Phonetic or Pathetic?

Grading My Garmin on Its Spanish

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Rochelle Newman-Carrasco Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
California, like many other states in the U.S., has a significant number of Spanish-language and Spanish-language-influenced street names. La Brea, La Cienega, Pico, Santa Monica and so on. So you would think that creators of navigation systems, whose main purpose in life is to give directions, would have given this some serious consideration. Particularly when it came to programming the all-important Text to Speech (TTS) feature.

Not my Garmin.

Jill, the "American English" voice on the Garmin Nuvi, is unable to pronounce names like La Jolla (it's more like "hoy-ya" than "joel-lah.")

Of course Jill's a computer. Somehow I can't decide if that means she should be more or less able to get basic Spanish pronunciation right. Should I hold her to a higher or lower standard than her human counterparts, specifically newscasters, sports announcers, advertising agencies and their highly compensated voice-over talent? Undoubtedly, mentions of people, places and things, whose names are either fully in Spanish or influenced by the Spanish language, are most definitely on the rise. Whether one is talking about news, politics, sports, theater, literature, pop culture or brand names and, subsequently, advertising, it has become more and more important to pronounce the aforementioned with some level of integrity. Who knows when the next hurricane will be named Cristóbal, the next Pulitzer Prize winner named Junot Díaz or Oscar Hijuelos, and the next Tony winner Quiara Alegría Hudes or Lin-Manuel Miranda? Everyone should be prepared. Be very prepared.

On the other hand, one could make the argument for pronunciations that reflect what the end user (aka target audience) is most likely to understand. For example, when my office was on San Vicente, I could not get non-Spanish speakers to understand me if I used proper pronunciation. They did not know how to get to "Sahn-Vee-sen-tay" but knew exactly how to get to "San (as in sand) - vi (vision) - cent - ee."

Take Patrón Tequila for example. It's pronounced "Pah-TRONE" (as in throne). And the accent on the "o" places the stress on the second syllable. It means "boss" as well as "the model, template or standard." It is not pronounced Puh-trahn. Or is it?

Listen to their ads. Sounds like a cross between "Puh-TRONE" and "Puh-TRAHN" to me.

Clearly it's written for non-Spanish speakers. Does that make butchering the language legitimate? Why not pronounce it "PAY-trahn" as in "patron of the arts" or "patron saint"? Changes the meaning, doesn't it? As pronounced in the spot, it doesn't mean anything. It just means that the voice-over guy couldn't pronounce it correctly or the agency thought it was cooler to avoid the proper Spanish language pronunciation for the intended non-Latino target audience.

I'm not suggesting that everyone needs to take a Spanish class (although it's certainly not a bad idea). It would be nice, though, if we could make a concerted effort to give languages other than English some respect. (And yes, the English language should get the same.)

Spanish is a relatively easy language as far as pronunciation is concerned. Unlike English, it is a phonetic language. Vowel sounds never change:
A is always "ahhh"
E is always "Ehhh"
I is always "EEEE"
O is always "Oh"
U is always "Oooh"

Double "l's" are pronounced "y" (as in quesadilla). "Que" is pronounced "k" not "kweh." "J" is pronounced like "h" and "h" is silent. "V" may sometimes sound like "b." These are just some additional tips.

My favorite pronunciation confusion has to do with a product sold in Latin America that is referred to as "Bee Ba Po Roo." A friend of mine had a cold and was lamenting the fact that she couldn't get Bee Ba Po Roo here in the States. She was delighted to learn that her mentholated cure-all was indeed sold here. The U.S. pronunciation? Vicks Vapor Rub.

By the way, rather than listen to Jill mispronounce Spanish street names, I switched over to Paulina, the Spanish-speaking TTS voice on my Garmin. The problem only worsened as I discovered that Paulina was completely useless. First, she pronounced everything as if it were written in Spanish. So Torrey Pines became ... well, use the vowel sounding guide above to figure that one out. But even worse than that, street names ending in Drive, for example, became El Doctor. The Doctor? What does that have to do with drive? And then I looked at what was written on the screen -- "Melrose Dr." Turns out Paulina's incapable of interpreting abbreviations correctly.

When it comes to having a Garmin pronounce just about anything correctly in English or Spanish, fuggedaboutit. In this instance, I think humans still have the edge.
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