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.