“BAL-let” (pronunciation)

New York Times critic Gia Korlas writes today:

It was dismaying that [Lara] Spencer, a host of “Good Morning America” on ABC, would openly laugh at the news that a 6-year-old boy had elected to study ballet. Listing Prince George’s curriculum on Thursday morning, she ticked off “religious studies, computer programming, poetry and ballet.”

She pronounced it, “BAH-lay.”

And then she continued. “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet,” she said, looking mystified while she stifled laughter. “I have news for you, Prince William. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

I’m not sure why Korlas thought the pronunciation of “ballet” was noteworthy. But it caught my eye because that’s the way the British give the stress in the word, whereas Americans put the accent on the second syllable. (The vowel sound in the first syllable, for both British and Americans, is like the “a” in “cat,” so perhaps Korlas was struck that Spencer said it to rhyme with like the first word in “Bah, humbug.”)

It’s one of those cases where the Brits seem (to me) to make a big point of not attempting to adopt the original language, in this case French. Other examples include MAHN-ay (the painter), PASS-ta (the Italian noodles), Cuh-RACK-iss (the Venezualan capital), and JOCK-o-vitch (the Serbian tennis player). At least they don’t put a “t” in ballet, as they do in “fillet” (or “filet”) and “valet.”

Spencer is American, which I found out from Wikipedia, which oddly calls her a television “presenter” in the British manner. I wonder if she cleverly used the the British pronunciation of “ballet” because she was talking about British people. Ms. Spencer, if you happen to come upon this post, please enlighten us!

28 thoughts on ““BAL-let” (pronunciation)

  1. I think it fair to say the Brits generally place the emphasis on the penultimate syllable when possible. However, I doubt very much they would say “Bah” as in your example but “baa” – nor “MAHN-ay” but rather “MON-nay”. They will also say “beh-ray”, more akin to the French pronunciation. I would argue the American pronunciation of Notre Dame or levee, as examples, shows little or no attempt to adopt the original pronunciation. Not that the Brits don’t have a whole raft of pronunciational differences across their island and beyond (“baa-th” “ba-th” etc.), all while purporting to speak English.

    So perhaps the Yanks are not that different from the Brits. In that regard. 🙂

  2. I saw the clip, and Spencer’s pronunciation wasn’t UK English. We’d have a short “a” sound (as in cat) so it is Ba-lay – not bah-ley. And the same goes for Monet and pasta – a short “o” (as in octet) and a short (cat-like) “a”s in pasta.

    But the real difference between the US and UK pronunciation of ballet is the emphasis Americans place on the second syllable.

    And if you want examples of the mangling of foreign words used in Am English – can I refer you to the Dutch artist Vincent Vango?

    1. Not exactly wishing to pile on, but the US pronunciation of ‘parmesan’ (an Anglicisation of Parmigiano) as par-me-ZHAAN’ and cashmere (an Anglicisation of Kashmir) as CAZH-mere has always puzzled me. I asked an American friend about the cashmere one and he said it was just because it sounded more foreign and exotic, which I thought was sporting of him.

    2. Of course, there were two French painters – Monet and Manet, one eight years older than the other. I’d pronounce one MON-ay and the other MAN-ay.

      I’ve just come back from Dublin so I’m reminded of the story of the French art collector who was so determined to get a first edition of Ulysses when it came out, he offered something from his art collection in exchange. “You pay your Monet and you take your Joyce.”

      1. Or like the Irish construction worker who was being interviewed for a job and was asked what the difference was between a joist and a girder. He says, “That’s easy – Joyce wrote Ulysses and Goethe wrote Faust.”

  3. This comment is not about the sound of the word, but about George’s interest in ballet – his grandmother was mad about ballet (and dance in general), and even gave a surprise performance on stage with Wayne Sleep, much to the distress of the Royal Family.

  4. I’m British, in my fifties, and I’ve never heard anyone pronounce the t at the end of ‘valet’.

    Incidentally, Nicholas Wright’s play ‘Vincent in Brixton’, based on the painter’s time living in London, includes a scene in which he comments on the British inability to pronounce his name correctly.

  5. As to PASS-ta and JOCK-o-vitch and many others, the salient point is that British English doesn’t have vowels that correspond closely to the foreign ones, whereas American English does. So an American’s ‘normal’ pronunciation of words such as these happens to sound somewhat closer to the original than the British pronunciation. But that’s more by accident than design, I believe. And as other commenters have pointed out, Americans are no slouches at mangling foreign words in their own ways.

