Talkin’ ’bout the Tolly-Bon

Was listening to the radio this morning — NPR, probably (I only listen to music on commercial stations) — and the announcer was talking about the pending confab between Presidents Obama and Karzai, and a mention was made of Mr. Karzai’s dealings with the Taliban.

Only the announcer didn’t exactly say “Taliban.” He took a sort of half-hearted stab at pronouncing it the way President Obama does, “Tolly-Bon.”

Here’s the thing about that. Having grown up speaking Spanish as well as English, I approve of people pronouncing words from other languages properly (personal peeve: English-speakers pronouncing “llama” as “lama”).

But when the attempt is lame, it grates. And the president, with his extremely normal American accent, simply does not pronounce “Taliban” the way a man from the Mideast or central Asia would. He sounds like… well, a Texan speaking Spanish. OK, not THAT bad, but it sounds odd, and it’s distracting, and it causes you to miss the rest of what he’s saying while you’re going, “TOLLY-BON?”

Actually, truth be told, it can be distracting even when it’s done perfectly. I always sort of go huh? when, at the end of a report delivered in perfectly accentless broadcast English, I hear the reporter sign off as “Mandalit del Barco.” That’s because she pronounces it with a perfect, extra-intense Spanish accent. And obviously both are natural to her, but it’s still distracting. It’s as though an actor were speaking a line with an Italian accent, and in the middle pronounced two words as a German.

It’s also a bit — showoffy. Because not many people can do it, perhaps. I could have, when I was young and fluent in both. But as I’ve gotten older, it can take me several minutes to get the muscles of my mouth warmed up to read Spanish properly (which I have to do from time to time to proclaim the Gospel in Spanish at Mass). If I try to pronounce “Mandalit del Barco” properly in the middle of a sentence in English, my tongue would trip over my front teeth, and I wouldn’t be able to get any of it out. It’s not so much the “Mahn-da-LEET,” which even a Texan could almost say correctly, but getting the L and especially the R right in “del Barco.” I can’t represent the difference phonetically. They’re just pronounced completely differently in Spanish. The tongue does tricks it’s never called on to do in English. (Here’s a link to a report by her that illustrates some of what I’m saying. It starts with a gringo anchor introducing her, saying her name with a lame American accent, then she goes on to report a story about recent immigrants with a fairly smooth, nondistracting shift between words like “sombrero” and English words — which I guess contradicts my point. But when she signs off at the end, as usual, she really punches the correct pronunciation of her name. It’s like she takes several steps back and gets a running start at it. And maybe that‘s what grabs my attention. Whatever the accent, you seldom hear an announcer so overpronouncing his or her own name.)

Anyway, I have thoughts like those every time I hear her. Which is distracting. I suppose there’s something to be said about the arrogant British habit of pronouncing everything, every foreign name or word, with an English accent, and foreign sensibilities be damned. It at least makes for a smoother delivery, with fewer cognitive bumps in the road. (But, as I said in the previous parenthetical, one CAN pronounce things correctly without distracting, if one is really good. Maybe Ms. del Barco just has an ego thing about her name; I don’t know.)

Something just occurred to me: Maybe the president does that Tolly-Bon thing as a very subtle way of having his cake and eating it. Maybe he makes a lame stab at pronouncing it “correctly” in order to reach out to folks in other parts of the world, but does it with a painfully American accent so as not to sound too alien at home. Could it be?

9 thoughts on “Talkin’ ’bout the Tolly-Bon

  1. Kathryn Fenner

    As someone who picks up accents very easily, and speaks German with a reputedly excellent accent and has sung in many others, it is natural for me to pronounce foreign words fairly close to their original sound, if I am familiar with the language. It may strike some as show-offy or absurd, but the German poet’s name is not pronounced Gertie, Gerta or Goata–and it’s just easier to pronounce it with the German oe sound to me.

    On the excellent show Dexter, set in Miami, the Cuban-Americans flawlessly speak both English and Spanish words, including saying their names with the gorgeous R and L sounds of which you speak….but they are actors, I suppose…

    1. Benjamin Bookhammer

      Actually, that one is trickier. I’ve worked in person with Iraqis and they say it either like ee-rahk OR ee-rack.

  2. Brad

    And you know, the more I think about it, the more I think the distracting thing about Mandalit del Barco is simply the way she says her NAME. Listening to that report I linked above, I appreciate her correct pronunciation of Spanish words, and it doesn’t distract. But the girl really has a thing about her name. Her tongue caresses and lingers over each syllable.

    Maybe it’s a defense mechanism triggered by all the people in her newsroom mispronouncing it.

  3. Burl Burlingame

    Military brats tend to be very attuned to accents. It’s a way of quickly fitting in.
    And Bush the Elder deliberately mispronounced Saddam’s name as a way of needling him.

  4. Susan

    While we’re on it, why do folks say Beijing as if the “j” is like “je” in French? It’s a hard “j”, like in “joe”. Mandarin Chinese doesn’t even have the French “j” sound in the language. That one has always thrown me.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    and where do you draw the line, when you speak the language? Is it Burtold Brekt or Bare-Told Bresht or Beh-tolt Bwechhht?

    I have a Weimaraner, and I do call her a Wymah-ronner, not a Vy maRRaa neh,as does the lovely German gentleman I see all the time on the Cayce riverfront…

    Is it Reekard Vagner or Richard Wagner?

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    Maybe it depends on the setting–classical music (where many of the participants do have extensive training in foreign language pronunciation or are themselves foreign) tends to favor using the closest approximation understandable to the audience, while there may be a looser usage standard in the MSM?

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