From March 2 to 6, 2010, coinciding with Chile's bicentennial, and
just before the end of the Bachelet administration, the Vth
International Congress of the Spanish Language (known by its Spanish
acronym CILE) will be held in Valparaiso, next door to my adopted
Chilean abode. The King of Spain himself will be attending, to jointly
inaugurate the proceedings together with president Bachelet. I do not
know if there is a call for papers, but in any case I want to bring my
modest contribution to the debates at an early stage. This paper aims
at pointing out some inconsistencies in Spanish pronunciation, both in
Chile and elsewhere. Let me make it very clear that it is not about
accent, intonation, dialects or "modismos". It is about the utter
confusion in how to pronounce given letters. It is a fact that Spanish
is not the only language with alternative pronunciations. English for
one is notorious as to the various ways that the combination "gh" is
pronounced. However, the various options each relate to specific words
and once you have a certain proficiency in English, you should know
what is pronounced how, because the word is always pronounced that
same way. In Spanish, it has often become a lottery.
AB UOVO The supervisory and standard-setting body related to the use
and abuse of the Spanish language is Spain's Real Academia Española,
(RAE) founded in 1713, with the remit of "fixing the sounds and words
of the Spanish language in its utmost customs, elegance and purity".
Since then, it has had to open up to Spanish usage in the rest of the
Hispanic world, and is now at the head of a federation of 23 national
academies, including the USA and the Philippines.
Each academy has of course its own local membership (the Chilean one
alone has 33, and for the anecdote, elected as an honorary member,
during the military government, Pope John Paul II, proving once again
that in Chile, even in such matters, who you are is the only important
criteria), and the Real Academia also has 38 non-Hispanic
correspondent individual members from as far away as Japan, Russia and
Finland. Its main activity is to keep up to date its Spanish
dictionary, a flagship publication which is now in its twenty-second
edition. It is also available online (www.rae.es). The academy also
issues ad hoc rulings on specific expressions and words.
At some stage during its 295-year history, the RAE took a number of
decisions which have seriously affected both the ability of
Spanish-speaking people to pronounce and spell their own language, as
well as properly speaking foreign ones.
One of those decisions is that foreign words would be pronounced as if
they were Spanish ones. Once you get that habit into your system, and
have it constantly rammed down your throat by the media, it is very
difficult to revert to the proper pronunciation once you try to learn
a foreign language.
The other extraordinary move was to declare that three combinations of
letters, namely "ch", "ll" and "rr" were letters in their own right.
To the rest of us, they are not a letter but TWO letters, whose
combination makes something we know as a "sound".
Why restrict themselves to those three? What about other combinations:
sh, ts, nn, mm, cr etc? No obvious reason. Having spent over 36 years
as an analyst, first of Spain, and subsequently of Latin America, I
know that Cartesian behavioural questions in that part of the world
only generate frustration.
To be fair, some years ago the RAE did backtrack on that decision, and
decided that they were not independent letters any more, and that
words starting with "ch" would figure after those starting with "cg"
and before those starting with "ci", rather than at the very end. This
was not an easy task. The Guatemalans opposed the move, blocking the
whole procedure for a long time. The end result is that directories,
lists and classifications in the Hispanic world are now a free for all
without any set rule as to precedence. Some have the "ch" where it
should be. Others still have it at the end, including the phone
directories issued by TELEFONICA, a company once the property of the
Kingdom of Spain. Therefore, when a foreigner wishes to look up a name
in a Spanish directory, it is not at all obvious where they should be
Last but not least, though I am not sure if the RAE bears the
responsibility for it, the Hispanic world is unable to differentiate
between the "b" and the "v", concluding that they were two variations
of the same letter, and almost interchangeable. More about this
"barbaridad" (or should I say "varvaridad", later.
THE PROBLEM OF "CH" (and "SH") In Arabic, there are for instance
three different letters with variations of the sound "s" , from weak
to strong. In Russian, there are different letters for the sounds ch,
sh, shch & ts. In the Hispanic world, there is utter confusion.
Let us start with the "sh". If, as in the case in my half-Spanish
household, you are an habitué of Spanish TV by cable, you often hear
that president "Buss" has gone from "Wassington" to "SSangai", but he
had stopped smoking "hassiss". Why cannot their news readers,
together with most of the Iberian population, notice that there is an
"h" after the "s", so just possibly, it is not pronounced as if it was
just an "s". Answers on a postcard please.
Back in Chile, many people pretend the country they live in is
"Tsile". It would be consistent, even if wrong, should they always
pronounce "ch" as "ts", but when they refer to the cook in the
restaurant, he is a "tcheff", possibly preparing a meal of "sutchi".
Admittedly, the "ch" combination is a stronger sound than the "sh"
one, but in no way does it have a silent "t" before it, nor is the "c"
pronounced as an "s".
THE "B" & THE "V", THE "J" AND OTHER LETTERS I have no statistics as
to how many native Hispanics speak Chinese so well as to be unable to
distinguish their not being Chinese on the phone (my sister is thus
fluent in Japanese, by the way). If the rara avis exists, it must be
in minute quantities, because if they cannot differentiate between the
"b" and "v" sounds, then chances that they can master the three or
four different intonations of Chinese sounds are as good as nil. Qué
carajo does it mean to say "b grande" and "v chica". Grande tu
estupidez y chica tu mente, pues!!
The consequences are to be seen everywhere. Badly spelt words on
public signs and in the media, incorrect identity documents, and wrong
transliteration of foreign words. I am afraid that this is now a
congenital ailment about which nothing can be done.
The fate of the "j" is another headache, particularly in Chile.
Strictly speaking, its correct Spanish pronunciation is "kh", but when
"adapting" it to local taste, the Chileans think it is in German. You
thus have people called "Yonatan" and "Yenifer .
