hyperforeignism

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.


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27 Responses to hyperforeignism

  1. Transliteration varies – look at baigan/bhaigan/began/biigan and the 20 other variants in Indian restaurants. I’ve always seen mate spelled mateh and assumed stress on the final e and Wikipedia says that’s accented but I wouldn’t call that a reliable pronounciation guide ;-)

  2. Barak Gaster says:

    In favor of half-thought-through ortho­graphic dis­tor­tions

  3. Barak Gaster says:

    In favor of half-thought-through ortho­graphic dis­tor­tions

  4. Barak Gaster says:

    In favor of half-thought-through ortho­graphic dis­tor­tions

  5. Barak Gaster says:

    Kinda like the work of Gerhard Richter: “Abstract images in primary colors scraped over with a squeegee-like object.”

  6. Barak Gaster says:

    Kinda like the work of Gerhard Richter: “Abstract images in primary colors scraped over with a squeegee-like object.”

  7. Barak Gaster says:

    Kinda like the work of Gerhard Richter: “Abstract images in primary colors scraped over with a squeegee-like object.”

  8. Indeed! It is mate, no accent on the `e’ and pronounced as if it had an accent on the `a’, which is not written because the accent falls in the penultimate instead of the last syllable, and the word ends on a vowel. Remember the rule: palabras graves que terminan en n, s, o vocal, no llevan acento escrito.

  9. Indeed! It is mate, no accent on the `e’ and pronounced as if it had an accent on the `a’, which is not written because the accent falls in the penultimate instead of the last syllable, and the word ends on a vowel. Remember the rule: palabras graves que terminan en n, s, o vocal, no llevan acento escrito.

  10. Indeed! It is mate, no accent on the `e’ and pronounced as if it had an accent on the `a’, which is not written because the accent falls in the penultimate instead of the last syllable, and the word ends on a vowel. Remember the rule: palabras graves que terminan en n, s, o vocal, no llevan acento escrito.

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  13. You should know by now that some people just can’t do accents.

  14. You should know by now that some people just can’t do accents.

  15. You should know by now that some people just can’t do accents.

  16. Fannie says:

    Could the “y” also derive from the “ie” endings on French guild establishment names (brasserie/patisserie/&c)? I’ve assumed as much, although the “bak-” root is certainly Germanic (and “bakery”/”backerei” are so obviously related). The practice of ending shop names generally in the same way, though, belongs a bit more to the “ie” in French than something similar in German (although the “ei” does reappear: “konditorei” &c), though perhaps only because the French are more consistent with it than the Germans. Perhaps English has borrowed mainly the inconsistency, with a bit of suspicion of the French—hence “bakery” but “pastry shop” (instead of simply “pastry”)?

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  19. Greg Lyon says:

    The OED agrees with Fannie on the origin from French -erie, saying that it arrives in Middle English (see the article on suffix -ery). As for the typographic (or paleographic) squash theory from Dutch -ij, that’s a remarkably innovative (and visual) conjecture, but I suspect the answer lies in orthographic conformity (you’re more likely to see conformitie than conformitij in early modern English print, no? Try this one: http://bit.ly/T8GoZG).

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  22. blaise says:

    Fannie & Greg– I agree with both your points, of course the Frenshe -erie was standard long before English orthography settled.. though I think this isn’t necessarily incompatible with my crackpot theory. The -erie orthography indeed appears often in Middle English, and later in modern English it’s a -y; the y was used (including by Caxton) in odd ways, including for example to replace the thorn (Middle English theta, as in ‘ye’), which suggests to me a kind of extra fungibility about that latecoming letter, like an unstable useful but recently mutated gene. Unlike in Ye, the -y ending is compatible with the -erie ending pronunciation, but also visually suggested by the -ij ending in textura, which also was in use and pronounced the same way, right? Admittedly it would be very hard to find a smoking gun to either prove or disprove this theory..

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  25. Sander says:

    // off topic; Found your blog because was I was inspired by your talk at http://connectingthefilm.com/ — Interesting thinking and I believe you are spot on, the future is now and collective behavior will act as a information- platform, beyond devices.

    // on topic; Then found your article with the phrase ‘bakkerij’. Bakkerij comes from the word ‘bakker’, a ‘bakker’ was a person who could bake bread and went from door to door selling his baked items. What the ‘bakker’ does is ‘bakken’ (Baking).

    After the 2nd world war the ‘bakker’ used a specific location to sell his baked items, that is called the ‘bakkerij’. The Dutch added the ‘ij’ not as hyperforeignism but as diphthong. The same as in ‘slijterij’ — liquor store or ‘slagerij’ — butchery. Putting ‘ij’ after the profession name, ment it was a collection of that profession (at a specific location). Nowadays in Dutch the more common name for a Bakery is ‘bakker’.

    Btw, “Y” and “IJ” is pronounced differently as the native Dutch language doesn’t have much words ending with “Y”. Such as ‘baby’ is more-less pronounced as “/baˈbi/” as ‘bakkerij’ is more-less pronounced as “bakˈke’rahy”. “IJ” sound a bit like “ahy”.

  26. [Comment imported from blog] // off topic; Found your blog because was I was inspired by your talk at http://connectingthefilm.com/ — Interesting thinking and I believe you are spot on, the future is now and collective behavior will act as a information- platform, beyond devices.

    // on topic; Then found your article with the phrase ‘bakkerij’. Bakkerij comes from the word ‘bakker’, a ‘bakker’ was a person who could bake bread and went from door to door selling his baked items. What the ‘bakker’ does is ‘bakken’ (Baking).

    After the 2nd world war the ‘bakker’ used a specific location to sell his baked items, that is called the ‘bakkerij’. The Dutch added the ‘ij’ not as hyperforeignism but as diphthong. The same as in ‘slijterij’ — liquor store or ‘slagerij’ — butchery. Putting ‘ij’ after the profession name, ment it was a collection of that profession (at a specific location). Nowadays in Dutch the more common name for a Bakery is ‘bakker’.

    Btw, “Y” and “IJ” is pronounced differently as the native Dutch language doesn’t have much words ending with “Y”. Such as ‘baby’ is more-less pronounced as “/baˈbi/” as ‘bakkerij’ is more-less pronounced as “bakˈke’rahy”. “IJ” sound a bit like “ahy”.

  27. [Comment imported from blog] // off topic; Found your blog because was I was inspired by your talk at http://connectingthefilm.com/ — Interesting thinking and I believe you are spot on, the future is now and collective behavior will act as a information- platform, beyond devices.

    // on topic; Then found your article with the phrase ‘bakkerij’. Bakkerij comes from the word ‘bakker’, a ‘bakker’ was a person who could bake bread and went from door to door selling his baked items. What the ‘bakker’ does is ‘bakken’ (Baking).

    After the 2nd world war the ‘bakker’ used a specific location to sell his baked items, that is called the ‘bakkerij’. The Dutch added the ‘ij’ not as hyperforeignism but as diphthong. The same as in ‘slijterij’ — liquor store or ‘slagerij’ — butchery. Putting ‘ij’ after the profession name, ment it was a collection of that profession (at a specific location). Nowadays in Dutch the more common name for a Bakery is ‘bakker’.

    Btw, “Y” and “IJ” is pronounced differently as the native Dutch language doesn’t have much words ending with “Y”. Such as ‘baby’ is more-less pronounced as “/baˈbi/” as ‘bakkerij’ is more-less pronounced as “bakˈke’rahy”. “IJ” sound a bit like “ahy”.

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