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Barbarisms

Tuning in to a classical music station, I heard the announcer introduce a chaconne from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s music for Molière’s comédie-ballet, “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.” During his otherwise erudite preamble, uttered in admirably impeccable “radio-announcer” American English, the speaker repeatedly mispronounced the title of Molière’s work, specifically the third word. Although it was evident that he was making an effort to get the French right, the word gentilhomme [ʒãtii̯ɔ́m] kept coming out [jɛ̀ntɨlxóu̯m]––a blatant Anglicization that made no concession to the phonetics of the original language. Phonetically and stylistically, the pronunciation was what is called a barbarism.

The Fourth Edition (2006) of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines a barbarism as “1. An act, trait, or custom characterized by ignorance or crudity;” also “2.a The use of words, forms, or expressions considered incorrect or unacceptable;” and “2b. A specific word, form, or expression so used.” The etymology given is:

[Latin barbarismus, use of a foreign tongue or of one’s own tongue amiss, barbarism, from Greek barbarismos, from barbarizein, to behave or speak like a barbarian, from barbaros, non-Greek, foreign (imitative of the sound of unintelligible speech).]

In an appended “Usage Note” one is told, moreover, that “The English word barbarism originally referred to incorrect use of language, but it is now used more generally to refer to ignorance or crudity in matters of taste, including verbal expression.”

There is no reason to expect radio announcers in America, no matter how cultivated-sounding, to be able to come out with authentic renderings of foreign words, including names and titles. But when French gentilhomme is mangled to the degree that it was by our morning announcer, to the ear of someone who knows how French ought to sound this mispronunciation is evaluated as a barbarism because it signifies a lack of effort on the announcer’s part to acquaint himself with so much as the minimum knowledge of French phonetics needed to make gentilhomme sound respectable.

Beyond that, it raises the more general question of the standards of speech that have been applied by the station employing the announcer who makes such an egregious mess of the foreign word. Whatever else his qualifications, why has no one in charge insured that all announcers have under their belt at least the rudiments of the several European languages––chiefly French, German, and Italian––that occur in the names of composers and the titles of their works? After all, a native speaker of English doesn’t have to sport a perfect Parisian accent in order to make a good stab at mimicking French speech. But [jɛ̀ntɨlxóu̯m] just won’t cut the mustard.

It would be just as much a barbarism to render Richard Wagner as [rɨ́çərd wǽgnər] instead of the appropriate Anglicization [rɨ́xart vágnər] that seeks to approximate German [rɨ́x̹art vá:knə]. Of course, with somewhat more exotic languages like Russian or Czech or Polish, announcers can be excused for anglicizing composers’ names and the original titles of their works. No one could be accused of crudity or lack of good taste for pronouncing Shostakovich [ʃɔ̀stəkóu̯vɨç] with a full initial vowel and penultimate secondary stress instead of the authentic [ʃəstʌkóviç], which in Russian has only one stress and appears with pretonic vowels that are of lesser duration and quality (called “reduced” in Russian phonetics) than the values of their stressed counterparts. [Note: Russian is a language whose orthography does not reflect the change of vowel values in unstressed positions.] Such pronunciations––even those where the stress has been shifted to conform to English patterns, as in Glázunov [glázunɔ̀v] vs. the authentic Glazunóv [gləzunóf] (with one stressed syllable and a devoiced final consonant)––have always been accepted as belonging to the repertory of cultivated Anglicizations. The game way in which announcers are now trying to cope with the new Russian President’s name, Dmitri Medvedev, by eschewing the traditional Anglicization in such surnames whereby the primary stress is shifted to the initial syllable from its proper (Russian) place on the second syllable—thus [mɛ́dvɛdɛ̀v]—and opting for a simulacrum of the original [m’idv’éd’if], is not to be taken as a barbarism.

Speaking of barbarisms and the rendering of foreign words or names, the inverse of pronouncing gentilhomme as [jɛ̀ntɨlxóu̯m] is also worthy of note in the speech of radio announcers. Here I have in mind the rebarbative irruption (especially) of authentic Spanish pronunciations in what is otherwise native English speech. Thus, there are announcers who habitually pronounce every Spanish word of their utterances in English as if they were speaking Spanish––particularly their own name, when they identify themselves––i.e. without conceding one iota to the customary Anglicization of such items. Now, while one can understand such speakers’ desire to display their knowledge of Spanish as a sign of abiding fealty to the Latino community despite their accentless English, one cannot help evaluating it as a barbarism when one hears Adolfo Lopez pronounce his name [adólfo lópɛs], with the stressed closed vowel [o] of Mexican Spanish in the forename and the final voiceless consonant [s] in the surname––instead, respectively, of the stressed open vowel of English Dalton and the voiced final consonant of blazes.

Both kinds of pronunciations––that of the mangled gentilhomme and of the hypercorrect Adolfo Lopez­­­­––are of a piece. In the apt imagery of the Russian idiom, rézat’úxo, they are barbarisms because they ‘cut [one’s] ear’.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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