Over-pronouncing Borrowed Foreign Words like Taco Does Not Make You Sound Smart

Posted on 21 Mar 2013 15:03

Have you ever seen the Saturday Night Live skit with Jimmy Smitz where TV news anchors annoyingly over-pronounce Spanish words like enchilada and Sans Salvador? You ever heard someone ordering Mexican food and trying to sound Mexican or Spanish, even though most all of the words are commonly used English words as well as Mexican of Spanish origin?

What about, and here is a particularly amusing one, "Guy Fierri" of Food Network greatly over-pronouncing his name as "Fietti" even though he was born "Ferry" and has not a trace of an Italian accent?1 Does guy Fierri seem Italian to you, except when he does that schtick with his name? Yeah, right.

Another huge over-enunciator from the Food Network is Giada De Laurentiis, who, without a trace of an Italian accent, suddenly goes full-bore Italian when she says spaghetti, or the name of any other Italian food. She feigns annoyance at Alton Brown's "mispronouncing" of the word, and corrects him on it, although she seems hard-pressed to pronounce it the same way twice, and as far as I can tell, has a fake as all-get-out Italian accent and sounds just like an American snob trying to feign cultural knowledge. Speegheeetee anyone? Below, listen to a female from Italy pronounce spaghetti and see how much it sounds like speegeetee. Who is correct, Alton or Giada?

Well, Alton is correct in pronouncing spaghetti like an American, because, well, he's an American, and it's an American word, albeit a borrowed one. It's been in the language for a long, long time. De Laurentiis has a reason to pronounce Italian derived words in an Italian way: her father was Italian. Brown does not.


Have you ever noticed that Americans never expect people from other countries to pronounce English words without an accent, but for Americans pronouncing "foreign" words, people like De Laurentiis get all precious. Yes, it is annoying. I'll admit it, I'm annoyed by it.

Does this annoy you, or do you think that trying to pronounce these words properly is paying homage or using proper etiquette?

Well, there is a reason that many of us find it annoying when people over-pronounce such words, especially common food words. For one, it's often pretense and trying to be something that you are not. For another, many of these words are ENGLISH words, with as much a right to be used and pronounced in an English way as they have to be used and pronounced in their original way.

When I say annoyed, I mean mild annoyance. Not boiling anger or even anger at all. Even with Guy Fierri, I find his annoyance factor to be part of the entertainment. When he suddenly has a fake Italian accent and says "Fietti" I laugh, because it is pretty funny to behold such a character. If he was "real" he wouldn't have half the charm. The point of this post is not to poke fun at people who have intermittent accent syndrome, it is to make a point about food words and language. So the poking fun part is over and the point of this post follows.

book cover image of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher
book cover image of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food by Jeffrey M. Pilcher

Let's look at the word taco. Taco is as American as it is Mexican. It was in the Southwest, and spreading further throughout the states from there, that the taco came to be what it is today. Taco is a borrowed word, in English, much like many other words. You may not realize, if you haven't paid attention, that us English speaking people pronounce the word taco differently than native Spanish speakers. We incorporate certain phonological habits into the word which are absent in the original. This is called phonological nativization. It happens when a foreign word is borrowed into and then becomes a regular part of another language.1

How Do You Say Taco in Spanish?

When we say taco we place an aspiration after the "t" to make the "a" a long A. And we use a "[w]-off glide after the "o." We make taco more like "tahhkoewa" with the "a" at the end just barely present. These features are absent in the original word's Spanish pronunciation where the "a" is pronounced like the "o" in hot and the ending "o" is short. In both cases, this is the way these vowels always sound in Spanish. You can listen to several different native Mexicans saying the word taco, below.

Some may become confused over the difference between these borrowed words and what linguists and etymologists call code switching. Code switching is the familiar practice whereby bilingual people switch between the use of one language and another. So, for instance, a Spanish speaking person who also speaks English may sometimes insert Spanish words, or incorporate Spanish phrases, into their speech, or vice versa. This is usually done when talking with a person who is known to at least have a rudimentary familiarity with the inserted language.

Such substitutions might occur for various reasons, such as the lack of a corresponding word in English. It stands to reason that if you were the first Mexican person to ever describe a taco to an English speaking person, you would not be able to instantly come up with an English translation for the word taco. It does not exist. Certainly, then, when code-switching occurs often in a certain bilingual community, those words might then be borrowed into the main language. So, if Spanish speakers use certain words often, in mixed English/Spanish, via code switching, some of those words will then come to be borrowed into the English, although this is not the only way foreign words can come to be used. Regardless, once a word is thoroughly integrated into the host language, it takes on certain characteristics of that language.

