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The Pronunciation Wars

Those of us who enjoy National Review's group blog, The Corner, were certain that the moment President Obama nominated a Hispanic justice for the Supreme Court, Cornerite Mark Krikorian would have something interesting to say. Yesterday, Krikorian wrote:

So, are we supposed to use the Spanish pronunciation, so-toe-my-OR, or the natural English pronunciation, SO-tuh-my-er, like Niedermeyer? The president pronounced it both ways, first in Spanish, then after several uses, lapsing into English. Though in the best "Pockiston" tradition, he also rolled his r's in Puerto Rico.

The "Pockiston" reference is to Obama's (correct) pronunciation of Pakistan, which apparently annoyed some people. Anyway, longtime Krikorian observers knew that there was no way he would let the issue rest there. Today, he has followed up with another post on the same topic. Tellingly titled 'It Sticks in My Craw', the post goes on to say:

Deferring to people's own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English (which is why the president stopped doing it after the first time at his press conference), unlike my correspondent's simple preference for a monophthong over a diphthong, and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn't be giving in to.

This may seem like carping, but it's not. Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that's not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options — the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

Notice how this post's main intent is to completely contradict Krikorian's first sentence, which I have italicized. Apparently we are operating within very narrow limits. More generally, while everyone is allowed to focus on whatever issues they please, it is always worth paying attention to what things really bother people, what things "stick in their craw." As for what has made America a beacon of assimilation, I would offer up the thought that this pleasant reality is more the consequence of a relative dearth of people who think like Krikorian does. That, as opposed to disputes over pronunciation, is worth paying attention to.

--Isaac Chotiner