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.)
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.