April 25, 2006

Full tilde

Jim Gordon recently complained (in an update to a post on pronouncing sauna) about how the New York Times crossword puzzle elides diacritical marks from foreignisms even when this results in a different word in the relevant language. The most egregious example, Jim noted, is the use of "year, in Spanish" as a clue for ANO, even though ano differs crucially from año. Below the jump, a real-world example illustrating the perils of de-tildeing año(s), provided by Matthew Baldwin of The Morning News.

My friend Rebecca is a prosecutor and, whenever I see her, I insist she fill me in on her recent cases. Though most involve routine litigation, she occasionally tells a gem of a tale.

The last time I asked, she told me about the Anus Motion.

"This guy gets pulled over on suspicion of a DUI," she said, "And it turns out that he only speaks Spanish. So the cop radios for a Spanish-speaking colleague. A second officer shows up, reads the driver his rights in Spanish off of a little card that all cops carry, and they administer the breathalyzer test. Sure enough, the guy is soused.

"We figure this case is a slam dunk. But a few weeks later the driver's lawyer submits a motion to have the results of the breathalyzer voided, saying that the defendant didn't understand his rights before we gave him the test. And we're all, like, 'Nuh-uh! We read him his rights. In Spanish, even.'

"But the defense somehow got a copy of the Spanish language card that the officer read from, and noticed that the little squiggle was missing from above an 'n' in the sentence: '¿Tiene veinteuno años?' In English that literally translates to 'Do you have 21 years?' — in other words, this was just a routine question to make sure the guy was an adult. But without the tilde over the 'n', the word 'años' becomes 'anos' — Spanish for 'anus.'
[sic: it's Spanish for 'anuses.']

"They're claiming that the driver thought the officer asked 'Do you have 21 anuses', despite the fact that the officer reading the card spoke fluent Spanish and would have pronounced it 'años' anyway. And the defendant said 'si.' We're supposed to believe that the guy genuinely thought he was being asked if he had multiple anuses and answered with an enthusiastic 'yes!'

"The best part is that the defense attorney can't even bring himself to say the word 'anus.' Instead, he calls it 'the back region.' We're going in front of a judge next week, and I'm going to make a point of saying the word 'anus' as many times as I can during the proceeding. I even got them to call the legal brief 'The Anus Motion,' so he won't even be able to refer to it by title.

"What do you think the judge will do?" I asked her.

She shrugged. "Probably throw the case out," she said. "And we'll have to go back and change all the cards."

[Update: Eric Bakovic observes that "the años/anos thing is an old joke among Spanish speakers"...

Speaking of jokes surrounding "ano" ... (from my mom, who loves this kind of joke):

A reporter interviewing newly-elected president of Bolivia Evo Morales asks him about his unusual first name. "I was named after my mother, whose name was Eva," Morales says. "Good thing her name wasn't Ana," says the reporter.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 25, 2006 02:11 PM