Archive for the ‘Language’ Category

Dreamtown Berkeley

March 30, 2017

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in downtown Berkeley is called — get ready for it — Downtown Berkeley. Until the mid-1990s, however, it was called just Berkeley, and this is still what the signs on the platform say. Not that it matters very much, since the signs can hardly be seen from the train anyway, and passengers must depend for orientation on the (not always very clear) announcements by the drivers. These give sometimes the old, sometimes the new name of the station.

But it is not BART that I mean to write about. It’s my dreams.

My dreams often involve travel, or some other kind of displacement, but the locales and means of travel are invariably surreal — they may involve train or car travel that begins in America and ends in Europe, or air travel between Berkeley and San Francisco. And the “Berkeley” of my dreams is nothing at all like the real Berkeley, any more than my “New York” or “Barcelona” is like its actual self. In my dreams I frequently experience enormous difficulties in getting to the airport and end up missing flights (usually just before waking up). I also often forget where I parked my car (something that happens in real life too).

My dreamtown Berkeley — where I still live in my dreams, despite having moved to El Cerrito nine years ago — is more like a European city, and rather than being part of a compact conurbation it is a separate place with streets leading into rural outskirts.

I was therefore intrigued, when I recently Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, by the focus of its action being a ficticious place called Lark House that is located on the outskirts of Berkeley (at least in the Spanish original, en las afueras de Berkeley — the reference is omitted in the English edition). Moreover, “[t]he property adjoined the bay”; in the real Berkeley there are no private properties adjoining the bay. And the Lark House neighborhood has its own square (plaza del barrio in the original) with a police station and a Starbucks.

Isabel Allende is known as one of the writers associated with the “magical realism” school. Perhaps my dreamtown Berkeley belongs there.

Incidentally, I have yet to read Allende’s El cuaderno de Maya (Maya’s Notebook), which, as I understand, also has Berkeley as one of its locales. Maybe I can find some more of my dreamtown there.

 

 

Accents again

March 30, 2017

In a recent post I wrote about the variety of accents heard on the British TV show Line of Duty. But that was after seeing only the first two series.

When I started watching Series 3, I noticed that the character “Dot” Cotton, who is a detective and a criminal (I’m not giving anything away), and who had earlier sounded like a Londoner, was now speaking like a northerner, a difference that was not remarked on by any other character but that played a part in the plot. (The actor, Craig Parkinson, is a Lancashire native who grew up in London, so I suppose both accents are natural to him.)

The phone calls that “Dot” made in his criminal role continued to be (as he himself, as a detective, said) in “a London or Southeast accent,” and he used the fact to deflect suspicion from himself onto a fellow detective.

I wonder if, the gap between Series 2 and 3 being two years, the producers didn’t think that the audience would notice the change in accent. Since I watched the show on DVD within a short time span, it was blatant to me.

For me there was another unresolved mystery, unrelated to accents. The criminal who was actually Cottan was known to police as “the caddy.” In Series 1, when Cottan was first promoted, he made a speech referring to being encouraged to join the police by someone he had caddied for at a golf club. Why didn’t anyone remember that in the subsequent series?

 

A misrule of stress

March 13, 2017

A few years ago I watched a BBC historical documentary about ancient York and I was startled to hear the cultured-sounding narrator (obviously an actor trained to sound cultured) pronounce the second name of the emperor Septimius Severus as though were “sever us” (/’sɛvərəs/), since every reference gives the pronunciation as /sə’vɪərəs/  (“severe us”). I wondered where that had come from.

I am a long-time participant in international folk-dancing, and among the dances I liked to do are many from the Republic of Macedonia, with names such as kostursko, nevestinsko and ovčepolsko oro. The boldface syllables are the ones that are stressed, since stress in Macedonian is very regular: in native words of three or more syllables, the stress is always proparoxytone, that is, on the antepenultimate syllable. And yet almost everyone in the folk dance community says these words as paroxytone, that is, stressed on the penultimate, as if they were Polish (another language with regular stress, but with a different rule); this includes people who learned these dances from the famous Macedonian dance teacher and musician Pece Atanasovski, whose name they usually say as Atanasovski.

English is a language with notoriously irregular stress. Not only is not obvious from the written form of a polysyllabic word where the stress might be, but often there are different stress patterns for the same word. Sometimes the stress is different when the word is a noun and a verb (such as protest); sometimes the difference is transatlantic (as in café or contribute, or names such as Bernard, Maurice, Barnett or Burrell); and sometimes there is simply no agreement for a given word, such as address, detail, insurance and many others.

