Do You Talk Like Alex Trebek?
I have a confession to make: I have a bit of the Alex Trebek Syndrome.
I’ll explain more in a minute, but first, listen to this link, which will start a sound clip automatically.
This is from the movie I Love You, Man, where the main character, Peter, pronounces the name of his favorite movie in a decidedly un-American way. Maybe Chocolat should be said the way he insists, but what about other foreign words?
Do you go to a bakery and ask for a KWAsahn?
(You know what it sounds like, so stop rolling your eyes at my attempt to type out a French pronunciation.)
You probably wouldn’t do that unless you were traipsing through Pah-ree. So most Americans will ask for a kruh-sahnt, even knowing that it’s a French word, and probably knowing how they pronounce it.
Sometimes we do put on that foreign accent …
And when we do, this is the Alex Trebek Syndrome. (I didn’t coin the term, but I don’t know who did.) If you’ve ever seen Jeopardy, you know that he pronounces foreign words and phrases with their native accent. For instance, he’ll give an answer about Puerta del Sol and for just those three words, you’d swear he was actually from Madrid.
People do this kind of thing with foreign words all the time. Sometimes it’s meant to be humorous (Target, the store, being pronounced Tar-zhay), sometimes it seems appropriate, and sometimes it’s ridiculous.
Melbourne, Melbin, Cologne, and Köln
As an Australian friend once pointed out about my American accent, I’m inclined to pronounce every letter but the final e in Australia’s Melbourne (Mel-born). Yet, the people who actually live there shorten it significantly to something like Melbin with only a hint of the l.
If there’s such a thing as a correct pronunciation, I’d give the nod to the natives’. Yet most Americans don’t say Melbourne, Glasgow or Manchester the way the locals do. But maybe that’s because it’s all English anyway, so why say place names differently than any other words you have in common?
But what about places where English isn’t the main language? And I’m not just talking about Paris and Mexico becoming Pah-ree and Mehico. Often, the natives have a completely different word, not just a different pronunciation for their little slice of Earth (this is called an exonym):
Moscow in Russian is something like Moskva. The Japanese call their homeland Nippon. The city of Cologne in Germany (Deutschland) is Köln.
So here’s my confession
I tend to pronounce German words in English with my best German accent. For instance, there’s a particular (and particularly delicious) beer that’s brewed only in Cologne called kölsch, after the German name for the city.
It’s a mostly unknown beer in America except among beer connoisseurs and brewers, who’ve anglicized its pronunciation so they don’t have to deal with that pesky little umlaut over the o. They say kolsh; I say kölsch with the vowel sound we don’t have in English.
Sometimes it makes me feel like an obnoxious know-it-all, but at the same time, saying it any other way just feels completely unnatural. Though I do call the city “Cologne.”
It seems to me that there are no hard and fast rules, but the more well established the word in English, the less likely it is to be subject to Trebekification.
So what do you do?
What are your own personal criteria for different pronunciations? Do you talk about your latest trip to MAH-thrid or Madrid? If you wanted the chicken at a fancy restaurant, how would you order croquette de volaille? Or gyros?