December 12, 2006

Let's call the whole thing off

While we were hanging around the water cooler at Language Log Plaza earlier today, Geoff Pullum told me he'd been listening to this story on NPR's Morning Edition this morning, about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's death. In the middle of Steve Inskeep's interview with Nathan Crooks (editor of The Santiago Times), Inskeep digresses to note that he and Crooks have been pronouncing Pinochet's name differently, and asks Crooks about it.

(Click here if you'd like to hear this entire short digression; links in the transcript below are to the individual pronunciations, which I represent in what I hope are orthographically-transparent ways.)

Inskeep: Mr. Crooks, I feel obliged to try to get the man's name right here, in death. We've been saying "Pinochet" here in the United States; you're there, in Santiago, Chile, and saying "Pinoshay". How did he say it?

Crooks: You know, I hear it both ways. In Chile, most people will say "Pinoshay", but in English I hear "Pinoshet".

Note that there are two issues here: the pronunciation of orthographic "ch" as "sh", and pronunciation of the final "t". Crooks seems to think Inskeep was only asking about the second of these issues. Geoff, for his part, was more interested in the first issue. Because I'm the resident expert on Spanish dialect pronunciation, Geoff asked me about the pronunciation of this French-derived name in Spanish (as well as the name of the current president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet).

[T]he American in Chile was saying "pinoshay" [as it would be, more or less, in French]. But no dialect of Spanish has "sh", does it? Spanish speakers would be saying "che" or "chet", but not "shay" or "shet".

As it turns out, there are some varieties of Spanish with a "sh"-like sound, and at least one of these is spoken in Chile. The issue about the final "t" also turns out to be complex and interesting.

According to José Ignacio Hualde, in his recent book The Sounds of Spanish (p. 152, emphasis added):

Another important dialectal phenomenon is the deaffrication of /ʧ/; that is, the loss of the occlusive element of the affricate, resulting in the fricative [ʃ] (as in English sheep): muchacho [muʃáʃo]. This lenitive development has been attested in a number of separate areas including parts of Andalusia, Northern Mexico (Sonora and Chihuahua), Panama and parts of Chile.

Let me explain what Hualde's saying here. In most varieties of Spanish (including the standard), orthographic "ch" pretty consistently represents what's called a voiceless post-alveolar affricate, the IPA symbol for which is [ʧ]. (Orthographic "ch" in English also generally represents [ʧ], but there are exceptions like character, Bach, and the like.) Some speakers in parts of Chile and elsewhere pronounce (at least some instances of) orthographic "ch" as a voiceless post-alveolar fricative, the IPA symbol for which is [ʃ] and which in English orthography is generally represented as "sh". (See Note 1 below.) The primary phonetic difference between the two sounds is that [ʧ] begins with complete closure in the mouth while [ʃ] does not; this is the "occlusive element" Hualde refers to.

So, in sum: the "sh" part of the pronunciation of "Pinochet" is not unexpected for at least some Chileans, for reasons other than the fact that "Pinochet" is originally a French name.

What about the final "t", then -- in Geoff's representations, is it "che"/"shay" or "chet"/"shet"? (See Note 2 below.) Again, there is a constellation of interesting facts about Spanish generally that lead me to expect either pronunciation as possible, in Chile and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world. These facts can be grouped into two inter-related generalizations, one which I call the final consonant generalization (1) and the other which I call the final stress generalization (2).

  1. Final consonant generalization.
    • There are very, very few words in Spanish that end in a (pronounced) "t". (In fact, I find it hard to think of any other than obvious borrowings.) This is part of a more general fact about Spanish, that there are relatively few words that end in (pronounced) consonants other than "s", "z", "n", "l", "r", and "d"; these consonants are all pronounced with the tongue-tip, as is "t", but for various reasons these consonants are relatively common word-finally and "t" is not.
  2. Final stress generalization.
    • There are relatively few Spanish words with more than one syllable that end in a stressed vowel. (Caveat: some verb forms are consistently stressed on the final vowel, and words consisting of only one syllable have no choice of where to be stressed.) Some examples are menú, Perú, tabú, café, and of course, olé.
    • There are even fewer Spanish words (again, other than verbs) that are longer than two syllables and end in a stressed vowel. The place name Panamá is the only example that comes to mind. (There are also some other less well-known place names of this type.)
    • With some well-defined exceptions, words that end in consonants are nearly always stressed on the final syllable. One set of exceptions is the set of regular plural nouns; when the plural suffix "s" is added to a vowel-final noun, the stress is on the same vowel as in the singular: póstre 'dessert' ~ póstres 'desserts'. (See Note 3 below.)

