Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why is Quinoa Pronounced As Though It Were French?

Quinoa.  Photo credit Christian Guthier
The shibbolethic (is that a word?  It should be!) pronunciation of quinoa has puzzled me for some time.  How does a word that came to English from Spanish end up being pronounced as though it were French?  I would expect it to be spelled quinois based on the English pronunciation alone.  I did some research and found that I am not the only person perplexed by this issue.  Others have asked the question in various on-line forums.  Is there a satisfactory answer?

Quinoa came to English from Quechua via Spanish.  Quechua is a native language family of South America, with most speakers living in the Andes. The OED says that Quechua was the name of a specific group of people who spoke the language, and the word came to refer to the language itself.  The name of the native group is said, by several sources, to mean "people who live in a temperate valley" (which is where, I think, one would want to live if one were in the Andes hundreds of years ago).

The Quechua word for "quinoa" is kínuwa "KEEN-u-wah".  You can see where the "-wah" pronunciation arose.  The central u sound was eventually elided in English, and the result was pronounced "KEEN-wah".  However, in America, we like to stress the final syllable of French and French-like words (ballet, pâté, gourmet), so for some speakers here it became "keen-WAH".  In the UK most speakers keep the accent on the first syllable (as they also do with ballet, pâté, and gourmet) and so they stuck with "KEEN-wah" for the most part.

That explains the pronunciation, but what about the spelling?  The earliest Spanish spelling was quinua ("keen-OOH-ah"), but a contemporary form was quínoa ("KEEN-oh-ah").  While the former spelling hung around in English for some time, after turning up in the late 16th century, quinoa appeared by the late 18th century and eventually became the preferred spelling.

If you want people to think you know what you're talking about pronounce it "KEEN-wah" or "keen-WAH".  If you don't care, good for you! Having knowledge of Spanish and Spanish pronunciation, I always wanted to pronounce it "keen-OH-ah", but now that I've determined whence the "-wah" pronunciation came, I may eventually train myself to say it that way, though I still find myself, on seeing the word in print, saying "keen-OH-ah".

Jerky.  Photo credit Larry Jacobsen
Quechua gave other words to English.  Jerky, as in beef jerky, comes from Quechua charki "dried, salted meat."  It entered English via Spanish and first turns up in the written record in the late 19th century.

Puma "mountain lion" is another word borrowed from Quechua, and it was even used to name the genus of which the mountain lion, Puma concolor, is a member.  The word made it, in the same form as in English (17th c.), into French (17th c.), Italian (18th c.), and even German (18th c.), via Spanish.

The one word that seems it should have come from Quechua to English, potato (because the tuber originated in the Andes), did not, but it instead came from a native Caribbean language. In that language, Taino, batata was the word for the indigenous sweet potato. English adopted that tuber, along with the Taino word for it, turning it into potato, in the mid-16th century.  John Ayto, in his Dictionary of Word Origins (1990), tells us that the potato mentioned in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor was, in fact, the sweet potato (and it was considered an aphrodisiac!). It wasn't until the end of the 16th century that the word potato settled upon Solanum tuberosum, what we know today as the potato. However, the Quechua word for "potato", papa, did enter Spanish and it became the standard name for the potato in the Spanish-speaking world.  In mainland Spain, though, patata took over in the late 19th century.

Before I close, there is that word shibboleth.  What a lovely word—rather unusual looking and odd sounding among other English words.  It is, as you may know, from Hebrew, and it entered English from the Bible.  It was a word used by the Gileadites to detect their enemies, the Ephraimites, because the Ephraimites could not pronounce it properly.  Shibboleth came to mean, in English, any word that had an unusual pronunciation that outsiders did not know.  Such words were used to identify and exclude the outsiders. Shibboleth came to English in the 14th century.  More recently it has come to mean any dated or outmoded practice or belief that is still held.

Today's link of interest: It Wasn't All Nasty, Brutish and Short—the real story on Anglo-Saxon four-letter words.


Uncle Fun! said...

"keen-OH-ah" is the correct pronunciation of this Spanish word. When spoken, especially quickly, you do hear a "wah" sound, but it's not technically there. There is no OA diphthong in Spanish, so you really are pronouncing both vowels even tho it might not sound like it. Yeah, when I was hearing people give it a French twist, I couldn't figure it out either. Seems most of them had just heard other people pronounce it wrong and went with that. Plus French sounds more - très élégant, n'est-ce pas? And, clearly, they never had someone who speaks Spanish correct them. It has become my life's mission ;o) You can find my comments on a number of YouTube videos about the pronunciation too. Best from Indiana!

Unknown said...

Interesting. I always pronounce it correctly, as you said. But, quickly get "corrected" to the proper pronunciation of 'keen-o" by family & friends. ( I was sure they were wrong! It came from S America, so I thought it was a Spanish word. I was right all along, & my pronunciation Is correct! Thank you! & I will continue to say it "correctly!" :)

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Lees said...

I pronounce it quinin-O-ah the other pronunciation comes from a bunch of artsy fartsy assholes. We were taught in school to sound it out and that is the way it is.