Tuesday, May 12, 2009

On Pronunciation

The level of a man's confidence reveals itself nowhere more candidly than in his pronunciation of an unfamiliar word. A friend of mine, who has seen three continents and lived in two, once became the object of reproach when, reading out loud in a German literature class, he met with the name "Goethe," having had no previous encounter with the patronymic of the celebrated polymath. Being himself the very soul of fortitude, he took his phonetic leap of faith and offered the approximation "Goatie." The professor, a woman of refinement, caught her breath in such a way as to appear to have detected a gas leak, or maybe to have been stuck with a hypodermic needle; the posture achieved was one that diversely communicated an absolute authority both over her students and the proper utterance of the family names of the leading Weimar Dramatists. The chastisement that fell upon the head of my friend was of a length and intensity sufficient to cause Kali, Goddess of Blood, the Avenging Furies and the Angel of Death to entertain doubts concerning their future job security.

Such is the nature of Shiboleths. The code of international diplomacy permits that a U.N. representative may declare frankly and without reserve that Venezuela is a failed state, its leadership exemplary of the grossest despotism, its treaties dishonored by worse than Punic mendacity, and its currency not worth the llama hide it is printed on. He may say this much and more. Yet he must not indulge even the slightest liberality in his glossal representation of its name. It is imperative that he abandon the his own countrymen's received pronunciation of the locality in question, and make whatever concessions the junta of cosmopolitanism deems appropriate. Thus "Cheelay" must be "Cheelay," and "Cooba" "Cooba" at all costs. The diplomat may represent the interests and policies of his own nation in all areas but this. When he utters the names of other nations, "be they ne'er so vile," he must betray his patriot's conscience and the doubtless sainted memory of his sixth grade grammar teacher to the linguistic whims of a tin pot caudillo. I cannot help but suppose that these kowtows of the tongue appear as laughable to our enemies as they do to those of us who are not devoted listeners of National Public Radio or readers of the Huffington Post, and they go far in the encouragement of ever more daring acts of oppression whose media coverage must be almost as painful to our ears as the syllabic self abasement that inspired them.

Every diplomat worth his salt must be willing to consider every nation to which he is assigned, no matter how amicable at present, to be a potential competitor in the future, and every competitor a potential enemy. When he (heaven forbid) should have to appear in the chambers of their government to deliver a declaration of war, he should know that the manner in which he reads that declaration is as revelatory of our resolve as the first bombs that soon shall fall on them. Too many of our leaders at this present time concede their prerogatives as statesmen with such alarming alacrity that Neville Chamberlain begins to look like Winston Churchill, and Winston Churchill like Christ in the middle of the forty days of fasting and temptation. Those of us who are disturbed by this servile observance of so many delicate forms of Mandarin humbly request our representatives abroad that they be no more heedful of respecting foreign idioms than the average American is of respecting his own, and respectfully remind them that the only language a citizen of any nation need answer for having abused is the one which is his native birthright.

-Thomas Banks-

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