Chile Today and Hot Tomorrow

If you attract people like yourself, it’s no wonder we ended up hosting a last-minute dinner party with a bunch of people who get all turned inside-out about how you pronounce words.

“What about forte?” John asked. He had to scream to be heard.

It depends, somebody else said.  Was he talking about the musical term, which was Italian – or the French word that means your strong point?  The first would be pronounced for-TAY, with a long a.  The second is just enunciated fort.  No second syllable, no vowel sound.  Think Fort Worth.

Yes, but, John kept saying.  “Nobody in the world pronounces the second word that way.  They all mispronounce it as for-TAY.  So how do you pronounce it?”

We don’t pronounce it, most of us said.

That’s because, if we used the word, we’d either pronounce it “fort” and have everybody think we were losers who couldn’t put together a long A sound — or for-TAY, which would pass muster with many people, but which we — and about five other people on the face of the earth — would know is wrong.

So — we ignore the word.  “What’s your strong point?” we might ask, instead.

Similarly, the country Chile.  It used to be pronounced chili.  Then a few Americans went there and came back speaking, very ostentatiously, about chee-LAY.  Which almost always elicited the response, “Oh!  Have you been to chee-LAY, too?  Didn’t you just love it?”

Oh, please.  If you want to play that game and throw around that particular affectation, you might as well pronounce France (short a) as Fraaaahnce (with an ah sound, as they do in both Paris and Par-ee).  I don’t know about you, but I’d find anybody but a French national to be a pompous lout if he went around talking about Fraaaahnce.  I wouldn’t even take the bait and ask him, “Oh!  Have you been to Fraaaahnce, too?”

I once spent about 15 minutes talking to a co-worker about Chile, which I insisted on pronouncing chili and she chee-LAY.  It’s remarkable how long a conversation like that can go on, without either of you pointing out that something strange is going afoot.  But we kept on talking, kept on ignoring it, each intent on her own preferred pronunciation and feeling sorry for the other deluded slob.

All of which usually leads to my own story about going to Chile, which involved a long plane ride next to a young Spanish-speaking woman who was quite nice.  The only problem was, she kept talking to me about “papa” and I got a bit tired of hearing about that.  How can anybody talk about a potato for an entire plane trip? I wondered.  How can anybody get that dazed, surreal glow about a common vegetable?  Was she trying to give me a new recipe or something?

As it turned out, ”papa” has more than one meaning in Spanish and she’d been to see the Pope.  That explained many things! At the end of the flight, we said adios to each other and de(as they say in the airline industry)planed, she to chee-LAY and I to chili.

(Copyright 2014 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about One of Those Moments When Everything Changed

9 comments… add one
  • I love people who come back from Italy and insist on using the Italian place names. Oh yes, we spent three days in Firenze before heading to Roma then Venezia.

  • I came back from Italy speaking in an Italian accent. My husband rolled his eyes every time I spoke. I finally gave up.

  • merr Link

    I had an aunt who used to always say chee-LAY after having lived there for a time. It kind of wore off on me – at least from time to time.

  • Let’s not get me started on how people mispronounce things here. It drives me crazy. “My husband works at Boeings.” is the worst.

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  • I’ll just toss niche into the discussion, for good measure.

  • I had a lovely aunt, totally original, who was American but was born and grew up in Europe. She came to the US as a young woman with her American husband, and she had an American accent but from an earlier generation (from the way her parents spoke). There were a lot of words that she had odd ways of pronouncing — coyote she always pronounced coi-oat. And she always said my-on-ase for mayonaise.

  • I really enjoyed this – the frustration over forte is one I’ve endured for decades and I too have friends who came back from Chil-eh!
    Another fav is cacophony –and I know there are others I just can’t think of at the moment.

  • I would have enjoyed your dinner party, as I’m fascinated by the way people pronounce words. Two states that qualify: Texas and Missouri. I’ve noticed that newsmen have started using the local pronunciation rather than the more usual, favored by those who haven’t traveled much around our country.

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