Santa Fe’s Theater Grottesco recently returned from teaching at the Festival Iberoamericano de Teatro de Bogotá. Atan open salon in its rehearsal space, Grottesco invited the public to discuss ideas and questions that had been raised in
, including: Have contemporary politics and marketing corrupted the English language?
It’s a fascinating question, even if clearly posed with the bias of liberal Spanish speakers.
My own thought is to first strike “English” from the question. To the extent that politics and marketing have corrupted language, all languages are victims. There may be languages that are—thus far—less victimized by propagandistic influence, but it’s historically laughable to imagine that Spanish is one of them.
But influence isn’t exactly corruption, is it? It’s more like a set of filters. One filter relays tacit messages without implicit wording and another filter obscures specific comprehension.
For example, when hot-headed Tom Tancredo claims we need civics and literacy tests before voting in this country, he can claim to be talking about the ideal of an informed and educated electorate, but it’s clear that what he’s really doing is getting his Jim Crow on. The tacit—if technically unstated—message is that he doesn’t like minorities, he doesn’t think they should vote and he certainly doesn’t think one should be president.
A talking head like Rush Limbaugh can say unemployment and the economy aren’t as bad as they appear when a conservative is in office and then turn around and claim the essentially unchanged situation is worse than it appears when the reins of power are handed to a liberal.
Liberal pundits, obviously, practice the same kind of doublespeak.
Meanwhile, the thrust of marketing—whether for politics or products—is to replace truth and clear analysis with a sense of emotional attachment. This, I imagine, is the issue most dear to performers like Grottesco: When words have been conditioned to be triggers for market-constructed sentimentalities, are their meanings and impacts then altered when used on the stage?
As language relates to theater, I don’t think it matters. Language is not so much corruptible as it is infinitely mutable. Capable performers will use to their advantage all the connotations and cooptations of language. Strictly speaking, the so-called “corruption” of language simply adds richer and more complex layering.
As the sentimentality and messaging of words is played out in political and commercial theater, it’s not language that’s the concern, but a given culture’s grasp of media literacy 101.
On a strictly local level, our implied political messaging is more entertaining than it is threatening. I’m particularly fond of selective Spanish pronunciation as a signifier. In City Council and County Commission meetings, everything comes down to how one pronounces “Santa Fe.”
The drawn-out “s-a-n” with a dropped “t” and a lazy “fay,” ie “sannuhfay,” indicates that someone is from out of town and quite possibly
. They probably also pronounce Guadalupe as “gwad-a-loop” and are to be given the minimum possible regard.
Others go out of their way to not only pronounce Santa Fe with correct Spanish emphasis, but with an over-the-top theatricality: “sahn-TAH-FAY.” The meaning of this depends on who is employing it. If it’s a gringo transplant, the message is, “I’m culturally sensitive and I think of myself as a local.” If it’s a native New Mexican, the message is, “I’m demanding respect and broadcasting the significance of my cultural heritage and the importance of my opinion.”
If it’s a politician, the message is, “I’d like to count on your vote.” Indeed, there are audiences and situations in which a failure to go overboard in pronouncing Santa Fe equates to lost votes, regardless of platform or position.
For some, this message is not strong enough and they will identify themselves with “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís,” all with perfect emphasis, accenting and rolling r’s, before going on to use names like “Cerrillos,” “Agua Fria” and “Mexico” without any special emphasis whatsoever. Very few people use the Navajo name for Santa Fe—Yootó—but as far as political signifiers go, it would add a fun wrench to the works.
Similar dynamics play out throughout the state in different ways. Albuquerque, too, has cultural and political dynamics that play out through pronunciation. In Ruidoso, as in much of
, one has to mispronounce the Spanish (ree-uh-doso) in order to be a local. The French village of Ledoux in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is called “luh-dooks” by people who would never mispronounce a Spanish name.
For some reason, the weather news out of Albuquerque routinely says “es-pann-ola” before suddenly breaking its monotone to proclaim conditions in “sahn-TAH-FAY.” The voice of the weather never says “al-boo-kehr-kay.”
There’s nothing wrong with correct pronunciation, of course. But the theatricality and selectiveness of its use locally is reminiscent of David Sedaris’ story, “Innocence Abroad,” in which one man places an absurd emphasis on the pronunciation of
Most of us, though, fall into the innocent territory of insignificant and uncorrupt speech. There’s no stage for that.