Anglicized Spanish (British vs. American)

Photo: Stan Shebs

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While watching an old episode of Absolutely Fabulous last night, I was struck by the way a British character pronounced the Spanish wine rioja. In Spanish orthography, the j represents a velar fricative (the guttural consonant in Scottish ‘Loch‘). The character on Ab Fab, however, pronounced the word as if it had a /k/: riˈɒkə (ree-OCK-uh).

Americans invariably Anglicize this sound as /h/. The inconsistency exemplifies English speakers’ confusion over whether /x/ (the velar fricative) is more properly closer to /k/ or /h/ (we pronounce “loch” with the former but “Hanukkah” with the latter). It’s likewise possible that the /k/ in “rioja” approximates Spanish dialect(s) nearer to the UK: /x/ (the velar fricative) is somewhat more common in Spain, while Caribbean Spanish-speaking countries tend more toward /h/.*

But riˈɒkə also suggests that the way that Britons Anglicize Spanish differs from the way Americans do. I’ve been similarly startled by British chefs pronouncing “paella” with a very English /l/ (paɪɛlə), and Gordon Ramsey’s pronunciation of “cojones” (“bollocks”) as if it nearly rhymed with “honest.” We’re not as accustomed to such broad Anglicizations of Spanish here in the States (unless we’re talking about place names like “Amarillo“).

Of course, Americans have no qualms about stripping foreign words of their phonetic origins (just listen to a local New Orleanian describing French-named suburbs). But we seem to make an exception for Spanish, America’s more or less de facto second language. On this side of the Atlantic, we pronounce “paella” with a /j/, use the vowel in “goat” for the second syllable of “cojones,” and pronounce “rioja” as if it rhymed with “aloha.”

A decade ago, I wondered if British Anglicization of Spanish language might not evolve due to many Britons emigrating to the Iberian’s sunnier climes. One of the interesting side-effects of such a cultural shift might be evident from my side-note about “rioja:” were Spanish to became a commonly spoken language in the UK, you would end up with a situation in which Britain and the US would be separated by two common languages, since each country would likely adopt a “standard” dialect typical of the nearest native-speaking country (Spain vs. Latin America).

Alas, this seems increasingly unlikely given Spain’s beggared economy. Still, with the British-born population of Spain in the hundreds of thousands, it will be intriguing to see if the language develops a stronger presence in the British consciousness.

*The /x/ vs. /h/ thing is fairly complex in the Spanish speaking world, though: Mexico, for instance, is split between the two.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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42 Responses to Anglicized Spanish (British vs. American)

  1. I’ve noticed the same “broad Anglicization” in other languages too, like Japanese (samurai=sæmjuraɪ). It may just be America has more contact with Spain and Japan (so maybe British people pronounce French better?), but my British friends also have a hard time pronouncing English loan words in other languages (saying “I just can’t pronounce them wrong”). I wonder if there’s something in the education system (explicit lessons in pronunciation?) that make it harder for British people to break out of English spelling->pronunciation rules?

    • dw says:

      In my experience, (UK-raised US citizen), there is considerably more awareness of French among university-educated Britons, just as there is more awareness of Spanish among college-educated Americans.

      For example, I wouldn’t expect to hear solecisms such as “coup de grace” missing the final /s/, or “lingerie” pronounced lahn-zhe-ray, from educated Brits.

  2. Charles Sullivan says:

    In some parts of the US, the word ‘pollo’ (chicken) is pronounced with the ‘L’ sound, and not the ‘Y’ (or very soft ‘J’) sound, as in the chain restaurant ‘Pollo Loco’.

    What’s bad with the British pronunciation is Romance languages is as follows:

    Pasta (1st syllable sounds like the English word ‘past’ for many Brits). In US is how it should be pronounced in the Spanish, Italian, etc, as ‘Pawsta’

    And don’t get me started on ‘Drama’ (Drah-ma, or Dram-ah)?

    • DCF says:

      [pas.t6] would be how I’d say it. I can’t really see any difference with Spanish or Italian that would make it particularly jarring. As “Pawsta” is pronounced differently in various parts of the US, it’s not a really helpful guide.

      • Kelsey says:

        So you only have 1 single phonetic realization of that word that you always use?

        • DCF says:

          To far more of a degree than “the British” or “the US” have, yes I do, so I doubt you’ll get a counter-argument out of that approach.

      • Kelsey says:

        …And you’re actually aware of your phonetic realizations?

    • dw says:

      In most British accents, the TRAP vowel is the closest available match to the short [a] of Italian “pasta” (in fact, it is often very close to [a]). The alternative SPA vowel is typically too long and too back.

