Thursday, May 28, 2009


L'affaire Sotomayor has clearly given me fodder for the next round of revisions on Multicultural Manners. It's just the right kind of case; there's lots of local variation in what's reasonable (anglophones in China and Chinese in English-speaking countries-- maybe it's true of westerners/ Europeans in general, I just don't know-- routinely adopt new locally-appropriate names rather than either put up with hearing their name mangled all the time or trying to force locals to wrap their mouths around unfamiliar sounds, but I don't think this is widespread in other cases); neither an ironclad rule of "always pronounce the name the way it was pronounced in its original language" or "always localize pronunciation" seems even plausible, much less reasonable; there will be questions of local respect in deciding which languages are so homegrown that keeping the original pronunciation is tied up with questions of political equality (Puerto Rico is part of the United States, and it's more problematic to exotify Spanish in that "we can't be expected to talk furriner talk!" way than it would be with, say, Russian); and the question exists in that same interpersonal space between rights-bearers, especially acute in crowded multiethnic cities, that is the focus of the paper. Isolated Amish folks don't often run into the problem of how outsiders pronounce their names, and probably don't care much.

Language cases get short shrift in the paper as it is, even though I knew they were relevant, as I got interested in the idea that seeing-and-being-seen united a whole bunch of cases of interest. But hearing-and-being-heard is structurally similar.

Also related: the inconsistent mess of customs about how to pronounce place-names (cf the by-now-famous Obama shift from an Anglicized "Afghanistan" to a less-Anglicized "Pakistan" within the same set of remarks), and whether to translate words within place names. There's no possibility of consistency here; only a pretentious nitwit walks around saying "Paree" in English for "Paris," but only a clod would say "San Joo-an" or "Saint John" for "San Juan." So we're inevitably in the muddled middle. Someone who says "Me-hico" in English sounds ridiculous to me. But I understand that there's a generation of English speakers to whom my "Bay-jing" instead of Peking sounds just as absurd. And I say Bay-jing with very English sounds; it's no close approximation of how the word sounds in Mandarin.

But being stuck in the muddled middle is not the same as denying that their are locally-right and locally-wrong answers, things that are polite and things that are otherwise.

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