February 15, 2006

"Torino" rolls along

Confusion still reigns over NBC's decision to refer to the Italian city hosting the Olympics as Torino rather than the traditional English name of Turin. As noted on the copy-editing blog A Capital Idea, many American newspapers are following their style guides and using Turin rather than Torino. (USA Today is one notable exception.) On the other hand, the International Olympic Committee has gone along with NBC's choice of Torino, displaying it on the English-language version of its official site, though even the IOC isn't very consistent: the logo and titles all say "Torino 2006," but much of the text uses Turin.

So why did NBC opt to keep the Italian name of Torino (while not, for instance, calling Italy Italia)? It's been widely reported that the choice was made in 1999 by NBC sports chairman Dick Ebersol on a trip to the city shortly after it was awarded the 2006 Games. Here are two direct quotes from Ebersol about his executive decision (emphasis mine):

"And we'll call them [the Games] Torino. It rolls off the lips a lot smoother than Turin." (Boston Globe, 8/27/04)

"I was just swept away with how that sounded: Torino. It just rolls off your mouth. It talks about a wonderful part of the world. It has a romanticism to it. And I just thought that that was a wonderful way to name these games." (Hartford Courant, 1/26/06)

When Mike McCarley, a spokesman for NBC Sports, was asked about Torino, he cleared up the lip/mouth confusion of his boss by choosing the more common folk-phonetic idiom:

"Dick made the decision in '99 because of the way Torino rolls off the tongue. It's Italian. It sounds Italian." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 1/21/06)

Regardless of which articulatory organ is imagined to have words rolling off of it, the perceived euphony of Italian (and Romance languages in general) is an old stereotype among Anglophones, the flip side to descriptions of Germanic or Semitic languages as "harsh" or "guttural." In the case of Torino, we might imagine that the "rolling" refers to the trilled r, though that's clearly not sufficient as an indicator of linguistic sweetness — even a so-called "guttural" language like Arabic has voiced alveolar trills. There's must be something about prosodically lilting vowel-consonant alternation, particularly with a vowel in word-final position, that strikes many ears as pleasing. A product naming consultant's blog entry (which naively claims to give the "unwritten rules for translating foreign city names") characterizes the word-final vowels of Italian place names like Torino as both "flamboyant" and "appetizing"!

Anthropologists might talk about Ebersol's choice of Torino over Turin in terms of "exoticization of the Other" or "the fetishization of authenticity." But Italians themselves are taking full advantage of the "romanticism" that Ebersol detects in the name Torino. As a Dec. 8, 2005 Wall Street Journal article explains, local boosters see the use of Torino as an opportunity to "rebrand" the economically depressed city, and they successfully lobbied the IOC to emulate Ebersol's decision to use Torino instead of Turin as the city's official name in all languages, including English:

The name choice is about "taking back our identity," says Giuseppe Gattino, a spokesman for the city's Olympics organizing committee, officially dubbed Torino 2006. In Italy, it also represents a small victory for the national language amid concern about the growing use of English words such as "email" and "weekend," despite the existence of perfectly fine Italian equivalents.

Another reason is more prosaic: Singsong "Torino," with its classically Italian rolling R and vowel ending, sounds better than the hard, Anglo-Saxon "Turin" — and might help soften the city's scruffy, industrial reputation. "I'm convinced that part of the reason people love cappuccino is for the joy of pronouncing the word," says Beppe Severgnini, a columnist for Italian daily newspaper Il Corriere della Sera. "The word Torino is less sexy, but it's better than Turin."

Ah, so this explains why I don't drink cappuccino — I experience no "joy in pronouncing the word"! But besides providing folk-phonetic perceptions of Torino vs. Turin (does the latter really sound "hard"?), the Wall Street Journal article also delves into some of the actual history of the city's naming:

Italians cringe at English names for their cities, such as Florence for Firenze and Leghorn for Livorno. The irony is that Turin isn't an anglicized form of Torino at all. The area around the city was first settled by Celtic tribes in the third century B.C., and the name Turin derives from the Celtic word "tau" for mountains. Torino is the Italian derivation, and happens to mean "little bull." The city was known as Turin when it became the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

David Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, notes that, in the fading dialect of the local Piedmont region, the city is still known as Turin, with the accent on the second syllable. Historically, he says, the region "is closer to France than Italy linguistically and geographically."

So there's some fodder for those of you who would like to buck the tide and stick to Turin: it has a longer history than Torino and even has the seal of approval from speakers of Piemontese (which is actually not a "dialect" but a language distinct from both Italian and French). But if you're fetishizing authenticity and want to pronounce Turin the Piemontese way, give it final-syllable stress. Ben Sadock thinks that he's heard the name pronounced tuRIN by English speakers before the Olympics (as in discussions of the famous shroud), but American Heritage and Random House corroborate my sense that the preferred pronunciation in American English is TURin. And that's the pronunciation I'll continue to use, as I'm immune to the charms of Torino (and cappuccino).

(Looking ahead to the 2008 Summer Olympics, is there any way to nip "Beizhing" in the bud?)

[Update #1: More on Turin and Pie(d)montese from Ben Sadock here.]

[Update #2: Matt Weingarden, aka Mr. Fine Wine, suggests another reason why Americans might romanticize Torino: Starsky & Hutch drove a Ford Gran Torino (a muscle car manufactured from 1968 to 1976).]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 15, 2006 12:57 AM