      The fact that you write the US pronunciation as “pawsta” indicates that you are either cot-caught merged, or you are using an inappropriately rounded vowel. In US cot-caught split accents, the “cot” vowel [ɑ] is the better match.

      So perhaps you should get your own house in order before accusing the Brits of “bad” pronunciation.

      • Angus-Michel says:

        You beat me to it. I’m Canadian, and used to get a lot of chiding from an Italian-American ex for the way that Canadians tend to pronounce ‘pasta’, ‘drama’, etc. But as you note, the way cot-caught merged Americans pronounce it is just as ‘wrong’.

        • m.m. says:

          But as you note, the way cot-caught merged Americans pronounce it is just as ‘wrong’.

          doesnt this depend on the merged sound? which depending on the region varies from [a] to [ɔ]

          The fact that you write the US pronunciation as “pawsta” indicates that you are either cot-caught merged, or you are using an inappropriately rounded vowel. In US cot-caught split accents, the “cot” vowel [ɑ] is the better match.

          why is using a rounded vowel inappropriate?

          dont forget in the US, NCVS affected is [a] which like british canadian output, puts in the area of the actual spanish /a/

        • dw says:

          @m.m why is using a rounded vowel inappropriate? [for pasta]

          It’s not rounded in Italian.

        • m.m. says:

          But were talking about the anglicized version?

    • boynamedsue says:

      Charles, this really is one of my bugbears, but the other way round. I can’t understand how Americans can hear the Italian monothong in Pasta as some weird dipthong. I thing quantatively the British pronunciation is much closer to the original.

  3. MD says:

    Further along those lines, at what point does it sound douchy to pronounce Spanish when speaking English? In other words, speaking (in English) with a friend about a vacation, is it OK to pronounce the island as Ibitha, or does it make you sound like a prat to not anglicize it as Ibiza? Barthelona or Barcelona? etc….

    • Ellen K. says:

      There may be a American vs. British difference there, reflecting difference between Spanish in Spain vs. Latin America. Because for Americans, “ibitha” and “barthelona” are not how the words are pronounced in Spanish, despite being how they are pronounced in Spain. (Latin American Spanish has the same sound as the English s-sound, for both c/z and s.) I suspect, though, from your use of the word “prat”, that you are British. I’ve no insight to how it would come across there, but here in the U.S., one would probably sound to most listeners like one has a lisp.

    • dw says:

      I don’t think Catalans like “Barthelona”. “Ibitha” is the only way I’ve ever heard it pronounced in Britain.

      • Angus-Michel says:

        Well, Catalans call it Eivissa, so if you’re going for a Catalan pronunciation, that’s probably where you should be aiming.

        • dw says:

          Interesting — I wasn’t aware that Ibiza was Catalan-speaking. Thanks for the information!

      • Geoff says:

        The most common pronunciation I hear from other Brits (as someone who has been a dozen times) is eye-beetha; it tends to be more culturally aware types / regular visitors who try to get closer to spanish with ‘Ibitha’ (and I’ve never heard a brit attempt eivissa – would sound very pretentious I think)

    • dw says:

      Here’s an example of a UK advertisement for the Seat Ibiza car. The announcer pronounces it “eye-BEE-tha” !!

  4. Tom says:

    One of the more striking examples is Los Angeles. Of course, most Americans pronounce it LOSS ANN-juh-liss, in which every syllable differs from the original Spanish, but the Brits have often taken it a step further, to LOSS ANN-juh-leez.

  5. Rodger C says:

    I’ve long noticed that BBC reporters tend to pronounce Spanish as if it were a dialect of Italian–“Francheesco” etc.

    MD, since you were vacationing in Catalan-speaking areas, why not say “Ayveessa” (Eivissa) and “Berselawna”?

    • dw says:

      I don’t think that Spanish has historically been perceived as a prestigious language in Britain — unlike, to various extents, French, Italian, and German.

      For example, when I was at (high) school in the UK, everyone had to study three languages: French, Latin, and one out of Spanish, German and classical Greek. Of these, Spanish was seen as the “easy” language, and the general perception was that those who had little linguistic interest or aptitude would choose Spanish. I think it is generally more acceptable for educated Brits to display an ignorance of Spanish pronunciation than, say, French pronunciation.

  6. Geoff says:

    Paella must have been quite an early addition to UK English from the early days of package holidays as I’ve only ever known it to be pronounced here pie-ella . That pronunciation is so established here as a loan word I would never attempt to pronounce it properly in the UK – I suspect it would sound weird even to other Brits who who speak spanish.

