Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Metro, It's Time for a Spanish Lesson

Los Angeles is one of the most Hispanic cities in the country, with 48% of residents self-identifying that way in the 2006-08 ACS, but when it comes to correctly pronouncing Spanish place names, Metro's in danger of failing Spanish 1.

Take the San Pedro station on the Blue Line. In Spanish "e" makes the sound of "a" in the word "pay" or think the Fonz says "¡e!". So the correct pronunciation is "sahn PAY-dro" (Saint Peter). Metro's electronic voice pronounces it incorrectly as "sahn PEE-dro".

Another instance of the same mistake is the pronunciation of the Mariachi Plaza station name on the new Gold Line extension. The correct pronunciation is "Mah-ree-AW-chee PLA-sa", but the electronic voice mispronounces it as "Mare-ee-AW-chee PLA-za". In Spanish there is no "z" sound. The "z"s are pronounced like "s"s.

On the other end of the Gold Line there's the Sierra Madre Villa station. Metro does okay with this except for the last word. In Spanish two "l"s together make the sound of a "y" so the correct pronunciation is "VEE-ya" not "VIL-a".

Is this really that important? A lot of your riders speak Spanish, and mispronouncing words gives the impression, fair or not, that you are out of touch with your riders. I know you have Spanish speakers on staff. I'd really consider changing this. Pronouncing words correctly is a sign of respect to your riders and to Hispanic heritage. People will notice and say, in whatever language, "wow, they took the time to get that right, maybe they'll listen to me if I have a complaint".


  1. Yeah, those mispronunciations are bad enough to make even gabachos like me cringe. I keep hoping for the pleasant-voiced Spanish language announcer to come in and correct his ass.

  2. Sierra Madre Villa Station is named after the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel, wherein the word Villa is Italian, means a big house, and is pronounced the way Metro pronounces it. Go to San Pedro (or its wikipedia page), and you will find that it is indeed pronounced with the "long e", just the way Metro pronounces it. This is about the San Pedro pronunciation as well: http://www.insidesocal.com/southbay/2009/05/more-on-the-san-paydro-san-pee.html

    The pronunciation of Spanish placenames in LA is a lot more complicated than just pronouncing everything based on Spanish phonetics. Is the correct pronunciation the way the word was originally intended to be said, or the way the people who live there (and have lived there for over a century) pronounce the name of their hometown? What if a Spanish word was conferred on a city or street or landmark by non-Spanish speakers who have always pronounced it "incorrectly"? Who decides, the people who live there, or the people passing through?

    I actually think that there is an interesting phenomenon which occurs in LA when a Spanish placename is "mispronounced" by the locals. Because most LA residents (especially the younger ones) are much more familiar with the correct Spanish pronunciations and don't necessarily know what the idiosyncrasies of a given area are we all have a tendency to pronounce everything "correctly" no matter the traditions associated with the name. Which means that somebody like me, who grew up in the city right next to Sierra Madre and knows about the old Villa also knows how to pronounce the street and station name, whereas somebody from a different area will make the assumption that it's Spanish and say it that way instead. In the same way for Los Feliz I always say Feh-LEES, even though I gather that the pronunciation is something along the lines of FEEL-is for people who actually live there.

  3. @ B.T.

    You raise some interesting points, and I think you may have me on Sierra Madre Villa. I assumed it was Spanish because of the Sierra Madre part, which is a Spanish name for a mountain range.

    I like to pronounce place names in their original languages. You're right that lots of people say "San Pedro" and "Los Feliz" in the ways you describe. I just think it's cool to pronounce things in their original languages. It gives us a sense of our diversity and our history. And hell, it wouldn't kill Americans to know a little more about foreign languages.

    I'm sure I'm guilty of butchering names in languages I don't know. I guess I just can't stand to hear the word "Mariachi" uttered with English pronunciation rules in Boyle Heights.

  4. I generally agree with you that the correct pronunciation is better, but I also think that it makes more sense to pronounce names the way people live there pronounce them than the way people who don't live there do. Honestly I have the feeling that fifty years from now most of the Spanish placenames will have melted into quasi-Spanish pronunciations, although it will never be perfect. There are more people who don't live in San Pedro and think Peedro sounds stupid than people who live there and call it Peedro, and this will eventually work to get rid of Peedro.

  5. The names you are referring to are long-standing names adopted into local English speech with an English pronunciation a long time ago. It's not that I don't agree that "San Pedro" is comes from Spanish and is pronounced like "Sahn Pethro" in Spanish, it's that I am perfectly willing to accept that there can be a Spanish pronunciation and an English pronunciation of Spanish placenames in LA.

    If they add a Spanish translation to "This stop is San Pedro Station", they can say "Esta parada es la estación San Pedro" (Sahn Pethro) along with the English "This stop is San Pedro Station" (San Peedro).

    Otherwise, where do we stop? Do we have to say "this train is bound for Los Ángeles (Lohs Ahng-hehless)" or "Santa Mónica (Sahntah Mohneekah) Boulevard"? These are well-established names borrowed from Spanish to English.

    Similarly, it doesn't bother me that the Spanish-speaking announcer says "Wilshire/Western" in a Spanish accent, as "Weelshair/Waistairn". That's just the way it's said in a Spanish pronunciation.

    As a linguist and a local, I feel comfortable knowing that most of our placenames are pronounced differently depending on what language you're speaking. I like that kind of diversity.

  6. Have you noticed that the Gold Line from Pasadena to Union Station has stopped announcing stations in both Spanish and English? All of a sudden, its English only now. What's goin' on, Metro?