Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A Latte and a Panini, please!

Do you pronounce Latte the 'wrong' way?
Do you ever say you'd like a Panini?  

No doubt you are irritating a lot of people if you are.  As with my previous post, this one is going to look again at language which annoys others. 

I've been told a few times recently that I mustn't say Panini because this is a plural noun and so can't be used to talk about one of anything.  You wouldn't say "I'd like a sandwiches" the theory goes and so don't abuse Italian plurals. The same goes for "Latte" which people with a slightly posher pronunciation than mine tend to pronounce "lah-tte".  The Italian experts among us know that 'Latte' is actually pronounced with a shorter 'a' and seem to take great pleasure in informing anyone who will listen that this is the case.
The problem is that these words are not being used in Italian. They have become albeit recently, English words.  Complaining about foreign "loan words" (as they are known) being misused in English and expecting to be taken seriously is asking a bit much since the logical conclusion would be the whole of the English language, which is constructed from odds and sods of other languages, unravelling. 
Even at a more basic level our Italian experts can't have missed the other errors widely used in English.  Graffiti is a mass noun, spaghetti is never used with "are"  and zucchini is never changed to Zucchino when we only have one.  Not only this, 'agenda' is already plural and yet we have no problem sticking an "s" on the end.  We would never normally add an 's' to media or data but both of these words have singular forms. In fact data (singular datum) is probably the only one still in contention with academics choosing to force the plural eg. "Where are the data?" whereas the singular mass noun is more comfortable for most native speakers "where is the data?"

As for the pronunciation issue, this is something that has always bothered me. People get quite upset about pronunciation and it's linked quite strongly to people's sense of identity.  Apparently the BBC has a pronunciation unit which strives to make sure names of people and places are said correctly.  I'm sure they would advise on "Latte" rather than "Lah-tte" but realistically how far can this be taken. There are hundreds of languages in the world and many of them have sounds which it is just not reasonable to expect a non-native speaker to produce. Like the word !Kung which most of us would fail at or pretty much any Chinese word. Yes, you might get the pronounciation of "Xiao" correct but you'll probably not get the tone right, which means you're prononuncing it so badly, it's become another word altogether. Thus when a word enters a foreign language, it's not surprising that it might change to fit the available sounds. 
I've also noticed that people only seem to get sniffy with European languages or languages they know. If you happen to pronounce 'croissant' (as my mother does) as "cross-on" then there will be a fair bit of eye-rolling. However, say "karaoke" the English way and no one will mind at all. Conversely if you do actually say it in the 'correct' way you'll likely be considered a show-off or a bit of a weirdo. That's assuming anyone understands you. No one would think of trying to correct others over this type of mistake so why is correction acceptable for some languages and for certain words?  Isn't it rather bizarre to expect people to switch from one phonological system to another mid-sentence?  As I mentioned earlier, taken to its logical conclusion we would have to revert to saying "accident" , "various", "cake", "alcohol" and "shampoo" in French, Latin, Norse, Arabic and Hindi, respectively.  So why not just forgive the next person who says "lah-tte"?



  1. For those of us late in life hearing impaired, 'new' words and names are a challenge. Old fashioned pronunciation guides are best for us. Thanks

  2. For those of us who have lost our finer tuned hearing of speech, music, etc after the age of 40 or so....I for one can only go with what would be correct in the language the word came from.
    Besides that, was priceless when I asked a gal 35 years ago how she liked her (pre Nissan name change) Datsun ...DAHT-sun. She snapped back ' it's a DAT-sin'. Not the only time I have 'corrected' with a mistake.