Dear Language Nerd,
Why do Spanish speakers put “e” on the front of words in English, like saying “estudent” for “student”?
It’s actually not about the “e,” but about the “st.” Spanish words never start with “st,” “sc,” “sp,” “sn,” or “s” plus any other consonant. (“S” plus vowel is fine, though, like in “simpatico.”) The Spanish word for “student” is “estudiante”; “Spanish” is “Espa?ol”; “stress” is “estrés,” and so on. So why does this come out in English pronunciation? Well, phonology is usually subconscious; once you’ve learned a rule in your native language, it’s very hard to unlearn it for another language.
Let’s take an English example for comparison: <ng>. (That’s Extremely Fancy Linguist Notation, where <> is for shapes and // is for sounds.) First off, this is not pronounced /n/ plus /g/, but is its own sound, /?/. You put your tongue in the position for a /g/ sound and then send air through your nose like /n/, but the sound you make is different from either of those.* Listen to yourself say it. Better yet, since you’re liable to change your pronunciation if you’re feeling self-conscious, get a friend. Find a bar and tell people you’ll buy them drinks if they’ll pronounce some present progressive verbs – that always works for me.
The English rule is that we may only ever use this sound at the end of a syllable, like “ring-a-ding-dong,” and never at the beginning. The Vietnamese rule, on the other hand, is that /?/ at the front is perfectly fine. So when native English speakers run up on the Vietnamese name Nguyen (and we all will eventually, it is the Smith of Vietnam), we just can’t bring ourselves to start a word with /?/ and instead do exactly what Spanish speakers do with “st”: we add a vowel to the front. At best, this gets us “i?uyen,” and at worst, “un-goo-yen.” Try to say Nguyen without turning the /?/ into /i?/ or /u?/ and you’ll have some empathy for people who “espeak Espanish.”
The Language Nerd
*So when Pat Sajak recently refused a Wheel of Fortune contestant’s answer of “seven swans a-swimming” because she “left off the ‘g’,” (“swimmin’ ”), what ACTUALLY happened was that she didn’t velarize the nasal consonant enough for him. Have you ever heard such bullshit?? People substitute alveolar /n/ for velar /?/ all the time, grading that is not even a thing. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS WORLD WHEN USING AN ALVEOLAR NASAL INSTEAD OF A VELAR LOSES YOU THE BIG BUCKS, SOMETHING IS TERRIBLY WRONG
I HAVE STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT WHEEL OF FORTUNE OKAY
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I have no references today? WAIT NO HERE’S A LINK TO WHEEL OF FORTUNE. AAAAAAAAAGH.
A NOTE: The Language Nerd will be traveling about for the next few weeks. Columns are in the pipeline, but I may or may not have internet access every Tuesday — please bear with me!
NOTE UPDATE: HAHA nope, got ’em up every week. See, I love you guys.
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