The Bruschetta Debate: Pitfalls of Pretentious Pronunciation
"What do you think, Geoffrey? Should we get an appetizer? What about the bru-shedda?"
"Great idea Cheryl! They do a really good job with that here. [to waiter] I think we'll start with the bru-SKedda, thanks." Poor Cheryl.
In high school I worked at an Italian restaurant as a seater (a singing seater, no less; embarrassing times, those) and a conversation similar to the one above was to be overheard at least once per shift. On especially exciting (and mystifying) occasions, servers themselves would take a moment to kindly dispossess diners of their unfortunate ignorance and softly inform them that, in fact, they meant to order "bru-skedda" with a very explosive "k." As you'd expect, such lingual evangelism was usually met by customers with a look that said, "If you want, I'll help you shove that bru-skedda right up your ass-holé."
And who could blame them? You hear it all the time nowadays, even outside of restaurants. "Ugh," someone will exasperate, "I hate it when people say bru-shedda. I mean, that's why everyone thinks Americans are so stupid." For several years now the aggravating habit of correcting the mispronunciation of foreign words has been seeping into the realm of acceptable behavior like pus seeping into an infected wound. The intent seems obvious: to impress a date with an infinitely varied potpourri of knowledge with regards to far-flung cultures and languages. Sadly no one ever tells these people the regrettable truth: their potpourri smells like shit. And as anyone who's been there knows, it's never pleasant to be downwind of such phonetic ostentation. Instead of being impressed by the display of cosmopolitan savoir-faire, we're repulsed by it on nearly every occasion. With such a miserable success rate, one wonders at the persistence of such pretension.
I use the word "pretension" deliberately, for more often than not those who engage in this behavior are simply pretending. Pretending at knowledge of a language they studied for a semester or two and then put to diligent use during some time abroad (cloistered in an American institution, speaking mainly English all day, but that's neither here nor there now, is it? I mean, they always ordered their gelato in Italian!). What happened in this country with regards to our worldview? Somehow we created two extremes: the rabidly xenophobic on one end and those with an annoying penchant for overblown displays of sophistication on the other. Thankfully most people fall somewhere in between. But there seems to be this burning desire in many to prove that the iron fetters of middle-class upbringing and education have been flung aside in order to taste the sweet freedom of constant mental stimulation and intellectual challenge. Never mind they haven't read a book since Island of the Blue Dolphins. Well, and The Audacity of Hope on CD.
Although it occurs not just with food and not just in Italian, I'll use bruschetta as the most mind-numbing and perhaps most prevalent example of this pretentiousness. Maybe they heard Emeril talking on TV and loved the musical sounds tripping upon his Italo-Bostonian tongue. Could be they know that the David wasn't sculpted by Michelle-angelo, so they extend the rule to all "ch" combinations they see in Italian (in which case, praise for being observant is in order). And yes, it is true: in Italian, in the word bruschetta, the "sch" is pronounced as in English "SCHool," "SColiosis," "SCurvy," "Antonin SCalia SCanned the SCreen at the porn theater as Tom SKerritt SKipped aSKance." However, as it turns out, the Italian language has more than one pronunciation rule. Go figure.
I say if you're going to feign erudition, might as well go balls out. There's more to a correct pronunciation of bruschetta than just the "k" sound. You'll want to be sure, as of course you're aware, that your r is pronounced as an alveolar tap, retracting the tongue tip behind the alveolar ridge before striking the ridge in passing. Obviously, though you'll pardon me explaining it to the Unwashed, the u will be the pure close back rounded vowel, pronounced endolabially, with no wretched diphthong leakage (unlike the waiters at the restaurant in California, whose "bru" in bruschetta sounds like "brew" in "tasty brewskis"). It seems silly to mention this, but certainly you'll double the t 's as in Italian doubled consonants require gemination and you'd be completely mortified to have your double t 's sound as a singled. Lastly, only a simpleton, we're talking a real fucking jackass, pronounces the a as a schwa, or neutral vowel, as in "thE," "dUH," or "jUst shUt thE hell Up." You employ a gorgeous open front unrounded vowel, as pure as the driven snow in Turin. Oh, I apologize. Torino. How foolishly and chauvinistically American of me.
Perhaps those of you who know me well are surprised to find me on this side of this debate. As an aspiring opera singer and alumnus of a semester abroad, my words may even seem hypocritical. But the intellectual dishonesty of what I'll call the "bru-skedda position" is too profound for me to accept it as valid. Frankly I think it's cowardly not to follow the logic to its conclusion: if it's not too much trouble to learn the basic pronunciation rules for Italian, surely it wouldn't be asking too much to extend such diligence to every one of the world's roughly 2,197 (known) languages. Anyone who subscribes to the "bru-skedda position" I would expect to have no trouble with native-sounding pronunciations of:
- Chow mein. [chau (tone 1) and meing (tone 4). duh.]
- Foie gras (with the "French R," the voiced uvular fricative. Want to display 100% authenticity, right?)
- Taco (with a dental "t" and mind your diphthongs!)
- Barcelona (with a beautiful, ringing "th")
- São Paulo (nasal vowels, please)
- Rio de Janeiro (with dialectical accuracy, no doubt. You were in the airport that one time.)
- Scheiße (nice strong sibilant, natürlich!)
You go to Frederick's of Hollywood and buy your wife some sexy "lin[nasal]-zhuh-ree" and gaze at the magnificent artistry of Starry Night, painted by a very gutteral "van Gokhkhkhkhkhkhkh," not bothered by the fact you're still saying "van" as in the car your Mom drove you to soccer practice in. You shake your head at the political excesses of Iran's "Makhkhkh-mood Akhkhkh-ma-deen-a-zhad" and sink into the bliss of Clair de lune by "Duh-büüüüü-see" while you recline on your "shez" in your comfortable home on that cute little "cüüül-duh-sac." The tones of your flawless Mandarin ring like bells as you discuss Mao or Tienanmen Square or the plight of earthquake victims in Szechuan over kung pao at General Tso's.
"But those are all silly," you say. "And besides, who could possibly know how to pronounce everything in every language?" I certainly couldn't.
But I'd argue that what matters is the accepted pronunciation. If I ask for "bru-shedda," you know I mean the damn delicious toast-and-tomato appetizer. If someone wants to talk about "Angela" and not "An-gay-la" Merkel, I know they're referring to Germany's rather homely chancellor. The primary purpose of language is to convey meaning. "Conveying intellectual superiority" and "boasting facility with foreign tongues" are far down on the list of The Functions of Language.
So the next time someone orders "bru-shedda," try letting it go and enjoying the meal. Cringe, if you must, when they accompany you to a performance of "Don Geo-vanni," because chances are you'll run into some confusion with your first Götterdämmerung, and you'd feel hurt if someone corrected you. As long as the meaning is clear, accept it. If you have to, remember that you know how to say gnocchi and let that calm you down. Bottom line, if you're going to have a conversation in English, then damnit - have it in English.
Of course, "bru-shedda" won't get you very far when you're actually in Italy, but that's another blog.