The Foreign Placename Problem in Transit Announcements

The bilingual blog Straight outta Suburbia / Saliendo de las Afueras is not just an interesting read on Los Angeles issues, but it’s also a good way to practice your Spanish comprehension while reading interesting things.  Each post appears in both languages, so you can check the English to see if you understood the Spanish correctly.  (And vice versa.)

The other day, he brought up a familar area of discomfort among Californians, especially those with any sensitivity to issues of race and colonialism.  (English here, Spanish here.)

Los Angeles is one of the most Hispanic cities in the country, with 48% of residents self-identifying that way in the 2006-08 ACS, but when it comes to correctly pronouncing Spanish place names, Metro’s in danger of failing Spanish 1.

Take the San Pedro station on the Blue Line. In Spanish “e” makes the sound of “a” in the word “pay” or think the Fonz says “¡e!”. So the correct pronunciation is “sahn PAY-dro” (Saint Peter). Metro’s electronic voice pronounces it incorrectly as “sahn PEE-dro”.

On the other end of the Gold Line there’s the Sierra Madre Villa station. Metro does okay with this except for the last word. In Spanish two “l”s together make the sound of a “y” so the correct pronunciation is “VEE-ya” not “VIL-a”.

I disagree.  In pronouncing Spanish-derived placenames in the common American English way when making announcements in English, Metro isn’t being either racist or ignorant.  These pronunciations are part of American English, and I can’t see any basis for calling them objectively wrong.  In the last example, the word “villa,” with the “ll” fully pronounced in the English way, is an established English word.  It’s not wrong to pronounce it that way when speaking English even if you know that the word’s origin is Spanish.

The name “Los Angeles” is one of the best examples.  When have you heard anyone speaking English pronounce that name as it is in Spanish, with the “g” reduced almost to nothing and all four vowels at their full Spanish shape (roughly lohs-AHN-hay-lays)?   The first purpose of language is to communicate, and if you put the full Spanish pronunciation of “Los Angeles” in the middle of an English sentence addressed to someone who doesn’t speak Spanish, they might not know what you were referring to.

On the other hand, these pronunciations shift over time.  I’ve seen them shift back toward the Spanish original.  San Francisco’s streetname “Valencia” seems to be widely pronounced as four syllables, as it is in Spanish.  But this is recent.  Leftist, nonracist Anglo San Franciscans in their 60s and 70s have corrected me when I say it that way.  The Anglicized name as they learned it has three syllables: “Vah-len-sha.”

I also appreciate that for people who are bilingual, saying a Spanish name in an English way feels wrong, and correctly pronouncing a foreign name on the terms of its own language, even when speaking English, can be perceived as an expression of respect. We each find our own way.  With “San Pedro” for example, I usually use the Spanish pronunciation unless I’m talking to someone who will find this pretentious, such as a 60-year-old black bus operations manager who’s been saying “San Peedro” all his life.  I do my part to shift the pronunciation, but not to the degree that will defeat the purpose of communication.

This doesn’t have to be an issue of racial or ethnic tension.  In Europe, each language has its own names for cities in other countries.  In German the capital of Austria is called Wien, but in English the name is Vienna.  The English name clearly grew out of the German name, but this happened long ago and now the names are different.   Even Germans use the English name when speaking English.  It’s just not an issue.

28 Responses to The Foreign Placename Problem in Transit Announcements

  1. jfruh April 2, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    I’m sympathetic to your arguemtn to a degree, but does anyone, Anglo or not, actually pronounce “San Pedro” as “San Peedro”? That just seems absurd to me.
    One problem with audio announcements on transit generally is that they’re often farmed out to voice-recording firms with no local knowledge of how area names are pronounced. Here in Baltimore, one glaring example is my own street, Abell Avenue; it’s pronounced like “able”, but the audio announcement on the bus says it like “uh-BELL.” Similiarly, Thames Street here is pronounced with a soft “th”, but the audio announcments on buses turn it into a hard “t”, as in the English river.

  2. Jarrett at April 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm #

    Yes, jfruh, people really do pronounce San Pedro as San Peedro.  If a survey were done on this, you might find that they are relatively skewed toward older Angelenos, and if so, that would mean the prounciation was shifting.  But that does't make "San Peedro" any more than the American pronunciation of "Los Angeles" is wrong. 
    (I stress "American" by the way because they British have their own pronunciation of this name, similar to American but with the last syllable pronounced "eez".  I think this arose because in the absence of a lot of Spanish names in their own country, the -es ending reminded the British of Ancient Greek names such as Socrates, Hercules, etc, which are all pronounced that way in English.)

