If English is your mother tongue and you’ve never studied Spanish, you’ll see the word paella and expect it to rhyme with umbrella. If you’re a Spanish speaker, you know paella rhymes with umbreya.
What if you’re Cliff Richard and you’re making a film, with paella as the focus of one of your love songs? You’ve recorded a whole album of songs in Spanish already, so you have an idea of the language, but this film‘s being released in the UK and the US. You don’t want to alienate your English-speaking fans by singing a word they won’t recognise, but you don’t want to prejudice the song’s acceptance in a Spanish speaking country either. What do you do? You splice the Spanish and the English together and sing pie-ell-yah.
To be fair to Cliff, his hand is forced by the music itself. Whoever wrote the song Paella was imagining the word pronounced English-style. The clear, weighty English ll in the middle of the word is essential to keep it tethered to the swooping notes. A Spanish ll, making pie-ye-yah, would be hard to sing, especially where the English-paella-imagining songwriter has placed the word. The sound would float away and evaporate.
Maybe Cliff tried singing paella as a truly Spanish word and came vocally unstuck. So he spliced the Spanish y sound to the English ll, with a nod in each direction. It was a lucky choice – the y sound of the Spanish ll adds a bounce to the word and, grounded by the English ll before it, adds energy to the word paella. Even though the word itself exists in neither Spanish nor English, it’s a gift to this song.
If you’re singing an English song and English isn’t your first language: always consider how the songwriter imagined the English words being pronounced. The music will be your biggest clue. Listen to it clearly and cleanly – as if you’re hearing it for the first time. Don’t sing along, out loud or in your head. Just listen. The expected sounds of the words will be woven into the music.
You can choose to do something different (as Birdy does here or as Lissie does here) but you need to go back to the song’s roots to understand it properly. You need to understand the stitching before you can add your own embroidery. As Picasso probably said: You need to understand the original thoroughly if you want to build something new and beautiful upon it.
By the way: It’s interesting to hear Viviane Ventura, Cliff’s co-star, aligning her own pronunciation of paella with his. She was raised in Colombia, so the proper Spanish pronunciation would have come naturally to her – when she speaks Spanish to Grandma it sounds authentic and fluent.
Could you tell that Grandma isn’t Spanish? Her rounded, centre-of-the-mouth pronunciation gives her away. She’s Ellen Pollock, a German actress. Why doesn’t she say pie-ell-ya too, for continuity, if nothing else? Grandma says paella correctly, with Spanish-style pronunciation, while stirring the paella with her Authentic Spanish Peasant Wooden Spoon centre-screen, to provide a visual clue. Her pronunciation places paella as an exotic foreign thing, a food of myth and legend. If she’d been cooking snails, she’d have been too foreign for a British/American audience of the 1960s.
Grandma provides the lead-in to Cliff’s song. Without her, we’d have no idea what he was singing about, or why. His pronunciation of paella is close enough to be within reach of hers. She has been established as authentically Spanish by her inability to converse with Cliff in English, and by living in a picturesque cottage, up a mountain with only a billy goat for company. Grandma’s the touchstone for the word paella.
Cliff is left free to pronounce paella as he chooses. He’s a foreigner in Spain, after all, and we admire his effort to communicate with the locals by adding something to the word paella as we know it in English. A y will do. (Did you notice Cliff telling Grandma No basho as he leaves her cottage? Adding an o to bash turns it into Spanish, doesn’t it??)
Viviane Ventura follows Cliff into the twilight pronunciation of paella, even though she’s supposed to be Spanish in the film. She switches between Cliff’s pronunciation and standard British pronunciation (this) when she says paella before she sings. By harmonising with Cliff in the song she shows her allegiance to him, above her allegiance to her own culture. We notice, not consciously, but subconsciously. She speaks to Grandma in Spanish, but she moves to join Cliff’s paella in their duet. Love in code-switching action.
We all code-switch when it suits us. Most of us would have a paella moment if, as native English speakers, we’re back home in Cornwall or Connecticut after some time living in Madrid. We speak Spanish, our family and friends don’t. Chatting in a cafe with old friends, one of them starts talking about buying the ingredients to cook paella. They start swapping paella stories. If they’re all pronouncing the word paella British or American English style, to rhyme with Cinderella, what do you do? Keep your mouth shut until they get safely on to sausages? Join in, pronouncing paella as a Spanish person would, and risk making them feel uncomfortable and making yourself sound like a show-off? Everyone knows that you’re not Spanish, after all. Or do you moderate your pronunciation to sound like them, but not quite like them?
And what would you do if one of your Spanish friends was visiting and sitting in the cafe with all of you? They’ve cooked paella for you back in Madrid, and they know you know how the word is pronounced. You’re hoping to go back to live in Madrid again. Where would you place your paella pronunciation now? Would you go the Viviane Ventura route or the Grandma route? Or end up somewhere in the middle, like Cliff Richard: offending nobody by pronouncing paella with a mix of English/Spanish language ingredients?
What would you do?
© Sing Better English, 2015