Do we talk about the important stuff here or what?
In the U.S., we follow the French pronunciation—or try to, although our accents get in the way of it sounding like French French. But the effort seems to make sense, since the word came to us from French. So we say fett. In Britain, they pronounce it fate. So when a church holds a fete—as they seem to once a year—it sounds like they’re fated to it. Doomed, even. If you’ve ever worked on an event planning committee, you may understand this.
The English and the French have a long and spiky history, and maybe that explains why the British de-Frenchified the word, although it’s more likely that either the U.S. or the U.K.—or possibly both—shifted their pronunciation accidentally and so gradually that they didn’t know they were doing it, which is how these things tend to happen.
The same pronunciation pattern governs fillet and ballet. Americans pronounce them, more or less, fill-LAY and bahl-LAY.
But before I give you the British pronunciations, I have to interrupt myself: Nitpickers and experts, please note that I did say “more or less.” Trying to write out English pronunciation in any form that’s accessible to the average reader—or to me, while we’re at it—is a nightmare. Nothing in English is pronounced in any predictable way. When I edited kids’ books, we had to insert a vocabulary list at the back, and include pronunciations, and they were a nightmare. Take ballet: Is that bahl-LAY, as I wrote it? Not really, because the L isn‘t part of the first syllable, but if I wrote the syllable as bah you’d hear a different A—the one we use in bah, humbug—and if you said it that way you’d sound so phony you’d have to end the sentence with dahling.
We should have labeled the lists “Good Luck, Kids.” But the alternative is to use a bunch of symbols that only experts can read.
But back to ballet and fillet: (Are you actually interested in this? Skip ahead if you’re not. I’ll never know.) How do the British pronounce them? FILL-it and something I can’t reproduce but that sounds a hell of a lot like belly, so I’m forever thinking someone’s taken up belly dancing instead of ballet dancing.
Okay. I don’t know many people who’ve taken up either. In fact, I don’t think I know any. Still, I do know people who’ve gone to see ballet—or possibly belly—dancing, so the word, with all its confusions, has blown past my ear canals. Given how different the reputations of ballet and belly dancing are, the confusion’s is a small source of surprise and delight in my life.
I’m sure American pronunciations are equally absurd if you’re not used to them, but I am so I miss the jokes. I’ll be happy to hear from anyone who doesn’t.
As long as I’m talking about the oddities of the English language, I should point you toward an article in the New Yorker, “Love in Translation,” by Lauren Collins, which mentions linguists who’ve been trying to measure the difficulties of various languages in some objective way. What they came up with is called the Language Weirdness Index. You have to love researchers who could study 239 languages and come up with a weirdness index. English came in as the thirty-third weirdest. Some—although by no means all—of the weirdest are small and isolated languages. Apparently being spoken by a small, isolated group encourages that, since the societies are cohesive and everyone can count on everyone else to understand what they mean. Languages spoken by large groups get their rough edges rubbed off by contact with other groups.
See? I told you immigration was good for us all.
This seems to imply that however weird (to use the technical term) English is now, it was once a lot weirder.
From there it’s a largish leap to my next bit of language trivia, but it’s a good story, so let’s not quibble over the logic.
Early in her tenure as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton tried to negotiate what was being called a reset with Russia, so some genius got two red plastic Reset buttons made, one in English and one in Russian, and when she met with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, she ceremoniously handed him the one in Russian. They were supposed to press them simultaneously, at which point absolutely nothing would happen because they were plastic toys.
Hush. Someone who’s presumed to be very smart spent a lot of time on this.
The problem (other than that they didn’t do anything) was that the Russian one didn’t say Reset, it said Overcharged—peregruzka, according to the article in the Guardian where I found this terribly important story. Do I trust the Guardian’s translation—or actually its transliteration of a translation? Not entirely, so I checked Google, which swore it should be peregruzhenny.
Do I trust Google? Well, no, but if the two had agreed I might have thought they were reliable. Once you get past the U, though, the two words don’t contain any of the same sounds. They do both follow it with a Z, but Z and ZH stand for different sounds.
I mention that because if you’re not used to a language the brain has a tendency to see a word and say “I don’t need to know this and won’t understand it anyway,” at which point it shuts down briefly. If yours did, you can come back now.
I don’t have a Russian-English dictionary, but I do have a Teach Yourself Russian book. Yeah, I do know how well those work, but I was trying to revive my Russian, which was never very good and has been dormant for over 50 years. That’s not exactly the same as learning it from scratch, so I thought the book might be worth a try. It was second hand, so I didn’t lose much.
Back when I bought it, we had a Russian neighbor whose English was even more limited than my Russian, and I was trying to add a few sentences to the handful we could exchange. These were, “How are you?” “I am well, thank you.” “I am very well.” “Today is beautiful. “ “Today is not beautiful.” Plus a few others that I could cobble together but was less sure of. I could have been saying I was squirting toothpaste in my ear and being overcharged. Except that I don’t know the word for toothpaste. Or ear. I do, sort of, know the past tense.
Anyway, the book has a small vocabulary list in the back. It’s labeled “Good Luck, Kids.” I looked for overcharged, but the closest thing I could find was over there. I’m willing to bet that in no language are those the same.
I don’t know how to type Russian on my computer and I could transliterate that from the Cyrillic alphabet to the Roman one, but honestly, what’s the point? We might as well be pushing a red plastic toy button.
You have to wonder, once you leave the wonders of bad transliteration behind, exactly what form of overcharged the Russian word—whatever it actually was—meant. Overcharged as in you paid too much? Or overcharged as in I told you you should’ve unplugged that battery last night?
Any Russian speakers out there, what word were they really looking for? And what is the word for overcharged?
I don’t know what position Russian holds on the Language Weirdness Index.
I don’t know what position I hold on the Human Weirdness Index.
Given how bizarre the American election is getting, I should probably add that I don’t consider the Reset Scandal a reason to change my vote.