  3. xmal April 2, 2010 at 5:58 pm #

    I find this odd coming out of a Los Angeles-based blog, where not just the name of the city, but every other Spanish name sounds like it has been run through a mill multiple times.
    For a fun game, try to guess how the locals pronounce the following names:
    * Los Feliz
    * Sepulveda
    * Reseda

  4. calwatch April 2, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    Actually, everyone in San Pedro itself pronounces it as San Peedro. I know a person who lives there and corrects the spelling otherwise. It goes back 200 years, and correcting a local who says its correctly is just rude.

  5. J April 2, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    The pronunciation thing annoys me too. It’s even worse when bad pronunciation changes the spelling, and thus meaning of the word. Take “Los Banos” which is supposed to be “Los Baños”. You go from “the baths” to “made up words”.
    Buy yes, I agree that it isn’t a local issue. Countless countries have been renamed in different languages, such as Germany/Deutschland/Alemania. Which of course leads to the point that it’s not only english speakers butchering spanish names, spanish speakers frequently change english names to suit their own pronunciation, such as Nueva York (Nova Iorque in portuguese).
    What should transit do? Absolutely nothing, as jfruh pointed out, the announcements are recorded elsewhere and are sometimes a mix of computer and syllables. If a new stop is needed, such as “Peaceberry Street” instead of recording that name they’ll just put existing recordings of “peace” and “berry” together. So if locally, it’s pronounced “Pessberry” it doesn’t matter.

  6. Jman April 2, 2010 at 6:27 pm #

    Yeah, it’s even more confusing when streets are in languages other than spanish. Here in San Antonio, there’s Huebner Road. You’d think people would pronounce it “Hoob-ner” or “Hoo-eb-ner” or “Hughb-ner”. Nope, it’s some german name with a missing umlaut, so it’s supposed to be “Heeb-ner”.
    The bus service here though sounds like all of the streets name announcements are pre-recorded, so it gets all of those odd street names like Huebner correct.
    Then there’s Manchaca Rd in Austin. How’s that pronounced? Man-check.

  7. Brent April 2, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    I’ve heard automated information read in English over loudspeakers on some Asian subways (in Seoul, for instance) with slightly mispronounced station names to aid foreigner travelers.
    I happen to live a few blocks from one of the most recognizable shopping streets in the world — Rodeo Drive — whose usual pronunciation is very Spanish, but somehow sounds highfalutin to much of the rest of the country. Ever heard of a “row-DAY-oh clown”?
    Language is many things to many people, but complaining about pronunciation of borrowed words doesn’t count for much in my book.

  8. John April 2, 2010 at 7:33 pm #

    Goethe Street in Chicago is a consistent source of local debate.
    GOH-thee or GUR-tuh?
    I prefer the German version.

  9. Pedestrianist April 2, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    I’m 100% with you on the Valencia thing here in SF. I’ve always called it ‘Valen-cha’ but now even my dad calls it ‘Valen-see-ya.’
    And the specialness of the pronunciation of names can end up like a game of telephone. I once overheard a pair of abuelitas as they got off the bus: “Vamos a Mee-chun.” They were repronouncing the English version of the originally Spanish word misión.
    And to jfruh’s point about out-of-towners recording the announcements, in SF we recently had all our street names re-recorded with some strange results. Sansome (San-Sum) became San-so-mee and Noe (No-ee) became No. I still chuckle when the 48 prepares to stop and the bus seems to firmly scold someone, “NO!”

  10. Darrell April 2, 2010 at 9:15 pm #

    Yes, “Ro-DAY-oh” Drive is in Beverly Hills, while “RO-dee-oh” Road is in Los Angeles.
    I love some of the other foreign place names in the U.S., like “PEER”, the capital of South Dakota (Pierre); “Ver-SALES”, Kentucky (Versailles); and “KAIR-oh”, Illinois (Cairo).

  11. Mike April 2, 2010 at 9:42 pm #

    It wasn’t till I took some Spanish language classes after age 40 that I connected the spoken “La Hoya” and written “La Jolla”.