But when it comes to Latin words — by which I mean words taken directly from Latin, with no change in spelling — there is an old rule that such words, even if pronounced in the traditional “Anglo-Latin” way (with letters read according to their usual English values — the way well-known Latin names, words and phrases are usually pronounced, as well as Latin terms in law, medicine and astronomy), the original Latin stress is preserved. There is a caveat here: there are words of Latin origin  that came into Middle English from Old or Middle French and in the evolution into modern English recovered their Latin spelling. Examples include senator and liquor, which in Middle English were senatour and licour, oxytone (stressed on the last syllable) as in French. U.S. English has a great many such words — favor, honor, vigor and the like — which in British English have kept their medieval -our ending. Such words, if they have more than two syllables, don’t necessarily follow the rule.

According to this rule, then, there is no excuse for Severus. But the rule seems to have given way, in recent times — I don’t know how recent — to another one, applied as a kind of default to foreign-looking words that are relatively unfamiliar, namely that words ending in a consonant are read as proparoxytone, and those ending in a vowel are paroxytone.

The first part of this rule (which should be called a misrule) explains not only Severus but also such common words as abdomen (Latin abdōmen) or acumen (Latin acūmen); Donald Trump was unfairly (for a change!) ridiculed for saying the latter in the traditional way (as I do). Beyond Latin, it explains the common proparoxytone (mis)pronunciations of such names as Esteban, Vladimir, Wallander, Marnez (as heard from British soccer announcers), Istanbul, Stalingrad; and Hanover is the standard English form of Hannover.

The second part of the rule explains the usual pronunciations of incognito and patina (not stamina, which in common enough use to have kept its traditional stress, as are such words as Africa and America), where, oddly enough, the stressed i sounds like “ee” (as though the words were Spanish or Italian) and not the usual “long i” sounds in Anglo-Latin words (such as vagina). People who told me about the movie Ex Machina usually pronounced the second word as “masheena”

It also explains the common English pronunciations of  paprika, basmati and a great many Italian place and personal names such as Pesaro, Brindisi, Stefano, Cesare, Pecora — all proparoxytone in Italian — and Podestà (oxytone). In the movie Big Night, in which the main characters were supposedly Italian immigrants, the word timpano was pronounced timpano. The Irish surname Costello is invariably pronounced Costello in America (to be sure, the most famous Americans with that name — Lou and Frank — were not Irish and were not originally named Costello). Sofia, the name of the capital of Bulgaria (Sofiya in Bulgarian) is usually pronounced like the name Sophia. And then there’s karaoke, usually pronounced like “carry-okie.” Not to mention Bacardí, pronounced Bacardi (even in its own commercials) despite the prominent acute accent on its labels.

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There are some exceptions to both parts of the rule, which I have yet to explore fully. I will write about them when I have done so.

 

 

 

Patchett’s patchy Portuguese

January 6, 2017

It’s only in the last few years that I have expanded my reading of contemporary fiction beyond detective novels (and the occasional New Yorker  short story), thanks to a wonderful institution a few blocks from my house: the El Cerrito Recycling + Environmental Resource Center, and specifically its Exchange Zone, where thousands of used books can be found free for the taking. It was there that I discovered Barbara Kingsolver, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Franzen and their ilk — writers whose names I had heard of or read about, but not actually delved into. My latest such discovery is Ann Patchett, whose State of Wonder (2011) I am currently reading.

Despite the lovely writing – in free indirect style, entirely representing the protagonist, Marina Singh – I did not become absorbed in the book until Marina got to Manaus, in the Amazon region of Brazil. But then I was gripped by the vivid descriptions of the city’s air – beginning with “the musty wind of the tropical air-conditioning” at the airport —  and people.

And those of the people who are local and speak with one another do so in Portuguese. That’s where things get patchy, and I have to don my ling-crit mantle. The first sentence is, Negócio é negócio,.”  “business is business.” The second is, “Dr. Singh conhece o Dr. Swenson,” “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson.”

I have long believed that writers should not use abbreviations, symbols or numerals in dialogue, only words as they are spoken. Initialisms or acronyms are okay,  if they are said as such, but the author needs to make it clear how they are said. I can make allowances for “Mr.” and “Mrs.”, because there is really only one way of saying them, but “Dr.” is read differently in different languages; in Portuguese it happns to be doutor.

But doutor, or o doutor with the definite article required when “doctor” is used as a title, is strictly masculine. And both Dr. Singh (the aforementioned Marina) and Dr. Swenson are women, so that of course they would be (a) doutora, or, if abbreviated, (a) Dra.

What seems to have happened is that Patchett used some kind of translation resource (electronic, written or personal) to translate “Dr. Singh knows Dr. Swenson” while neglecting to specify gender.

The rest of the Portuguese dialogue I have read so far seems similarly patched together.

Another linguistic weakness is one that Patchett seems to share with the late Ruth Rendell (I discussed it here) is the apparent belief that Indians necessarily speak Hindi. Marina, whose father is Indian, is reported to have, as a child, visited him in Calcutta, where she found herself swallowed up by a Hindi-speaking crowd. Hindi is in fact spoken in West Bengal — by about 7% of the population — but it’s hard to imagine a crowd in Calcutta speaking anything but Bengali.

