Friday, February 22, 2008

Fun With Culture!

Debate: A word's pronunciation is a decision made by the people, or the authority?

The proper name in question is Van Wyck.

If you are familiar with Seinfeld, there's an episode where Elaine tries to drive an unwanted boyfriend to the airport to get him the hell out of her life. She comes into Jerry's apartment in pajamas and mussed hair telling her amazing "bat out of hell" driving story from Queens Boulevard to Jewel Avenue and finally to the Van Wyck (the expressway that leads to JFK), saying, "No one has ever taken on the Van Wyck and won...but I'm telling you this...I came as close as anyone ever has..."

Elaine pronounces Van Wyck like everyone else in New York does, the Wyck as "wick" like a candle. But this is actually incorrect. Robert Anderson Van Wyck, the first mayor of NYC after the 5 boroughs were consolidated, is actually pronounced "Wike."

But no one pronounces it this way, unless you watch the news and something named after Van Wyck is part of the story. You can actually tell the reporters are making a conscious decision to pronounce it right.

I think it brings up an interesting debate, though. Is a name a function of the majority, in other words, is a word what we make it, regardless of whether it's someone's name or not? I imagine there's a few people out there with the name of Van Wyck who use one or the other pronunciation or don't care. But R.A. Van Wyck apparently used "Wike" and thus you would believe that we should "respect" that and say it right.

There are many other examples like this. Growing up in Tennessee, no one called "Lafayette" with its French pronunciation. It was "Luh-fay-uht." Santa Fe, the name of a few towns across the globe, the most famous being the capital of New Mexico, is pronounced "Santa Fee" when in Tennessee. It was one of those things, growing up in the state, that made me ashamed of the general, at least what I perceived, xenophobic pronunciations. You can imagine when those towns were founded they were probably pronounced correctly until the locals who came to stay started calling French and Spanish the language of homosexuals or something like that and said, "Let's call it what the hell we want," and thus "Luh-fay-uht" was born.

Whatever the reason might have been for the change, you can't say Lafayette like it's supposed to be said and get people to know what you're talking about. Thus, a communication gap. The perception beats the reality.


At 2/26/2008 04:37:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

I still can't figure out why daughter and laughter are pronounced differently. That's actually correct, but still, very confusing. What a stupid language.


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