Monday, April 12, 2010

On Foreign Words Used in the American-English Vernacular - Part One: Pluralization

This subject has been on my mind for quite some time now, but the complexity of it had kept me from tackling it even in the most informal manner. Until now.

Several weeks ago, one of my Twitter followers retweeted a frustrated-sounding tweet from someone who didn't like the word, "tamale." To paraphrase the tweet (since I didn't bookmark the URL and it will take too long to search): "There's no such thing as 'tamale,' only 'tamal' or 'tamales.'" 'Tamale' is a well-known corruption of the Spanish tamal (singular) and tamales (plural). If I were to guess how 'tamale' came into existence in the American-English vernacular, it would be that someone, somewhere, at some point in history looked at the plural tamales and figured that the singular form of tamales would be derived from removing the final S -- the common plural marker in English -- from the form; hence 'tamale.' Unfortunately, there's no such thing as 'tamale' in the Spanish language and the frustration over such a prevalent use of it is understandable.

As a food blogger, I often find myself in a dilemma. Do I go mainstream and say, "paninis," (panini is a plural form of panino and saying paninis is like saying childrens or mices to the Italians) "gelatos" (the plural of gelato is gelati), etc., along with most people? Or should I stick with the pluralization rules of the languages from which these word come and be that person everybody hates? Did I just buy a pizzelle maker or a pizzella maker? (Pizzelle is the plural form of the singular pizzella and just as you wouldn't say 'waffles maker' or 'pancakes griddle,' you wouldn't say 'pizzelle maker.') Should I refer to the dough with which you make vareniki (plural of varenik) and pierogi (plural of pierog) as vareniki/pierogi dough (analogous to cookies dough) or varenik/pierog dough (analogous to cookie dough)? I should go with the latter, but people would think I'm weird. I hate this.

Examples abound and the post would end up being much too long if I was to list just the ones I have come across.

In explaining my position on Twitter in response to the tamal/tamale/tamales issue, I used the South American sandwich cookies, alfajores, as an example of how complex I thought this whole thing was. In Spanish, alfajores is the plural form of alfajor. So, technically, you should say, "Pass me an alfajor, will you?" as opposed to, "Pass me an alfajores, will you?" But let's face it, the people who say "a tamale" will also say, "an alfajores" (which, now that I think about it, is a much worse offense than tamale. At least with tamale, an effort goes into removing the plural marker, S, from tamales to get to the form tamale.)

The reason I used alfajores as the example was because the word has, for lack of a better way to put it, two-tiered etymology. The word has entered the English vernacular via Spanish. That's one tier. Alfajor is, in fact, an Arabic word الفاخر which had earlier entered the Spanish vernacular. That's the other tier.

What are we going to do with this word now that it has entered the English vernacular? Can we say that since it has come to us via Spanish, the Spanish pluralization rules apply? Do we ignore its Arabic etymology? The word still exists and is in use in Arabic. Who's to say that alfajor is more Spanish than Arabic? And if alfajor is both Arabic and Spanish, which set of grammatical rules applies here? Do we pluralize it the Spanish way or the Arabic way? This has nothing to do with the cookie itself or the tradition according to which it's made, but the name.

Localization, more specifically Anglicization (English is still undeniably the lingua franca of our time), of foreign words is a natural force that cannot be stopped. You can try, but eventually whatever is more popularly used will end up being "correct." Those who are strict about things like this, I've noticed, are those who know the foreign languages from which these words come. Those who know Italian roll their eyes when they hear, "I want a panini." Likewise, those who know Spanish get frustrated at every mention of "a tamale." Those who know Hebrew laugh at people who say, "Oh, that baby is as cute as a cherubim!" (cherubim being the plural form of cherub). Blini, is the plural form of blin and anyone saying, "blinis" would illicit an eye roll from anyone who knows Russian. Most Classicist I know are completely unable to say, "a criteria." It's always one criterion and many criteria (no such things as criterias!), a phenomenon and many phenomena, a formula and many formulae not formulas, a schema and many schemata, etc. But this is because these people know Greek and Latin.

But how many languages are we expected to know? We may be able to keep the Italian pluralization rules because some of us know Italian. But do we all know French too? What about Hebrew? Arabic? Indonesian (which pluralizes a noun by reduplicating it)? We may be able to observe certain rules but unwittingly break the others. Good intention is noble and all, but it's not enough. Anglicization is not something done intentionally, xenophobically, or ignorantly; it's natural and it helps preserve our collective sanity. Anglicization is not inherently evil, and bullheaded insistence on applying the rules of the foreign languages of origin is, at best, futile.

When it comes to grammatical rules, especially the pluralization, we kind of have to let go. Do what you can according to what you know, but at some point, we all need to admit that we 1. don't know the rules of every single language, 2. can't determine every single foreign word's etymology, and 3. don't really have a clue on how to incorporate the grammatical rules of another language into English in any coherent, logical, or consistent manner anyway.

Arabic and some other languages in the Semitic family have 6 different endings number-wise: masculine singular, masculine dual, masculine plural, feminine singular, feminine dual, feminine plural. Assuming we ignore the Spanish etymology of alfajor and go all the way back to Arabic, how do you ask for one cookie, two, or three? Do we even know if it's masculine or feminine?

I'm going to blog about pizzelle in the near future and, to be honest, I don't even know if I should refer to the machine with which I make these pizzelle as a pizzella machine or pizzelle machine. I'm thinking I may make just one so as to avoid the agony of having to say pizzelles.

These things are a pain in the neck.