The point, then, is that the word taco, in English, is not a foreign word. The fact that you use the word taco does not make you bilingual. You are still speaking English, and using a word that has been incorporated into the common language. And since Mexican food, according to surveys, is one of the top three ethnic foods in the U.S.2 (as well it should be) there are more and more Mexican food words entering the language. You also probably say burrito, salsa, and tortilla. Those don't make you bilingual either. Our omelette is of French origin, but you don't hear anybody over-pronouncing that, do you? Incidentally the word tortilla is translated as omelet in most of the world's Spanish dialects.

In fact, it may be even a bit more silly than I have let on thus far. To further hammer home the point, I'll quote what Jeffrey Pilcher says in the preface of his book, Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food:

…just as chop suey and pepperoni pizza are not typical of the foods of China and Italy, few people in Mexico actually eat the burritos (made with wheat flour tortillas) and taco shells (prefried corn tortillas) that often pass for Mexican cooking in the United States.2

In this book, you can learn all about how the taco came about and how it evolved and spread. He goes on to say how "outraged" some Mexicans are about the global presence of Americanized Tacos, who take pride in their national food heritage. Be that as it may, the point I'd like to make is that most of the tacos you eat are thoroughly American versions of the taco. It is as American, in fact, as the typical Diner Omelette. If you're going to eat an American taco, you may as well pronounce the word like an American.

tacos de arrachera from Mexico City

Tacos de Arrachera in Mexico City

tacos de arrachera from Mexico City

Tacos de Arrachera in Mexico City

Check out this menu page, for a Taco place in the city of Monterrey, Nuevo León, Mexico. These are "tacos de arrachera," which are tacos with grilled skirt steak. You should notice this place is conspicuous for what it is missing, by American Standards. Where is the ground meat? Where are the crispy shells? Why aren't the tacos laid on a field of soupy refried beans next to a huge mound of "Mexican" rice? Remember, tacos are common street food: they are meant to be rolled up and eaten on the go with your hands. On the other hand, at a tauqueria, or a "sit down" taco place, you might be given all the fixings at your table, to assemble yourself. We only think of fajitas in this way, and if you've ever wondered what in the world is supposed to be the difference between fajitas and do-it-yourself-tacos, click on the link to find out.

You might also notice that those look like what we Americans call soft tacos. Well, it may be hard to see, but those are corn tortillas (white), only served soft, not deep fried and crispy. You might find flour tortillas in Mexico City and places North, but to most Mexicans, tacos normally use corn tortillas.

Why do people try to suddenly adopt Spanish accents when using some of these borrowed Spanish (or "Mexican") words? Well, I think it is because they feel they are being polite and it is proper etiquette to do so. I have actually heard someone say that to pronounce a word like taco "incorrectly" is bigotry (actually the word racist was used but that makes no sense, so I translated). Nothing of the sort. This is a hangup of the West, and particularly the U.S.

When a Spanish speaking person pronounces English words with a Spanish accent, we do not feel this is bigotry. We are not bothered by it at all; at least most of us. In fact, we usually enjoy it just as we enjoy most exotic accents. Yet, we feel that if we "mispronounce" a Spanish word we are rude and bigoted? Well, that is silly, and it actually seems like it could be its own sort of bigotry. It's okay for non-English speakers to pronounce English words with their native accent, but we must protect the fragile foreigners who might be offended by us butchering their words.

Yes, it is true that some people of other nationalities give a hard time to English speakers who speak their language with a "bad" accent. But this is actually quite rare. The source of it is most likely the emergence of English as the international business language, not to mention British imperialism (I guess I just did mention it). Some people are a bit ticked off that English should be everybody's second language. None of that is a reason for us to use fake Spanish accents when ordering a taco from Taco Bell. No, it does not make you sound cultured, sophisticated, or smart.

Every once in a while, you may run into a native of another country who complains of how Americans butcher the (borrowed) words of his or her language, and how nice it is when Americans try harder. While doing so, he or she will probably be butchering English pronunciation. How do you deal with it if you feel like putting them in their place? It's easy. Just remind them of all the many borrowed words from various languages in our language which they themselves routinely "butcher" because they learned the words when they learned English, and also remind them that their own language has such untranslated words as well, but none so many as English.

Do we say kindergarten like a German? How about pretzel? Or, Delicatessen? Actually, the list is vast and every person who tries to pronounce food words borrowed from Italian, or Spanish, or any other language, is guilty of pronouncing hundreds of other such words the American way without even knowing it.

1. Guzzetti, Barbara J., Donna E. Alvermann, and Jerry L. Johns. Literacy in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Theory, and Practice. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2002. 55.
2. Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. xiii.

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