white Polish/Italian American who is used to hearing pierogies and ricotta misprounounced. @@