What’s in a Nombre?

by Published on

All you have to do is move and you get this question 600 times a day: “What’s your new address?” Funny they—the friends, the bankers, the credit-card callers, the movers, the shakers—should ask. Our new address is on San Jacinto Boulevard. San Jacinto! The name of the battle that won the Texas Revolution. The name of the 567-foot Houston ship channel column that’s taller than the Washington Monument (Texans love to measure). The name of my husband’s junior high school in Midland.

San Jacinto. I could have sworn, after decades in this state, I knew how to pronounce it. Along with most people I know, I’d always said it with a hard J: juh-SIN-toe.

But, wait. Not so fast. During three phone calls to utilities, the three women I talked to listened to my hard-J pronunciation. Then they repeated it back to me, using the street’s Spanish pronunciation: ha-SEEN-toe.

One incident like that I could have ignored. Two, in the words of the immortal Fran Lebowitz, constituted a trend. But three? We were rapidly approaching profundity. Evidently, I’d lived blithely, obliviously, in my hard-J neck of the woods while the world had changed around me. With Texas becoming a state with a Hispanic majority, were old pronunciation habits changing?

Naturally, I had to consult an academic, an expert, about my discovery. I talked to David Quinto-Pozos, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, who told me that this kind of shift in pronunciation takes decades to happen.

Quinto-Pozos, who grew up bilingual in Taos, N.M., noted he now hears more spoken Spanish on the UT campus than he ever did when he was a graduate student on campus from 1996 to 2002. The increase in numbers of native Spanish speakers, he said, could explain why certain pronunciations have been changing.

“When a community becomes more diverse,” he said, “it becomes more accepting of differences—and could make them a part of everyday language.”

To pursue my pronunciation-shift discovery, I talked to Hawk Mendenhall, the associate general manager of KUT, Austin’s public radio station. Mendenhall’s from San Diego, and ever since he moved to Texas in 2002, he’s been puzzled by Texans’ pronunciation of Spanish words. “A lot of listeners took me to task for the way I said Pedernales,” he recalled, still grumbling that the ‘r’ and ‘d’ weren’t anywhere close to each other—so why pronounce it perd? “Most of the time, they told me this is how we talk in Texas, this is our place—and we’ll pronounce it any way we want.”

But, in the past two years, Mendenhall said, (supporting my theory!) listeners’ complaints have died down. KUT announcers use the Spanish or English pronunciations they’re most comfortable with, and people still call occasionally to complain when “Guadalupe”—the main drag at the UT campus—is pronounced the Spanish way. “But people don’t raise as big a fuss as they used to,” he said, sounding a little disappointed.

I hung up before Mendenhall could start griping about Pedernales again. I had to think about the implications of my linguistic discovery. Such as: What happens when pronunciation changes? Do Texans really butcher Spanish any more than we’ve proudly butchered English for years? And is change always good?

I was in the midst of these contemplations when my whole linguistic-change theory fell apart. First, I talked to Yolette Garcia, now an assistant dean at Southern Methodist University, and formerly news director of Dallas’ public radio station KERA. She said she hadn’t heard any of the linguistic shifts I was talking about. If they were happening, they hadn’t made it to Dallas yet.

Then David Quinto-Pozos emailed about a quick survey he’d done of students in his undergraduate course. As it turned out, they had heard Spanish pronunciations only sometimes with Guadalupe—and almost never with San Jacinto. Some said they’d noticed trends toward Spanish pronunciations, but many didn’t think anything had changed at all.

So much for my linguistic theory. So much for my self-esteem, too. I’ve moved and I’m still not sure how to say the name of my new street. I was becoming envious of Hawk Mendenhall. “It’s always been a source of embarrassment to me that I live on Running Buck Lane,” he’d told me earlier. “But at least I know how to pronounce it.”