Published on January 13th, 2013 | by msalt


Forget the words

Should you pronounce a difficult or foreign word correctly, even if you’re less likely to be understood? Or is it better to focus on results?

I recently brought my wife a plate of some cheese we hadn’t tried before, a tasty French variety called “bucheron.” I know enough French from high school to guess that it’s pronounced something like “BOOSHur-OH!,” with that nasal stop at the end, but if she’s unfamiliar with the cheese, who knows what that would have sounded like?

Instead I pronounced it “butcher on,” sounding like an ignorant American – but confident that she would know what I’m saying.

If you write for a living, or even just did well in school, it’s easy to get attached to the vocabulary you worked so hard for. I think this is a mistake, because words, while fascinating and beautiful in their own right, are just tools we use to transmit meaning. If we get lost in the word itself, the reality in our mind changes to fit the word, when the opposite is what we really want to happen.

It’s always good to know and understand as many words as possible, just as you should know how to use a skill saw correctly before cutting any wood with one. Nonetheless, there are times when I pull the blade cover back on that skill saw and freehand the blade. Dangerous as it is, in some cases that’s what you need to do to get the job done. Other times you are better off using a different tool entirely.

It can be subtle, and your choices should be based on who you’re talking to. For example, in Spanish, the singular of the word tamales is not tamale, but un tamal. I work with a lot of native Spanish speakers, and if I’m speaking to them I’ll talk about “a tamal.” But most Americans would have trouble understanding that (perhaps because people rarely eat only one in this country).

If I insist on describing one as a “tamal” to an English speaker, I’m showing off my knowledge of Spanish more than I am communicating. (This tendency was captured perfectly on the latest episode of Portlandia, where a couple just back from vacation in Spain go to a fun tapas-themed dinner, and can’t resist telling everyone how wrong and unauthentic their tapas, sangria, dinner time, &c. are.)

In fact, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, the singular in English is tamale with this etymology: “[Mex. Sp. tamal, pl. tamales, f. Nahuatl tamalli.]” So even if you’re chasing authenticity, tamale is still the better thing to say, because it approximates the original Nahuatl word. But I would rather say the thing that gets my meaning across.

As usual, Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi) says it best :

“The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit;
once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.
Words exist because of meaning;
once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words so I can have a word with him?” (Burton Watson translation)

Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author

Mark Saltveit is a writer, standup comedian, skimboarder and dad based in Middlebury, Vermont. His improv show "Palindrome Fight!" will be at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Aug. 5-29th 2022 at the Kilderkin Pub, 67 Canongate, at 7:30pm each night except Tuesdays.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top ↑