or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 14, 2007


If you've never seen The Kids In The Hall, a Canadian comedy troupe, then you ought to watch this. Either you'll think it's hilarious (which is is) or you won't get it. Either way, you'll note that one of the lines in the song is "Songwriting's not my forte", and, as everyone knows, "forte" means "strong point" and is pronounced with two syllables, "for-tay".

Except that it isn't supposed to be. Two-syllabled "forte" certainly exists in English: we borrowed it from Italian, and it's used solely in musical contexts, in which it means "loud" or "forceful". (The musical instrument known as the piano was originally called the pianoforte because, unlike the harpsichord, it has dynamics and can play both loud and soft notes--"piano" means "quiet" in Italian.)

But the word that means "strength" isn't from Italian: it's from French, and there isn't an accent mark on the last vowel, which means the vowel isn't pronounced as a separate syllable. It ought to be the case that "forte" meaning "specialty" sounds exactly like "fort". (The English noun "fort", of course, got its name from the French word, because a fortress is a stronghold.)

But as you can well imagine, "for-tay" is so ingrained into English that if you were to say, "Well, dancing really isn't my fort", everybody (with exceedingly few exceptions) would think you were wrong, and that English usage wasn't your for-tay, either. You would be right, and they would be wrong, but that doesn't change the fact that the great majority of people would think the opposite, and you would probably be misunderstood. I agonized about this problem a while ago when I wondered how I ought to pronounce "bruschetta", in the Italian manner (which is to say correctly) or as most North Americans pronounce it. And I reluctantly have to admit that, in the greater interest of being understood, I am probably going to say "for-tay" if I have to use the word at all. I can't win every fight, and I think this one is lost.

The fact is that even something wrong can become de facto right if it's repeated often enough, and this, I think, is what's happened with "forte": more people will understand the mispronunciation than the correct one, and therefore the wrong one is now correct. If someone wants to say it as one syllable, I'll understand what they mean and I'll silently give a cheer that someone knows how to use it correctly, but even I, stubborn as I am, can see when the writing's on the wall.


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