or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Coming Up Roses

One of the earliest rules we're explicitly taught when learning English as children is that a short word has a short vowel, but adding an "-e" to the end reliably turns it into a long vowel. Cub becomes cube, the sound magically changing from "kub" to "kyuuuuuub": tam likewise turns into tame, cop into cope.

A corollary of this, one that we aren't taught (at least not that I remember), is that as a good general rule, a vowel followed by a doubled consonant is a short vowel; this often serves as a way of distinguishing it from the word-with-an-"e" form. Conversely, a single consonant after a vowel is likely to be long, particularly if there's a doubled form either in the language or possible within it. "Top" and "tope" become "topper" and "toper", short and long vowels respectively. We automatically know that "cap" and "capper" have short vowels, "cape" and "caper" long; likewise with "sop" and "soppy"* but "rope" and "ropy". We instinctively know that the nonsense word "hab" has a short vowel and "habe" long; therefore, "habber" and "habby" must have short vowels, and "haber" and "habey" (or "haby") long.

It's so much a part of our language, in fact, that it seems like it's part of language. So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that other languages not only don't follow the rule, they use its exact opposite (single consonant, short vowel: double consonant, long vowel)**. This is just what happened when I saw a poster for the French dub of the American movie "Air Bud", which would probably not translate into any other language very well (it's a parody of "Air Jordan"): the French title is "Tobby le joueur ├ętoile" (kind of a dud of a title, that).

"Tobby," I thought. "What the hell kind of a name is that?" And then I figured that it looked sort of like it might be Toby, and then I vaguely remembered that French has names such as Dany or Danie, which are pronounced just like English "Danny". The movie's title in French translates to "Toby the star player", which still isn't much of a title, but "Toby" sounds better than "Tobby", even for a dog. To my ears, anyway.

Over on my other blog I've written about a scent named after Spanish model/actress/singer/fabulousness Rossy de Palma. For years, after seeing her in Pedro Almodovar's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (see if if you haven't already), we assumed her name was pronounced as it would be in English: "Ross-ee". It simply didn't occur to us to pronounce it any other way, because in fact there isn't any other way to pronounce it under the rules of English. But when I was doing the research for the scent, I discovered that her given name is Rosa, and then it hit me that Spanish must surely have the same rules for the pronunciation of dupled consonants (because apropos of the name Dany above I also vaguely remembered some Spanish-speaking actress, possibly Maria Conchita Alonso doing press junkets for "Predator 2", pronouncing Danny Glover's name "day-nee", and it all fell into place), and that de Palma's name must be pronounced just like English "rosy" or "Rosie". And that is how it is pronounced, too. (I've heard it on Youtube interviews.)

So the lesson is...well, I don't know what it is, exactly. You can supply your own moral.

* And then of course there must be an exception: "copy" has a short vowel. The letter "-l-" creates almost nothing but exceptions: "silly", but also the rhyming "lily", yet also "willy" and "wily". Such is English.

** When the word ends with a "-y" and has two syllables, anyway. Double consonants in a word ending with "-er" have short vowels: the verb "casser", "to break", is pronounced as you would expect. (I mean, except for the fact that the ending is pronounced "-ay" instead of "-err".) There may even be exceptions to this rule, with some "-er" verbs taking a long vowel despite a doubled consonant. I'm not fluent in French.


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