I drove into Boul­der, Col­orado at mid­night on Wednes­day, my impulse to eat a late din­ner near­ly over­bal­anced by my need to declare the long day over.  It turns out that, even with throngs of kids boozi­ly wan­der­ing from bar to bar, this town doesn’t offer much in the way of late din­ing.  There was one place— open at all hours, dec­o­rat­ed like an elven vil­lage spe­cial­iz­ing in the min­ing of near­by foothills veined with Formi­ca, and run by the ban­dan­na-wear­ing dis­ci­ples of some gen­tle Chris­t­ian sect.  They seemed to be con­nect­ed with a yer­ba mate dis­tri­b­u­tion enter­prise, and along with deli delights and “arti­san bread”, they prof­fered at least two dozen vari­eties of whole­some drink, hot and cold, soy, almond and dairy, based on the steeped foliage of Ilex paraguar­ien­sis.

And with a woozy slur I bethought myself, is yer­ba mate spelled with an accent on the e?  Because then I guess I’ve been pro­nounc­ing it wrong.

No: my smart­phone, bat­tery gasp­ing its last 3%, assured me that it’s spelled with­out any accents, and pro­nounced with the accent on the a.  Ah: so the accent seems to have been added— “yer­ba maté”*— in order to give it an air of for­eign mys­tery.  Or per­haps as a kind of visu­al appendage to trans­form a worka­day row of let­ters into a brand, sort of the way cer­tain hair met­al bands from the 80s deployed the umlaut.

(*If we read the accent­ed text again in its lan­guage of ori­gin, it more or less reads “herb I killed”.)

Any­way, whether it was ful­ly inten­tion­al, half-inten­tion­al or just someone’s mis­take, one way to con­sole one­self about this ortho­graph­ic quirk is to think of it as a delib­er­ate hack, dis­tanc­ing the word from the Eng­lish “mate”.  In many gringo-mex restau­rants one can see the same act being per­pe­trat­ed on the word “molé”, which in its cor­rect spelling might be con­fused with the Eng­lish word “mole” (and it maybe does look like a sauce stewed from those, Mac­beth style).  Or there’s the bur­ri­to chain “Andalé”, a case in which sure­ly the vio­la­tion was com­mit­ted in the first degree.  I can almost imag­ine a pink-cheeked, shirt­sleeved brand­ing spe­cial­ist point­ing out that with­out the sig­ni­fy­ing accent, Andale would sound like the name of a sub­urb in Ohio.

Of course many Eng­lish speak­ers don’t know what func­tion these accents play in actu­al Span­ish.  Maybe I’m on thin ice here, but I’d guess that giv­en how errat­ic Eng­lish spelling is, there sim­ply isn’t a strong sense among native speak­ers that spelling and sound are causal­ly con­nect­ed; “words are”, to quote a Lan­nis­ter, “wind”.  An accent then becomes just a typo­graph­ic effect, like the swoosh under a sig­na­ture, or an ectopic serif.

I’ll end this lit­tle SNOOTy rant** with an acknowl­edge­ment that this kind of dri­ve-by lin­guis­tic appro­pri­a­tion and half-thought-through ortho­graph­ic dis­tor­tion is a fine exam­ple of the fer­til­iz­er that keeps our lan­guage peren­ni­al­ly in bloom.  Since Eng­lish has exist­ed at all, it has always been a messy busi­ness, all bar­barisms and neol­o­gisms in vary­ing phas­es of accep­tance.  From Caxton’s pref­ace to Eney­dos:

And specyal­ly he axyed after eggys.  And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no fren­she.  And the mar­chaunt was angry for he also coude speke no fren­she but wold haue hadde egges and she vnder­stode hym not.  And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren.  Then the good wyf sayd that she vnder­stood hym wel.”

A few years ago, I got excit­ed in front of a shop in Ams­ter­dam, on which was embla­zoned the Dutch word bakker­ij.  Notice how it looks in the fol­low­ing exam­ples:

In five min­utes of casu­al research I can’t find any source to con­firm or deny this, but my the­o­ry is that the Eng­lish “bak­ery” and sim­i­lar –y end­ings for busi­ness­es might have come from the Dutch “ij”, writ­ten in styles pre­dat­ing human­ist typog­ra­phy, and con­dens­ing, in a semi-lit­er­ate squint, into a sin­gle con­ve­nient let­ter.  Human­ist friends, drop me a line if you know bet­ter...

**cf. David Fos­ter Wal­lace, “Author­i­ty and Amer­i­can Usage” in Con­sid­er the Lob­ster.

This entry was posted in books, thoughts, travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to hyperforeignism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.