Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Olmert Report

Another interesting case of hyperforeignizing* showed up on NPR this morning, and given NPR's self-assigned role as Arbiter of All That's Correct and Good in American English, it's worth a tiny bit of discussion.

A bunch of times in the lede story on Ariel Sharon's health and the resultant political back-and-forth in Israel, Scott Simon referred to acting PM Ehud Olmert as "ohl-MEHR" (official AP pronouncer system, best I can render it), more or less the same as in the "The Colbert Report." That'd be fine if the parliament at issue had been the French one,** but it isn't. It's the Israeli one, and Olmert is a native. What does he sound like at home?

Until the new travel budget comes through, we're sort of stuck with the Miracle of the Internet, but as it turns out, you can find the home folks discussing the same issue in several languages. The English announcer has him something like "OHL-mehrt" or "OHL-murt"; the 6 p.m. Hebrew bulletin has him "ohl-mehrt," but it's harder to tell where the stress is supposed to go. The final "t," though, is clearly there, even if it does seem to fall out a time or two in rapid speech during the call-in part of the Channel B program. One is inclined to conclude that Simon was reaching for the nearest codebook he had for "foreign names ending in -ert," and the one that came to hand was French. Or Truthois.

I suppose it's no real big deal in the long run -- certainly not compared with the utterly vacuous "news" "analysis" that Dan Schorr foisted on viewers a few minutes later. But it'll be worth watching how Mr. Olmert's name is rendered in the coming weeks. I'm still convinced that how news reports render people's language is an important window into how news reports render people.***

* Hyperforeignization is the tendency to make sure that a foreign-looking word sounds foreign, even if the result is farther from an "accurate" pronunciation than you'd get by just sounding the thing out in your own language. Usually, it borrows rules from an unrelated language that makes recognizably "foreign" noises -- hence, the tendency for "bin Laden" to sound more Spanish than Arabic on American TV. A similar process can happen in print; words that are more accurately rendered with a "k" can end up with "kh" or "q" just because it looks more foreign that way.
** I don't have the documentation around, but I seem to recall that the first hyperforeignization study was about making Hebrew names sound French.
*** Or, why is it that Harlequin sheikh-meets-blonde novels are at great pains to look really cool by distinguishing Arabic pharyngeal consonants but can't be bothered to inflect the nouns they occur in for gender?****
**** This is a research topic. Honest.


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