  12. Mark April 2, 2010 at 10:55 pm #

    I completely agree with Jarrett. It would be so pretentious to go around using the authentic original pronounciation of names. What about all the French names? I’d love to see the face of an American if I talked about “Détroit” or “Nouvel-Orléans.” All that would tell them is that I know how to speak French and they don’t. Imagine someone coming back from Paris and saying, in English, that they’d just been in Paris, using the French pronounciation. Pretentious – even for a French person! I always find it irritating when Canadians come back from Cairns and say they’ve just been to “Cans.” I’m thinking, I’ve never heard of a place called Cans. Ah, but Cairns, that I’ve heard of! Transit sure surely reflect how streets and neighbourhoods are actually pronounced. Even the Spanish itself would have changed – would the original namers of the areas around Los Angeles have had Spanish accents, rather than Mexican ones? Should Valencia be pronounced like the original Spanish city (ie Vah-len-thi-a)?”

  13. Rhywun April 2, 2010 at 11:11 pm #

    People who claim that place names aren’t being “properly” pronounced according to their language of origin are being hypersensitive, and annoying. Your example of “Los Angeles” is fitting – I doubt even this person demands the pronunciation of “Los Angeles” with a Spanish accent. Why should “San Pedro” be any different?
    I too love the surprise or otherwise baffling pronunciation of many American towns. Some of the favorites from the area I grew up in are Chili (CHY-lye), Charlotte (shar-LOTTE), and Nunda (nun-DAY).

  14. anonymouse April 3, 2010 at 1:03 am #

    There’s an interesting case of this in the automated announcements for the VTA light rail in San Jose: the Santa Clara station is pronounced with the typical American pronunciation, while the next stop, Paseo de San Antonio is pronounced with proper Spanish. Stuck in the middle of the otherwise-English announcement, it just sounds kind of odd. And sometimes there’s disagreement on how something should be pronounced without any foreign languages getting involved at all. Consider the street in lower Manhattan whose name is spelled Houston. As any local will tell you, it’s pronounced House-ton, which would come as a surprise to most Americans, who associate the street with a city in Texas whose name is spelled the same, but pronounced Hyooston.

  15. Ted King April 3, 2010 at 1:12 am #

    I prefer to be ready to go either way. Respect the local pronunciation but be aware of the original in case of need. Besides, there are times when “Balls !” isn’t strong enough and I switch to “Cojones !” (co-ho-nays). I amuse myself at times by muttering the following – “Paree”, “Madreed”, “Napoli”, “Mockba”, “Muenchen” (cross-street sequence on the #8X heading east towards the Cow Palace).
    The SFMuni street announcements may still be glitched. Climbing up to the Balboa Park BART Stn. you cross “Delano”. I’m used to deh-la-no (as in FDR) but the recording says deh-lan-o.

  16. dao April 3, 2010 at 4:36 am #

    Mispronouncing place names (which English speakers are particularly prone to do) can cause offence in any occupied territories where the original place name remains, as in those parts of the UK (e.g. Cymru/Wales) where the local (Celtic) language survives. Examples include the valleys town Pontypridd (“pont-uh-preeth”, not “pont-ip-rid”) and the holiday resort Llandudno (“thlan-did-no”, not “land-ud-no”). However, local railway station announcements are now usually correct. When in Rome, ……..

  17. jfruh April 3, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    As a side note I lived in the SF Bay Area for 6 years and never heard Valencia Street pronounced as anything but four syllables, Spanish-style; of course, I was a transplant and so were most of my friends. I think people would be surprised how much of their local knowledge of street name pronounciation depend on their own immediate circle of acquaintances. It’s possible that Spanish-speakers in LA do pronounce many of these Spanish-origin names as in Spanish, and that these speakers are more prevalent on transit.

  18. Tom West April 5, 2010 at 6:40 am #

    This is nto just a problem between languages, but within the same language as well. I moved from teh UK to a part of Canada where many places (and hence streets) take their names from places in the UK. However, the pronounciation is no longer the same as in the UK, and I would never expect transit announcements to use the UK pronounciation.

  19. Chewie April 5, 2010 at 3:16 pm #

    Oh man, I just noticed this! Thanks for the shout out 🙂
    I’d like to point out that I never said that it was racist to use English pronunciation for words that are originally Spanish.
    I can see where you’re coming from. It would be a shame if the announcements of place names were confusing. However, in Los Ángeles, on transit (given the demographics) the risk of confusion might actually be higher by NOT pronouncing names in Spanish.
    There’s more discussion in the comments section of the post. At the end of the day, I cringe when I hear some of these. It’s not objective, it’s just my personal preference to hear things pronounced in their original languages, and I like hassling Metro from time to time . . .

