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November 24, 2014

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LETTER FROM WASHINGTON:

Nominee presents pronunciation pickle

Senators and others stumble onto many ways to say ‘Sotomayor’

With the historic nomination of the first Hispanic woman to the U.S. Supreme Court came the phonetic fallout.

Somehow, Sonia Sotomayor, a name easily accessible to many in the West, is causing great tongue twisting in the nation’s capital. (For the record, it is so-toe-my-OR.)

The cautious Senate Minority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, sounds out her name correctly, but ever so slowly: So ... toe ... my ... or.

The ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, creates the sense that at any moment he might swap syllables, making her a small-town mayor rather than a nominee to the high court: SO-to-MAY-or.

Even Nevada’s Sen. Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader, who pinned a “Sonia” button to his lapel last week, pauses more than you might expect from a Westerner.

Reid seems to be inspecting each syllable on its way out, to make sure he got it just right.

The twisting tongues seem to tell more about us than about her.

We seem to do just fine with much heavier linguistic lifts, from former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski (ze-BIG-nev bre-SHZIN-ski) to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (of Cal-ee-FORN-ya).

We have cheered, or cursed, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski (sha-SHEV-ski) .

In fact, the nomination of Justice Antonin Scalia (sca-LEE-ah) didn’t seem to require so many pronunciation keys, nor did Justice Samuel Alito (ah-LEE-toe).

Yet the Sotomayor bloopers have been so ripe that David Letterman has launched a “Sonia Sotomayor Pronunciation Roundup,” and Jon Stewart aired some greatest hits.

This is happening in a nation where the Hispanic population has been the fastest growing major demographic group, increasing by 200 percent or more in seven states, including Nevada, from the census of 1990 to the census of 2000. The nation has spent countless hours arguing over illegal immigration — in Congress, on the airwaves, in our communities. We have debated whether ballots should be English-only.

Yet somehow in all those conversations, the basic intonations of the Spanish language did not sink in.

Andres Ramirez, vice president of Hispanic programs at the progressive Washington think tank NDN, reminds that “for many in this country, the emergence of the Hispanic culture ... is still fairly new.”

That is less true in Nevada and other parts of the West, where Spanish language and culture are deeply felt in everyday life, from the salsas on our tables to the Spanish names of our streets. In many Western regions, Hispanic families predated European settlers.

We all know how to enunciate Las Vegas with phonetic flair (ever heard VEE-gas?), even if we don’t know what it means. (The meadows.) Now, the world does, too.

But applying that skill to a broader vocabulary isn’t always the case elsewhere, “especially for senators and members of Congress who are from back East and haven’t been exposed to the Spanish influence in this country as the rest of us have,” Ramirez said.

Unawareness is one thing. Politics is another. Some critics are even suggesting that Sotomayor shouldn’t be the final arbiter on how her name is pronounced.

Writing in the National Review about the nominee, Mark Krikorian suggested that deference to one’s preferred pronunciation of his name only goes so far.

“The newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there’s a lot more of the latter going on than there should be,” he wrote.

That might have been the way things worked back in the day, when Ellis Island rewrote immigrants’ names before their eyes.

But the world seems to be a bigger place in the 21st century. This isn’t a do-over of past culture wars, when liberals drove conservatives nuts with their neek-ach-RAHG-u-ah pronunciation of Nicaragua.

This is just about a little more emphasis on the ‘O,’ a little less on the mayor.

Not a big deal.

Then again, out West, Nevadans insist on calling their state Ne-VA-duh rather than the Spanish pronunciation of Ne-VAH-tha. (That’s snow-capped, in English.)

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