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Sotomayor's Seditious Syllables | The Nation

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Sotomayor's Seditious Syllables

Of all the comically desperate attacks on Supreme Court justice nominee Sonia Sotomayor last week--she belongs to the "Latino KKK" (Tom Tancredo), she's a "Hispanic lady chick" and a "Marxist" (Glenn Beck), she's "racist" (Beck, Newt, Tucker, Coulter, Rush, to mention a few)--the only one with real conservative cojones is the charge that real Americans are being forced to "unnaturally" emphasize the last syllable of her name instead of the first. Get us by the short tilde and our hearts and minds will follow.

"Are we supposed to use the Spanish pronunciation, so-toe-my-OR, or the natural English pronunciation, SO-tuh-my-er...," asked the now Worst Person-ed Mark Krikorian, a National Review blogger and the executive director of the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies. "Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English," he went on, "and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn't be giving in to."

Even before Krikorian so boldly spelled out the offense, you could feel the annoyance among conservatives over the extra work the judge's name requires. Joe Scarborough (or, for those troubled by the almost French lilt of that last syllable, Scarboruff) announced he was going to have problems pronouncing her name. But really, Joe, it's not like anyone's asking you to trill your R's or something. (He's gone on to say that he's not siding with the Limbaughian name-calling, because "this doesn't elect Republicans.")

I admit, though, the first time I said "Sotomayor," I mangled it, too, as I do most unfamiliar names. But I got it the next time and now delight in lifting suddenly to that high mesa of OR.

Krikorian's line of attack has chutzpah, but it's hardly nuevo. It's always there, just under the surface, especially when some high-falutin' liberal speaks a foreign word fluently, or asks for Dijon mustard. Everytime Obama has pronounced "Pakistan" like a native (as POCK-i-stahn), the suspicions bubble over: It's an "exotic pronunciation," another National Review writer griped during the campaign, while a commenter elsewhere wrote, "he pronounces it just as his teachings in the Muslim religion has taught him to pronounce it."

The hunt for seditious syllables is part of a larger, right-wing obsession with race, gender, and purity--and it's of a piece with the cranked-up fear of Gitmo detainees touching "U.S. soil."

Of course, anybody, including lefties, can obsess about purity, hygienic or political. But, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in the Times on Thursday, studies suggest that "conservatives are more likely than liberals to sense contamination or perceive disgust."

That would explain some of the efforts by the Republican "base" to remove moderates like Colin Powell like so much used Kleenex; those easily icked-off also seem to go for impossibly tidy either/or-isms, a la Dick Cheney's edict that in the fight against terrorism, there's "no middle ground."

"There are basically two options," Krikorian seems to concur, "--the newcomer adapts to us, or we adapt to him. And multiculturalism means there's a lot more of the latter going on than there should be."

Krikorian, whose name is Armenian, has taken plenty of hits this week about knocking a Spanish surname when his own hardly rolls off the tongue. (Daily Kos blogger Allan Brauer refers to him as "Mr. Kirk," because "typing his full name exhausts me, so I'll just continue to refer to him by his superior, Americanized name...")

You can already see the Col-BER Re-POR skit taking shape (the show was in reruns last week), in which Colbert rationalizes the umbrage he takes at Sotomayor's unnatural last syllable while taking bombastic pride in his own.

And true to Colbert's satire, the right's notion of who should conform to what is highly selective and all about ego. Has the conservative punditry complained, for example, about John Boehner's insistence that his surname be pronouced BAY-ner? Shouldn't the House Minority leader of the United States Congress conform to the natural English pronunciation of "oe" as a long "o"?

But wingers tend not to correct other wingers' names--even when they're, sacre bleu!, French. Congressman Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) is not Steven La TUR-et; Tom DeLay was never Tom DEL-ay; likewise, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), has been allowed to keep that uppercase "M," even though it forces an Old World, last syllable dominance.

In fact, by angling to Americanize foreign-sounding names (or at least those of SCOTUS nominees favored by the Democrat Party), the right is acting positively French! The Academie Francaise goes on annual bouts of banning English words, like happy hour and podcasting, and replacing them with francophonics: la bonne heure and telechargement pour baladeur.

Maybe Republicans should make an annual ritual of knocking on doors and telling people what the proper pronunciation of their names should be. Because, as Mark Krikorian says, "our predecessors were too insistent on conformity, now we're not insistent enough."

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