  20. bzcat April 5, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

    I live in LA… and when you say San PEEdro (even to Spanish speakers), people know what you are talking about. Or if you say San PAYdro, people still will know what you are saying so it’s not a problem either way. It only becomes a problem when no one knows what you are saying… like if you say ValenSHY when you mean the City of Valencia (I don’t know about SF but we always say ValenXIA in SoCal).
    The real trouble in California starts when you try to introduce recent Asian immigrants to Spanish based names. Los Angeles they can handle… it’s easy to pronounce it in English. But trying to explain a non-native latin-based language speaker why San Jose is pronounced San HOSAY and not San JOSEE… My dear mother has lived in LA for 25 years and she still occasionally say things like La JWEL-LLA (La Jolla) or TUCKson (Tucson).

  21. Chewie April 5, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Maybe a statute of limitations makes sense. English contains words and roots from lots of languages, like Latin, Norman French, etc. etc. and so does Spanish (e.g. words from Arabic).
    Languages aren’t pure things. It’s true. But I do think that some Americans are in a mentality such that they don’t think they need to know about anything else that’s happening in the world.
    We can pronounce everything with English rules, ignore the metric system, not understand the countries we invade, etc.
    Los Angeles is one of the most famous mis-pronunciations of a Spanish word in the U.S. and it would grate many ears (other words probably not so much) to hear the Spanish pronunciation. Yet perhaps this is a discipline we should subject ourselves to. It might make us aware of awkward historical events like the Mexican War (1844-48), but I think I’m stepping outside the realm of transit now 🙂

  22. J April 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    Amusingly enough, Chewie, the Mexican-American war in Mexico is known as “the first USA intervention in mexico,” yet another example of a different way to say the same thing.

  23. Jonathan Hammond April 10, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    I understand and sympathize with their desire for propriety in pronouncing Spanish place names, particularly in California where this is very messed-up, but so many news anchors that take great pains to pronounce, say, Nicaragua the right way will simply not concern themselves with the proper tonality of Mandarin names for people or places.
    Even pronouncing Japanese, which is much easier, is beyond many people. I don’t want to be pretentious and say Tokyo as exactly like a native as possible, but I understand that a two-syllable pronunciation is both correct and not particularly difficult, while everyone insists on “Tokio” with three syllables. Same with Kyoto vs. “Kiyodo”.
    I can sort of understand what makes the pronunciation of some languages a greater priority than others, but on the other hand, I really don’t.

  24. Matthew Pennington April 13, 2010 at 6:37 am #

    I realize this comment section is a little old, but Goethe street in Chicago is pronounced “Go-thee” with an unvoiced fricative. No other pronunciation will do, even if it is butchering the name of the greatest German poet.

  25. Matthew Pennington April 13, 2010 at 6:59 am #

    Also, I’d just like to point out an example which really comes at this from another direction. I used to live in Montreal, and much of the central parts of the city were built by and named in English. So, there are metro stops – such as McGill and Atwater – which are distinctly English words, but which are pronounced on the metro with a decidedly French pronunciation. But no francophone would dream of changing their pronunciation to match the English, even though the population of Montreal is nearly a third English-speaking, and the city is in a majority English continent with thousands (if not millions) visitors every year who speak exclusively English.

  26. Emily Hultman April 15, 2010 at 6:56 am #

    I grew up on the west side of Los Angeles. I found it particularly funny when my grandma asked me, “how do all of those Mexican immigrants understand the street signs here?” Well, gramma, funny thing about most of the street signs….
    For what it’s worth, my local Westside YMCA often shared camp grounds with San Pedro YMCA. As westsiders, we were unfamiliar with San Pedro and invariable pronounced it PAYdro. Most of us had friends named Pedro. The kids from San Pedro YMCA always made a BIG point of telling us it was “Peedro”, not “PAYdro”. BIG point. And this was a diverse group, heavily leaning towards Hispanic/middle class.

  27. Scott Mercer April 20, 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    By the way, the correct answers are:
    Loss Feel’ Is (not Lohs Fay Lease’)
    Seh Pull’ Vehda (not Say Pool Vida’)
    Reh See’ Dah (not Ray Say’ Dah)