How to pronounce Sotomayor

An accent on the last syllable is unnatural, says a National Review fearmonger. Does he understand English?

Published May 27, 2009 5:21PM (EDT)

Who is playing identity politics now? Mark Krikorian, writing at the National Review's Corner, tells us in a post titled "It Sticks in My Craw" that "Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English." (Found via Talking Points Memo.)

And why is that?

Part of our success in assimilation has been to leave whole areas of culture up to the individual, so that newcomers have whatever cuisine or religion or so on they want, limiting the demand for conformity to a smaller field than most other places would. But one of the areas where conformity is appropriate is how your new countrymen say your name, since that's not something the rest of us can just ignore, unlike what church you go to or what you eat for lunch. And there are basically two options -- the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be.

Watch who you call "we," white man. OK, it is no surprise that contributors to The Corner are anxious about adapting to the changing racial and cultural makeup of the United States. Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), has never been shy about his antipathy to multiculturalism. But it's a little bit strange to see him put his fear so upfront and center, because one would think that it might cast some doubt on the reams of position papers released by CIS purporting to explain in hard, cold numbers why immigration is bad.

Just last month, George Borjas, a conservative Harvard labor economist, went into high-dudgeon mode after reading an article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center that detailed CIS's connections to the wacko nativist right. "Even if one disagrees with how CIS interprets the evidence," declared Borjas, "their research is credible, reliable, and in no way anti-Hispanic." (I wonder: How does Krikorian think we should pronounce "Borjas"?)

I suppose it might be possible to claim that getting upset about the pronunciation of Sotomayor isn't directly equivalent to being "anti-Hispanic." But the thrust of the idea that "we" are being forced to adapt to "them" more than "they" are adapting to "us" is little more than a pathetic revelation of the fear and trembling that some anti-immigration activists feel about a growing Hispanic cultural influence in the United States.

Personally, I feel that pronouncing someone's name the way they would like it pronounced is a sign of courtesy and respect. One might also imagine that if Republicans want to have any chance of winning future elections in the Southwest, griping about pronunciation is probably not a smart strategy. Krikorian's insecurity goes a long way to explaining the current desperate straits of the GOP.

But most ridiculous of all is the idea that something is not "natural" in English. In all the world, there is no more mongrel or polyglot tongue than English; no language more gleefully willing to taint its purity. English borrows from every other language with abandon, steals "foreign" vocabulary without remorse, scoffs at any and every linguistic boundary. Such free-and-easy kaleidoscopic adaptability is English's great strength. Hey, gringo! Why are you so gung-ho to get rid of the chandeliers and blitzkriegs?

Multiculturalism is a writer's delight! It gives us more room to play, expands the possibilities built into our minds. Krikorian appears to be suggesting that we emulate the French, who are always striving so hard to keep their language free of foreign contamination. He's either forgotten, or never understood, that what makes the language he speaks so great is that it welcomes all comers and adapts effortlessly to them, without chagrin or fear or hate.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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