    1. Americans pronounce the first syllable of “pasta” with the PALM vowel, which is usually [ɑ] in American English, and commonly [ɑː] in RP – but of course British English is more diverse than American English in terms of local varieties. Either of those PALM vowel varieties is closer to the Italian (usually [ä] in “standard Italian – local varieties abound) than the [æ] (the TRAP vowel) used in British “PASS-ta”

      1. Indeed, there are regional variations in pronunciation in the UK, and therefore I, a southerner, do not pronounce pasta as PASS-ta. In southern UK, many words have the long A sound, which in the north of England have a short A. Pass, grass, glass, all rhyme with farce in the south and mass in the north and it’s that vowel I’d use in pasta I was born in London but went to school in the north of England, so my accent amused my classmates.

      2. To my ear there’s a big difference between the general US and southern UK PALM vowels, and the latter sounds to me very unlike any Italian ‘a’ in pasta.

  6. Well, David Cottis, perhaps you are not posh enough to employ a valet. Those in Britain who do, pronounce the T. When the use of the word spread to us common folk as a term of art in Wodehouse, or as the verb for cleaning a car, we recognised it as French and pronounced it accordingly, and (in the ears of our masters) incorrectly. The French-type pronunciation has joined the non-U list in Britain.

    1. I have fond memories from my childhood of hearing the song I Can’t do My Bally Bottom Button Up performed by Billy Cotton. Alas, I can’t find that version on the net.

  7. The British pronunciation of “Djokovic” (JOCK-o-vitch) is actually very close to the original Serbian. I never understood why American say “JOE-ka-vitch”.

    Listen here:
    [audio src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b2/Sr_Novak_Djokovic.ogg" /]

  8. If you prounounce fillet in the frenchified manner you lose the potential for a million wonderfully bad old jokes.
    For instance: She was only the fishmonger’s daughter, but she knew how to lay on the slab and say ”fillet”

  9. French is a syllable-timed language, unlike English, a stress-timed language. That means that no syllable is more stressed than any other, so the BrE BAlay and the AmE baLAY are pretty much as incorrect as each other (unless, as often happens in AmE, the ‘a’ in the first syllable is reduced to a schwa.)

    Yes, BrE has a habit of subsuming foreign words into its own phonemic inventory, often taking words as they are spelt. But AmE has its own method, rendering words with a cod-foreign phonology that tends to lengthen vowels.

    To use two of the aforementioned examples, here’s an IPA transcription* of ‘pasta’ and ‘Novak Djokovic’, with AmE first, the original language second, and BrE third.

    [ˈpɑːstə] [pasta] [ˈpæstə]
    [ˈnoʊvɑːk ˈdʒoʊkəvɪt͡ʃ] [noʋaːk dʑoːkoʋitɕ] [ˈnoʊvæk ˈdʒɔkəvɪt͡ʃ]

    You can see here that both dialects avoid /a/ and /o/, finding their own equivalent, both find a place attribute a stress that wasn’t there before, and as a result reduce vowels in a way that the original language wouldn’t. What’s odd about the AmE approach is that it does this in a way that only happens with loanwords – ‘Novak’ would be pronounced [ˈnoʊvæk] or [ˈnɔvæk] if it wasn’t attributed as exotic.

    The point I’m making is that neither dialect pronounces foreign words ‘correctly’ – except that they both do, because the way that a language absorbs words from another is its own business, concerning its phonemic inventory and phonotactics (see Brazilian Portuguese and Japanese for egregious examples of the latter).

    We all like to think that we’re right – no, wait, we both like to think that others are wrong – but a little self-awareness is needed before we point fingers or pat ourselves on the back.

    *The online IPA Reader (http://ipa-reader.xyz/) is very useful if you can’t read IPA. If you can, you can make the IPA Reader say rude words in a variety of accents. Going with the theme of this comment, both uses are valid.

    1. I’ve long been curious as to why Americans seem to pronounce the name of the capital of Russia as Moss-cow, with the second syllable as per the grazing animal, whereas the British pronounce it Moss-co. Neither seems to be how the name is pronounced in Russia.

      But then, I’ve heard Americans pronounce the name of the Scottish city Glaz-gow, again with the second syllable rhyming with cow. The English would rhyme that syllable with go. A local might pronounce it Glaz-gee, hard ‘g’, rhymes with bee.

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