November 22, 2006

Final-vowel thankfulness

Echidne of the Snakes (via Wonkette), a suggests an ethnopoliticolinguistic "reason to be thankful" this Thanksgiving:

In our pride at having Democrats name the first woman as Speaker of the House we have forgotten two interesting and telling facts, Nancy Pelosi is the first person with a name ending in a vowel to be Speaker of the House.
She has also risen higher in power than anyone else with a name ending in a vowel in the history of the country.

Commenters tried to figure out exactly what counts as a vowel to "olvlzl" (who could use an extra vowel or two herself). Her definition of "vowel" isn't strictly orthographic, since she discounts surnames ending in silent "-e" like those of Presidents Coolidge, Fillmore, and Pierce. (Don't even mention Monroe!) And it's not strictly phonological, since "-y" doesn't seem to count when it's pronounced as /i/ (President John Kennedy, Speaker Tom Foley) or as part of a diphthong like /eɪ/ (Speaker Henry Clay, Chief Justice John Jay). But the blogger's point isn't really about vowels per se, but about Pelosi's Italian descent:

While we are looking at the facts of her gender and her party affiliation to explain her utter rejection by the Washington DC Establishment and the Republican media we shouldn't forget this fact could count for a lot of the snooty snark. We shouldn't forget that for people with a heritage from the Mediterranean basin, and elsewhere, she also represents a great leap forward.

This isn't the first time we've seen "person whose name ends in a vowel" used as code for "person of Italian (or southern European) descent." It came up a year ago when Samuel Alito was nominated for the Supreme Court. At the time, Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard took it as "a point of ethnic pride" that he had a vowel at the end of his name, just like Scalia and Alito (whose names were being fused into the derogatory nickname "Scalito"). As Eric Bakovic noted on phonoloblog, "Continetti's point seems to be that having a vowel at the end of your (last) name more or less identifies you(r name) as being of Italian (or at least 'ethnic') descent." As with the comment on Pelosi, "final vowels" are really ethnic markers masquerading as (folk-)phonological units. Linguists needn't concern themselves with definitional niceties in such cases... and for that we can be thankful.

[Update #1: Seth Finkelstein points out that "name ending in a vowel" as shorthand for Italianness is an old trope in American discourse on ethnicity, with Google News Archive turning up examples from the mid-'80s relating to such figures as Mario Cuomo and Geraldine Ferraro. Here's the earliest example I've found on the Proquest archive:

New York Times, Apr. 14, 1967, p. 23
Judge Di Lorenzo explained that his organization [sc. the American Italian Anti-Defamation League] was attempting to stop the press and television from using the word "Mafia" in crime stories and to abolish the stereotype criminal in movies: "He is always dark-complexioned, and his last name always ends in a vowel," the judge said.

[Update #2: John Kroll writes:

I can't argue with the online cites that clearly limit "name ends with a vowel" to Italians or at least southern Europeans. But I've used it and heard others use it much more generally.
Although my name doesn't -- my Polish ancestors even tacked on an extra consonant when they came to America -- I've got plenty of ends-with-a-vowel cousins and I've used "ends with a vowel" to distinguish between people of English/Irish/Scotch/German descent and, well, pretty much everyone else -- or, at the least, almost all other European nationalities.
For me and the Poles and Italians I grew up with, "ends with a vowel" distinguished those of us whose ancestors largely arrived in the mass immigration of the late 1800s and early 1900s, by which time the early birds had locked up the power, good jobs and good neighborhoods; and from blacks, the only group we were aware of that was clearly far worse off.
Of late, I think my sense of it has even expanded to include all Asians and Latinos, in a broader sense of being those people who fall somewhere on the spectrum of American tolerance between the Mayflower offspring and the descendants of slaves. I can find at least one online backup for that: "As for Henry Bonilla, who will be introducing himself around Dallas next week, the GOP may be attracted by the fact that his last name ends with a vowel." (link)

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at November 22, 2006 07:27 PM