Tuesday, April 10, 2007

How is that now?

My brother-in-law Mark recently sent out a response to one of those questionnaire emails that that gets sent around as a forward. This one was simple and contained very pedestrian questions about everyday things: what's your favourite color, favourite restaurant, favorite flavour of ice-cream, where would you like to retire...

For a cuisine he doesn't care for he wrote down a type of rice that he called "pagaw." I had no idea what this was.

Now my family, influenced by my mother's taste for Puerto Rican cuisine, has always loved the rice that sticks to the bottom of the pan and toasts to a lovely crunchy crunchiness. I once attended an Hispanic potluck where a Hispanic but non-Puerto Rican woman serving the rice reached to the bottom of the pan with her spoon and grumbled something about the rice being almost burnt. As she picked up the dish and was about to take it into the kitchen to throw it out every Puerto Rican within earshot of her annoyed complaint charged the table and demanded that she scrape out the rice and serve it. It's the best part! they yelled (in Spanish) even louder than usual.

In Puerto Rican Spanish the dental approximant [ð̞] in -ado, the past-participle ending of a word, is often elided resulting in an ending [-ao] sounding very close to the diphthong in English "how" "now" "brown" and "cow". Slightly less rounding of the falling segment.

I remember my grandfather offering toast to everyone in the house calling out ¿quién quiere pan tostao? instead of "tostado." When going to the beach I'd have to have cuidao or I'd end up quemao.

So as the Spanish word for "stuck" is "pegado" Puerto Ricans will often pronounce it [pɛgao].

When I first read Mark's "pagaw" I had in mind a pronunciation more like [paga] or [pɔgɔ]. Something that would rhyme with the second syllable of "heehaw". The spelling did not at all look like [pɛgao] to me. Apparently he hears the lax [ɛ] in Spanish (or at least our relaxed pronunciation of it) as a schwa. And in an unstressed syllable an 'a' makes sense in English for the schwa even though I would have expected an "e". And I must assume that he hears the diphthong as [aʊ] or [aw] which is probably how we gringified speakers say it--which I would have expected him to represent with the spelling "-ow". But that can be confused with the [oʊ]/[ow] sound in know low throw and blow.

And confusing things a more was that since this was probably a foreign word (some rice he had recently eaten at an exotic restaurant I assumed) I figured the "a" was probably not a schwa. In fact I thought the word might have the equal stress of a spondee. This assumption might have been further contaminated by the spondaic city name nearby: Paw Paw. A name which I always pronounce with an even stress and the single vowel [ɔ] as in "saw" "law" or...well..."paw" -- but which my mother (who speaks with a notable accent) always pronounces with the diphthong [aʊ] -- much closer to the "how" "now" contour.

But Mark doesn't speak Spanish and since he doesn't have a southern accent I can't think of any word spelled with [-aw] that he would pronounce as [aw] or [aʊ]. Is this a case of vigilantly foreignized orthographical transcription?


  1. An entertaining read, thanks for posting that. I remember in undergraduate school I wrote a research paper on the "Caída de la 'd' intervocálica" in some variations of Spanish. Interesting subject.

  2. I find this interesting from a sociological perspective, considering the cultures that consume rice in this way as a delicacy are spread out and slightly disconnected culturally. In Persia it's known as "tadeeg" (like all cross-alphabetic translations it varies plenty) and that is where I am familiar with it from. My TKD instructor here in OK was Persian, one of the Shah's men who moved to the area as refugees. Anyway, my brother-in-law and his sisters like the same crusty rice, though I don't know what the Tagalog term for it is. However, Spanish colonialism would bring into question whether or not the practice has common origin in that case. Of course it could also be a form of "cultural convergent evolution"... someone hungry scraped out the bottom of the pan in more than one place in history and liked the result.

    Though I see you are more inclined toward the peculiarities of pronunciation than gastronomic anthropology. Have you had any experience with Chinese dialects yet? Fun stuff when it comes to subtle variations.

  3. Hey! I actually understood ALL of this post!!! Yea for Spanish Linguistics classes finally starting to sink in! Though I must say it seems like almost every single dialect of Spanish drops the "d" intervocalic...

    Only one question for you :) Why did you spell it favourite all but one time???

    "what's your favourite color, favourite restaurant, favorite flavour of ice-cream"

  4. Notice that every word that can be spelled either -our or -or I alternate from the convention employed in the previous.

    See here for more on the topic.

  5. Justin - That is interesting that the crunchy rice is noticed and even named by so many cultures. Do you know what the names you mentioned mean? I would like to know.

    I would guess that all cultures that eat a lot of a particular food are going to encounter the same variations on the theme and regard them differently. Consider the levels of stickiness that one culture demands and another considers overcooked/mushy.

    Certainly my father grew up knowing that rice sticks to the pan in Mexico as well. But not until he met my mother did he try to scrape it out and eat it. Often my mother will even serve it all onto its own plate from which others take portions.

    What little I do know about the various dialects spoken in China comes from the occasional phonological discussion of minimal pairs that are not likely to be noticed by English speakers. That and the tonal distinctions. All of it fascinating so far as I have learned.

  6. This is interesting because in the languages I work with that sound is spelled the same way your brother in law spelled it. I find that heartening because I am working to develop some sort of culture of literacy with these languages and it's nice to know that I'm teaching spellings that are instinctive to at least someone!


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