August 26, 2005

If it kwa's like a duck...

OK, this is "Language Log", not "Complaining about Editorial Standards at the New Yorker Log", so I was going to let it pass. But several readers have written to point out something strange in the little Mountweazels item that I linked to yesterday:

Anne Soukhanov, the U.S. General Editor of Encarta Webster’s, was the first to weigh in. “Ess-kwa-val-ee-ohnce—I want to pronounce it in the French manner—is your culprit,” she said.

It's the status of the made-up word esquivalience that's at issue, and Tom Rossen's reaction was the most pungent:

Kwa she talkin' 'bout, Willis? If that's what Microsoft's finest think is the French pronunciation of "qui", I'm at a loss for mots!

"Ess-kwa-val-ee-ohnce" is indeed a strange notion of how to pronounce esquivalience "in the French manner", but I don't think that it's safe to attribute the idea to Soukhanov. The pages of the New Yorker are by no means bereft of linguistic carelessness -- we've documented hallucinations about pronunciation and a preposterous transcription error, among other things, and the Soukhanov quote's chain of transmission is unclear. Henry Alford writes that "The six words and their definitions were e-mailed to nine lexicographical authorities", which suggests that the responses might have come by email as well; but then he uses the tag "she said", not "she wrote" or "she e-mailed", so maybe he talked with Soukhanov on the phone. If her answer was spoken, then the lamely fake representation of pronunciation is entirely Alford's. And if Soukhanov answered by email, that part of the quote might have been edited, either by Alford or by someone else at the New Yorker. This is the familiar problem of attributional abduction.

But even if Soukhanov provided the pronounciation as printed -- which I doubt -- it seems to me that the magazine is at fault. Depicting a respected senior lexicographer as ignorant of French pronunciation is a distraction from the light-hearted point of the piece. The spirit of Miss Gould is fading further.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 26, 2005 08:52 AM