Monday, July 21, 2008

Pepper Pronunciation

Would you like some phonology? Well, you're in luck. There's a little phonological exercise that's been on my mind recently.

This is relatively simple stuff, basic syllabification, so I'm not going to bother with IPA transcription; I'll just use periods to separate the syllables. Now, you may have heard of a fast food Mexican restaurant called "Chipotle." The food is easy to love, but the name is difficult to pronounce (for some). Even an eminent student of linguistics like myself stumbled on it a few times.

The problem is a classic one: When a speaker of language X is confronted with a word from language Y, often the word violates the phonological rules of language X. The speaker has to adopt some strategy for incorporating the word into the phonological rules that govern her speech. There are a few basic strategies:

A. Avoid using the word entirely.
B. Alter the word to fit your native phonology.
C. Alter your phonology to accommodate the word.

In the case of "Chipotle," the speaker of English is confronted with a Mesoamerican word filtered through Spanish. My guess is that the most correct syllabification of the word is

(1) chi . po . tle

I.e., it's a three-syllable word with the structure CV . CV . CCV. Notice that the beginning (or onset) of the third syllable is the consonant cluster tl. This cluster is not allowed in English, but it is allowed in Mesoamerican languages. I don't believe I've ever heard someone pronounce the word this way, but you're welcome to try. This would be strategy C above; it's hard work, but it enables you to look down on almost everybody.

Most of us feel pretty good about ourselves when we can syllabify it as

(2) chi . pot . le

Notice the difference between (1) and (2). The t has moved from being the first consonant of the third syllable to being the closing consonant (the coda) of the second syllable. It would be fairly hard to tell the difference between (1) and (2), but see if you can say it one way and then the other. It's a great way to pass the morning commute. Especially if you carpool.

This is one example of strategy B, altering the word to the demands of English phonology. But is by no means the only example. There are several other pronounciations of this word, which each reflect a different method of coping with that tl cluster. Take

(3) chi . po . tuh . le

This method inserts a small vowel sound (called an epenthetic vowel) between the t and the l. This turns the three-syllable word into a four-syllable word, but unlike (2), it keeps all of the syllables open. This pronunciation is of the form CV . CV. CV . CV; there are no codas. This pronunciation doesn't seem to be as popular as

(4) chi . pot . l

My transcription here isn't terribly accurate, but the idea is that the last syllable is just the l sound (a syllabic "l"), like the last syllable of bottle. This pronunciation pulls the word farther into the heart of "normal" English phonology, so it is somewhat popular. For that same reason, however, those of us sophisticated enough to use pronunciation (2) look down on simpletons who mangle the word with pronunciation (4). But a brief look at the phonology shows that there is relatively little difference between the two methods. Neither amounts to pronouncing the word "correctly," as in, "how a native speaker would pronounce it."

(5) chi . pol . te

The combination tl as an onset is unheard of in English. As the end of one syllable and the start of another, it is present (as in bottle). However, it is much less common than the combination lt in that same position (as in faulty, celtic, Baltic). Lt can also occur as a coda (felt, smelt, colt). So it is not surprising that some speakers interchange t and l (a process called metathesis).

(6) chi . pol . et

I haven't heard anyone use this pronunciation myself, but a coworker mentioned that her sister used to call it this. It appears to be a second metathesis applied to (5).

Finally, you could adopt strategy A above and just not refer to the word. You could, for example, patronize Qdoba instead of Chipotle. But this strategy has several problems. First, you have to eat Qdoba's soggy food. Second, you have to wonder if the Q is really the uvular stop, and practice the consonant cluster qd over and over again. Third, you have to eat Qdoba's soggy, tasteless food. I could go on, but it's really more of the same. Qdoba's soggy, tasteless, overpriced food . . .

[Update: After writing this post, I checked the Wikipedia entry on chipotle. FWIW, the entry identifies the language of origin as Nahuatl and posits a Nahuatl form of chilpoctli.]

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