The worst aspect of it is that civil registry officers accept such
mistakes, whereas they should be the last line of defence against
them, telling the father "o lo deletrea correctamente o su hijo queda
sin registro, en calidad de "vastardo" (como su padre, pues).
Then we have the problem of the "h", and not only in Chile. In strict
ruling, the "h" in Spanish is in general silent. However, when
pronouncing foreign words starting with "h", instead of the weak "he"
that should come out, most Hispanics decide that it is a "j",
pronounced correctly. You thus have a "khappening" when Manchester
City beats West "Kham" at football. You may have noticed that they do
not even follow their own stupid rule to pronounce foreign words as if
they were written in Spanish.
Let us end this non-exhaustive sample with the end letters, "x" and
"z". In Spain, they tend to pronounce the "x" also as if it were an
"s", though the rule book says it should be pronounced "ks". Thus you
cannot differentiate in conversation between "sexo" (sex) and "seso"
(brains), a situation which must have some moral tale in it.
In Chile, the same fate awaits the "z", whether single or double, and
makes Italy's famous dish as revised by American cooks, "Pis"a or
PHANTOM LETTERS I have a lot of problems with my name in Chile. No
wonder, I hear you say. Funnily enough, I have more problems with
"Armen" than with "Kouyoumdjian". There are people who think it is a
spelling mistake and write back to me as "Carmen" (that included
Joaquin Lavin's presidential campaign team in 1999, a waste of time as
I am not registered to vote). They are not the worst offenders.
When I give my name on the phone in Chile, I try the method you use
with small children or mentally impaired people. I tell them it is
spelt like "Carmen", but minus the "C". No use. They answer back
calling me "Harmen" or "Kharmen". Excuse me!! Did I mention an "h"? Do
you see an "h" written before the "a" in invisible ink, which only the
NSA can detect? Why can't you just say plain and simple, "Armen"?
(Porque somos unos Guebones, pues !).
The mystery of why Spaniards refer to the capital of Iraq as "Bagdag"
is another example of confused pronunciation. Is there also a problem
of vocal similarity between the "g" and the "d"?
PRETENTIOUSLY WRONG MENUS (AND FOOTBALL CLUBS) It would be a waste of
time to cite all the mis-spelt foreign words in menus, whether written
up in the poshest Santiago hotel (the one offering "amouse bouche",
and I found out subsequently that the guy in charge of its restaurants
is a native Frenchman!), or described in the gastronomic reviews of
its main newspapers.
Getting back to the rule about pronouncing foreign words as if they
were written in Spanish, it obviously does not apply to Chilean
football clubs. They are two such clubs in Chile, among several with
an English name, that are the subject of pronunciation vandalism. One
is "Rangers" and the other "Wanderers".
Now, if you pronounced "Rangers" in the English way, it would be
"randjers", and if you pronounce it as a Spanish word, it would be
"rankhers or ranghers". However, despite superhuman efforts I made
among my Chilean media friends, most of them still continue to refer
to it with a strong "g" as in "banger".
Wanderers is a word with three syllables, but the Chilean media
decided that it only had two, so it is pronounced "Wanders". It means
something completely different in English.
OUR FRIEND "GUISHERMO" FROM CNN I shall not attempt a thorough
analysis of Argentine pronunciation. My cultural battle in that
country is much more profound, and consists in trying to have Astor
Piazzolla's grave transformed into a public toilet. How could a
passionate and restless people like the Argentines stay silent, and
let that man destroy one of the pillars of their culture, the
classical sung tango, and transform it into some kind of techno tune
revised by Moby? He should be declared a traitor to the nation, have
all his inheritance confiscated, and his family expelled from the
country, whilst banning any public or private performance of his
Anyway, back to pronunciation. I did say that this report was not
about accents, but about inconsistencies in pronunciation that broke
self-imposed rules. We know that the combination "ll" in Argentina is
pronounced "sh". Well, that is their problem, but it is not right to
There is an Argentine weatherman on CNN's international channel, whose
name is Guillermo. I do not mind that 40 million Argentines call him
"Guishermo", and a few million Uruguayans as well, but I certainly did
mind and told them so, when his Anglo-Saxon colleagues on the network
also started introducing him as "Guishermo", so making hundreds of
millions of non-Spanish speakers round the world who watch CNN, to
think that "ll" was always supposed to be pronounced "sh".
SPAIN'S BIASED COMMITMENT TO EXPANDING ITS CULTURAL INFLUENCE
For many years, Spain has been extending the presence and range of
activities of its official cultural institute, the Instituto
Cervantes, which will be jointly organising the Valparaiso congress
with the RAE. Though it was not called that at the time, I myself
started learning Spanish at its London branch in 1971.
There is currently no on-site Spanish diplomatic or cultural presence
in the Caucasus republics. There was a firm promise to kick off with
Armenia, after all a nation of cultured linguists with a long
tradition. Nevertheless, political pressure from NATO & the EU, in the
wake of the Georgian conflict, led to a switch in priorities and the
announcement that such an embassy would be set up instead in uncouth
Tblisi, Georgia. Today, the British, French, Italian, German and
American embassies in Yerevan all have cultural centres attached to
them, with language classes, libraries and scholarships to travel
abroad. The absence of any Spanish-speaking embassy means that if you
wish to study the language in Armenia, you either have to go to an
expensive private institute, or do it at university level. I modestly
helped earlier this year to set up a small Spanish-language library,
on the premises of an Italian NGO. As for traveling, forget it except
by faking to be a tourist and becoming an illegal immigrant in
Valencia. And to think that our last Armenian king, Leon V, once ruled
over all of Madrid!