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The Frenchification of Spanish Words in English (Chávez)

With the recent death of the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, there has been a fatuous flurry of stories in the media about his life and times. In the broadcast media this has involved saying his surname in English countless times. In that connection, one hears frequent instances of a known mispronunciation of the name, viz. the substitution of the fricative [š] for the affricate [č] as the initial consonant, which is at complete odds with Spanish phonetics. The reason for this mistake has an interesting history.

First, it should be noted that American English in particular has a marked tendency to Frenchify loan words, i. e., to apply quasi-French phonetic patterns to borrowings regardless of source language. This is what accounts not only for pronunciations like Stalín and Lenín, where the stress mistakenly makes a Russian surname into a borrowing from French, with its obligatory stress on the ultima, but for the resort to [š] instead of [č] for orthographic ch– (as in French) as well.

As for Chavez et al., it is relevant to note that a distinctly American word like chaparral, which the Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) glosses: “A thicket of low evergreen oaks; hence gen. Dense tangled brushwood, composed of low thorny shrubs, brambles, briars, etc., such as abounds on poor soil in Mexico and Texas. (The word came into use in U.S. during the Mexican War, c1846.),” is pronounced with the French-style initial fricative consonant in American English, pace the phonetic misinformation given in the OED definition (“Pronunciation:/ˌtʃæpəˈræl/ Etymology:  < Spanish chaparral, < chaparra, -arro evergreen oak + -al a common ending for a grove, plantation, or collection of trees, as in almendral, cafetal, etc.”).

The historical account of this sort of phonetic Frenchification in general can be verified by the change in pronunciation of a word like chivalry, which in contemporary American English is pronounced only à la française, i. e., with an initial [š], even though in British English it can be pronounced alternately with a [č], witness the OED entry:

Pronunciation:/ˈʃɪvəlrɪ/ /ˈtʃɪvəlrɪ/ Etymology: Middle English, < Old French chevalerie (11th cent.), chivalerie = Provençal cavalaria, Spanish caballería, Portuguese cavallería, Italian    cavalleria knighthood, horse-soldiery, cavalry, a Romanic derivative of late Latin caballerius (Capitularies 807) < Latin caballāri-us rider, horseman, cavalier n. and adj.: see -ery suffix, -ry suffix. (The same word has in later times come anew from Italian into French and English, as cavalerie, cavalry n.) As a Middle English word the proper historical pronunciation is with /tʃ/;  but the more frequent pronunciation at present is with /ʃ-/, as if the word had been received from modern French [emphasis added – MS].

Q. E. D.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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