Sunday, 13 June 2010

Let's Get A Tacko

Recently, in the pub with two Americans (one of whom I’m married to, the other of whom is about to move down to London), a (edit, sorry Albert: I meant to say Catalan) Spanish guy and a Scouser, a heated debate arose about the correct pronunciation of ‘Taco’. The Scouser and I called them Tackoes: Short, broad ‘a’ sound, and ’oes’ to rhyme with ‘hose’ (sorry – I don’t know the phonetic vocab). When the Spanish dude said it, the t was slightly more like a d, the ‘a’ was something between the ‘a’ in ‘pass’ and the ‘au’ in ‘taught’. The ‘o’ was shorter and the ‘s’ was ‘hissier’.
The way the Americans pronounced it was like an approximation of the Catalan pronunciation, but the ‘t’ was English. Thrilling, this, isn’t it?
So one word for a tasty Mexican fast food, pronounced a variety of ways but, apparently, the English way was ‘wrong’. Every time the Scouser or I said Tacko, the Americans would visibly recoil. “No! No! It’s Taacoh!” They yelled. These are people who don’t blink when I say tomahto instead of tomayto, who might giggle a bit when I say “garrij” instead of “g’raaaajzh” for garage, but generally deal with it. Taco? All. Out. War. Interestingly enough, the Catalan guy didn’t seem to care either way.

There is a sort of sociological difference between Brits and Americans when it comes to words that are borrowed from other languages. Brits do their best to make the word their own, removing the word as far as possible from its original pronunciation. Take Government. In French, that’s got to be something like goove-airn-monnn’. In English? Guv’ment. I think this is a combination of island mentality ‘If it’s worth saying, it’s ENGLISH!’ and our classic national self consciousness ‘if i try and recreate the correct pronunciation of this funny foreign word, I’ll only make a fool of myself and possibly sound racist’. When I say taco the way my American friends think I should I am overwhelmed with embarrassment. Where, after all, do I get off pretending to be Mexican? Unlike many Brits, I do say Torteeya and Kaysadeeya instead of rhyming tortilla and quesadilla with gorilla. I used to say it the ‘English’ way, but, after gasps of horror from my American spouse, I re-educated myself. That’s different, though: that’s a spelling difference. Spanish uses ll the way English sometimes uses y, and anyone who can’t be arsed to learn that is treading close to xenophobia.
(On a side note, another time I was talking food with aforementioned Catalan guy and he made a reference to Paella, which he pronounced with an L sound. I was starting to get really confused about the rules until i realised that he probably pronounced it the English way so I’d understand. Mortifying. I apologise for my countryfolk.)

If I were speaking Mexican Spanish, I would do my best to pronounce taco the way Mexicans do. But if I am in an English speaking country, I’ll speak in a slightly neutralised version of my own accent. I’m not going to walk around Scotland saying, “Och aye hen , ah wouldnae say nay ti a wee plate o’ mince and tatties!” Because I’d sound like a twat*. Similarly, I’m not going to come over all Reservoir Dogs when I suggest acquiring a foodstuff more popular in the Americas than in the UK. There is no Taco Bell here, but if there was, it would be pronounced Tacko Bell, I guarantee it.
Americans, on the other hand, celebrate the rich ethnic diversity of their culture by having a fair crack at the original pronunciation of any word that comes their way. Garage is g’raaajzh – not ‘garrij’, Fillet is fil-lay instead of ‘fill-it’, If a sausage tastes German enough, it’s a wurst. Naturally ‘tack’ (drawing pin) is pronounced differently than ‘taco’. One’s a Mexican word, the other isn’t. Of course it sounds dodgy in a Yorkshire accent. (But then, how would a Mexican pronounce ‘Yorkshire Pudding’ or ‘Bakewell Tart?’ Not the same way I would, bet you anything.) America prides itself from being different to the English, and I suppose taking on as many pronunciations from its other linguistic influences as possible is a way of doing that. Also, Tacos are an American rather than European foodstuff. I can see why there’s a sense of ownership over the word, leading to a righteous indignation when us Brits ‘say it wrong’.
(This, though, from a people who pronounce 'Notre' to rhyme with voter and 'Dame' to rhyme with game.)
So Glenn, this post’s for you. Before you permanently leave the blunt vowels of Sheffield for the harsh drawl of London, let’s get a tacko.
WG xx
*Or a ‘twot’ if you’re American


  1. Dame DOES rhyme with game!

  2. I first discovered the mocha coffee on an extended holiday in Baltimore during my university days. I grew to love it, and ordered many mowkas. Back in the UK, I tried ordering mowkas at coffee shops. I felt America owned the word. But the British had no idea how to pronounce it. "Do you mean a mooka?" they would ask. "I think you mean mucka." "We had someone ask for a moocher last week."

  3. When Blake was little, someone asked if he liked to play Monopoly. He said, "It's *monocoly*!"

  4. I have never understood where that lengthened 'a' comes from. Thinking about it, I suppose it is a bit closer to the Spanish 'a' than the short one would be, but I'd never noticed. I suppose when you're speaking Spanish, you go into Spanish Accent Mode and forget what your vowels actually sound like relative to the English ones.

    It's always struck me as odd, though, that Americans make such a fuss over the lengthened 'a' and then go and lengthen the 'o' as well. I guess it's because it's harder for a native English speaker to pronounce the 'o' properly.

    That 't' thing... I think English has an odd way of pronouncing the 't' sound. I don't speak any other Germanic languages, though, so that might be where it comes from. How's the 't' sound pronounced in German?

  5. Interesting question. I'd say that most of the time the German T when modified with an H is is a bit more towards the 'd' end of the spectrum, (there's no English 'TH' sound) a straight T, as in 'Tafel' is pretty much like ours, and the German Z sound is much closer to a T than an S, so technically there are three versions. Zwoelf means twelve, so you could say that the weird, soft T in English is related to the weird, hard Z in German...?
    Am I rambling yet?

  6. Ah, that's interesting. I wondered if that would be the case. In Spanish and French, T is pronounced with the back of the teeth rather than the alveolar ridge. I wonder if that's a universal Latin/Romance characteristic and if the German way of pronouncing a straight T applies across the board with Germanic languages.

    I blame the Romans.