Back to Pinochet: as in French, this word is stressed on the final syllable in all Spanish (and English) pronunciations that I've heard (Pi-no-CHET). Given this immutable fact, a Spanish speaker is stuck with the following uncomfortable (but subconscious) choice: pronounce the final "t" and have the word be another exception to the final consonant generalization in (1) above, or don't pronounce the final "t" and have the word be another exception to the final stress generalization in (2).

So this leaves us with all four options as viable, any one or more of which may be how a Chilean speaker might pronounce "Pinochet" or "Bachelet": (a) with "ch" and with "t", (b) with "ch" and without "t", (c) with "sh" and with "t", (d) with "sh" and without "t". I'm inclined to say there's probably something to Crooks' incomplete-seeming response to Inskeep's question: maybe most if not all of the Chileans he talks to use "sh" pretty consistently, and maybe they only pronounce the final "t" when they're being careful (or, attempting what they think is the right English pronunciation). So, it's option (d) in normal speech, and option (c) in more careful speech. (For what it's worth: to my ear, this clip of people chanting Pinochet's name sounds like option (b), but then again this is a lot of people and a fairly noisy recording.)

I can't resist noting a couple of other linguistically-interesting details about the NPR piece:

  • The very first sentence of the piece is Inskeep saying: "The dictator (who) once ruled Chile is dead." The "who" is in parentheses because I can't tell for sure if Inskeep said it. Either way, it's not unexpected. On the one hand, some varieties of English allow dropping of "who" in this type of context. On the other hand, this word is completely unstressed, which in English often results in other predictable reductions. The relevant reductions here are (a) dropping of the initial [h]-sound and (b) substantial shortening of the vowel [u], which is already very similar to the following [w]-sound that begins the word "once".
  • At about the one-minute-thirty mark, Crooks says: "Yes, there are a large number of people here that still support Pinochet." Note how deliberate Crooks is with his delivery of this sentence, and yet he manages to (apparently, anyway) mismatch plural "are" with singular "a large number of people" (in the "grammatical" as opposed to "semantic" senses of these terms, as clarified by Arnold Zwicky a few days ago). Not so long ago I discussed a related pair of examples.

[ Comments? ]


  1. As far as I know, it's not the case that all examples of orthographic "ch" are pronounced like "sh". Most notably, word-initial orthographic "ch" (as in Chile) seems to always be pronounced "ch", and so the "sh" sound is limited to non-initial "ch" (as in Pinochet). My mother once asked me why her Chilean friend seems to "switch" the two sounds; for example, her friend says muchacho as if it were mushasho, but while speaking English she says cherry wine for sherry wine. The key is that the "sh" in sherry is word-initial.
  2. We can safely ignore the final "e" vs. "ay" distinction that Geoff brings up in his representations. In Spanish, orthographic "e" represents a monophthong [e], which is roughly somewhere between the vowels of "bed" (monophthong [ɛ]) and "bay" (diphthong [eɪ]) in English. Words can't end in vowels like [ɛ] in English, though, and so what would be Spanish [e] word-finally corresponds more closely to [eɪ] in English.
  3. Note that the orthographic conventions of Spanish explicitly take these well-defined exceptions into account; both postre and postres are written without an acute accent to mark the stressed vowel because the stress on these words is considered to be "regular".
       There is an exception-to-the-exception that proves the rule behind exceptions to (2). (Are you following me?) There are virtually no words in Spanish with stress on a syllable that is more than three syllables from the end of the word; let's call this the three-syllable stress generalization (3). The only exceptions to (3) are verb forms with a couple or more pronouns attached to the end (such as muéstraselo 'show it to him/her'). Now take a noun like régimen 'diet' -- already an exception to (2) in that it ends in a consonant but is not stressed finally -- and add the plural suffix (which in this case is "es" rather than "s" because the noun ends in a consonant). The result is regímenes, not *régimenes; in other words, the plural can have a different stress than the singular, but only to avoid an exception to (3), not (2).

And in case you're still reading ...

  • The only other variety of Spanish with a "sh"-like sound that I am aware of is spoken in Uruguay. Some speakers of Uruguayan Spanish (in and around Montevideo, if I'm not mistaken) use a "sh"-like sound for orthographic "y"/"ll", both word-initially and between vowels (but not word-finally, where you sometimes find orthographic "y" but not "ll"). This differs strikingly from the somewhat better-known neighboring Argentinian varieties, where the same orthographic elements are pronounced with (something similar to) a voiced postalveolar fricative (IPA [ʒ]; often represented orthographically as "zh" for the benefit of English speakers).
  • Geoff suggested "Ole, ole ole olet; Pinoche, Pinochet" as the title for this post. I had to go with my gut and choose the one you see before you. Feel free to comment on which you think was the better choice (and why), if you like.
Posted by Eric Bakovic at December 12, 2006 12:39 AM