  7. Gonfal says:

    My personal policy with place names that I have no idea how to pronounce is to just plough right through and ruthlessly anglicize them. I figure that way it won’t come across as a ridiculous affectation, and it’ll make it easier for people to figure out what I might be talking about. Otherwise, if it is a place name that I’ve heard said by locals enough, I make my best attempt.

    • Tom says:

      Yes, there are definitely limits to avoiding affectation, and I guess it has to do with personal experience, amount of travel, relationships with people in other countries, etc. I mean, every American I know calls the country Spain, not España, which is its “real” name.

      I was once chided by a world traveler for saying “PA-riss” instead of “pa-ree”, but I wouldn’t dream of saying “pa-ree” in everyday conversation with almost anyone else I know, unless I were consciously imitating a French person or speaking a phrase or sentence in French.

      • Tom says:

        Likewise, I wouldn’t be inclined to say “Barthelona” or “Ibeetha” unless I had at least spent time there or, perhaps, if I were speaking to world travelers.

        (Should have said “every English-speaking person I know calls the country Spain,” to be more precise.)

  8. JV says:

    In regards to British pronunciation of “paella” it should perhaps be noted that yeísmo is much less extensive in Spanish spoken in Spain than it is in Latin America. Furthermore, since the dish in fact has origins in Valencia (where Catalan is spoken) it does perhaps make more sense that it would have /l/ in English, since after all Catalan always maintains a distinction between the palatal lateral /ʎ/ and the palatal approximant /j/. In fact it is entirely possible that the word could have entered English directly from Catalan.

  9. Danny Ryan says:

    I’m always fascinated by the way Americans pronounce a Spanish name like “Carlos” as [ˈkɑɹlɔʊs] with the vowel in the -os ending as a diphthong (i.e. the vowel in “goes”), whereas Brits tend to use the vowel in “floss”, i.e. [ˈkɑːlɒs]. But of course that’s to do with the fact that American English doesn’t really have a short back rounded monophthong except for /ʊ/ in “put” (which is often somewhat centralized anyway)…
    I always try to pronounce personal names as close as possible to the native language of the person who bears this name. I’d always attempt to pronounce [ˈkarlɔs].

    • dw says:

      It’s perfectly understandable in both cases.

      For most British accents, length is important. The second syllable of “Carlos” is short; therefore no Londoner would use his THOUGHT vowel, and no Yorshirewoman her GOAT vowel. Even though these might be qualitatively close to the original vowel, they are long and therefore inappropriate. It has to be the short LOT vowel.

      For Americans, length is generally less important. The LOT vowel for most Americans is unrounded, and therefore a poor match. The GOAT vowel is, for many Americans, the closest match in quality, and is therefore used.

  10. Rodger C says:

    In fact it is entirely possible that the word could have entered English directly from Catalan.

    I rather doubt that, since in Catalan the word refers to the type of pan the dish is cooked in. The transfer to the dish itself is Castilian. The pan in Castilian is “una paellera.”

    • Alejandro R. says:

      Sorry, but the transfer of “paella” to the dish itself is not Castilian. In Valencian/Catalan, the word “paella” refers both to the dish and the type of pan. The type of pan gave name to the dish, but the transfer ocurred in Valencian and in Valencia.

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  12. Alai Mac Erc says:

    Wikipedia has a somewhat hilarious article on “hyperforeignism” that seems to underline the point that English speakers seem to struggle with the concept of there being more than one type of “foreign”. Or even as many as one. Very often, it’s not so much a case of “too foreign” as just “wrong notion of ‘foreign’ entirely”. Very often, the strategy seems to be, “when in doubt, treat it as it were French” (even if it’s Dutch, Russian, or Chinese).

    I think there’s something to the idea of some languages being “prestigious”. In the case of the UK (and earlier, its constituents) French was the language of high-status food, of art, and from way back, very literally the language of a clearly discrete class of people. (I think Italian might have a certain prestige in limited circles, but German I very much doubt. Germans loans seem to get Anglicised at a fearsome rate: witness “Neanderthal”, “Blumenthal”, now predominantly English-spelled-pronounced.

    While Spanish doesn’t hold the same status in American society, it is surely very much the “default foreign”. Someone who prides themselves in paying attention to their region and their history is surely going to be not-entirely-unaware of Spanish pronunciation.

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    • Nico says:

      You mean Llanito spoken in and around Gibraltar? It definitely is a similar phenomenon to Spanglish in the US but with Andalusian Spanish and British English.

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