Kubala

December 23, 2016

Zsa Zsa Gabor died the other day, and in all the audio media that I’ve heard her surname has been pronounced with a stress on the last syllable. It’s actually pronounced, as Wikipedia puts it, GAH-bor ([ˈɡaːbor] in IPA) since it’s a Hungarian name, and in Hungarian all words are stressed on the first syllable.

It reminds me of László/Ladislav/Ladislao Kubala, the great soccer player of the mid-twentieth century. He was a Hungarian Slovak; that is, a citizen of Hungary but ethnically Slovak, not Magyar. The first-syllable stress is something that Hungarian shares with the otherwise unrelated Czech and Slovak, so that his name would be pronounced KOO-bah-lah ([‘kubala]) in Slovak and KOO-baw-law (North American aw, [‘kubɒlɒ]) in Hungarian.

But in Spain, where he spent most of his life (notably as the star of FC Barcelona in the 1950s), he was called [ku’βala], since the Spanish default stress for words ending in a vowel is on the penultimate. This is what can be heard in Joan Manuel Serrat’s song about him (which is in Catalan, so that the last [a] is somewhat reduced).

Kubala began to play soccer professionally as a teenager in Hungary during World War II. After the War, when the Communist regimes legitimized ethnic nationality according to the Soviet model, he decided to identify as a Slovak and moved to Slovakia (then a part of newly reunited — after being split by Nazi Germany — Czechoslovakia), where he played for Slovan Bratislava and the Czechoslovakian national team, and married a Slovak girl (his coach’s sister) with whom he promptly had a son named Branko.

For Eastern Europeans, one’s ethnic national identity often trumps the civic. When I was a child I thought that this was peculiar to Jews (I have always thought of myself as a Polish Jew, never as a Pole), but soon learned that it was common to most peoples east of the Seipel line. Some thirty years ago I met a woman in Mexico, a fellow tourist who at first told me that she was Yugoslavian; it turned out that she was a Slovene from Trieste — a citizen of Italy — but didn’t think of herself as Italian.

Kubala did, as a matter of fact, return to Hungary for a while, where he played for a local Hungarian club and the Hungarian national team, but soon defected to the West. He played for a makeshift team, coached by his brother-in-law, that was called Hungaria, named not for modern Hungary but the old polyethnic Hungarian kingdom. He was also signed by Torino, at the time considered the best team in Europe, and by sheer chance missed being on the plane, carrying the rest of the team, that crashed into the mountains.

As I mentioned above, he ended up in Spain, and was given Spanish citizenship by Franco himself, who used him for propaganda extolling the superiority of Francoism to Communism. And he played for Spain’s national team as well. No wonder he called himself a “cosmopolitan.”

IPA

December 2, 2016

I recently wrote about the French roots of most older (pre-Second-World-War) international organizations that have the word international (not world or universal) in their names, and hence I in their initialisms or acronyms. But in none of them is the Frenchness as pronounced as in the IPA.

IPA stands for both the International Phonetic Association and the International Phonetic Alphabet; the former is the body responsible for the latter. (Both are API in French.) It seems strange that an organization would knowingly — and, at least to some, confusingly — use the same abbreviated name for itself and for its product. The Ford Motor Company is, to be sure, known briefly as Ford, and one of its cars (if it comes from the Ford Division) is a Ford; while a specific one may be called the Ford (if, for example, a member of a multi-car family announces “I’m driving the Ford today”). But in French the company would be called la Ford, as would the car if a specific one is meant (both are feminine because both compagnie and voiture are feminine). French-speakers seem to be used to such ambiguities and find various ways to resolve them. For example, la Corse means both ‘Corsica’ and ‘the Corsican woman’; Balzac, in his story La Vendetta, refers to the Corsican woman at its center as l’Italienne.

Here I will  refer to the association (when necessary) as IPAss, and limit the use of IPA to the “alphabet.”  I have often toyed with calling it the FPA, because of its French bias and because it doesn’t really make sense to refer to phonetic characters as international — they have to do with languages, not nations. But it can also be questioned whether it’s really phonetic, or really an alphabet.

Let’s start with the last. To most people, an alphabet is a finite set of characters (called letters) that one learns in a specific order; hence the term alphabetic order. Whether modified letters (like á or ç) or digraphs (like æ or ch) constitute distinct entries is a matter decided by the individual language authorities. The IPA, however, is not finite — phoneticians create new characters as needed — and there is no alphabetic order. If it is anything, it’s a code, not an alphabet.

The IPA was first conceived by a French organization of modern-language teachers (L’Association Phonétique des Professeurs de Langues Vivantes) as a way of teaching pronunciation to children, not as a true representation of native pronunciation. This meant giving French approximations to, say, English sounds. Thus the character c (later replaced by ʃ) was proposed for both the French ch in chaud and the English sh in show. These are actually quite different sounds; in the English one the tongue is considerably farther back than in the French one. But when show is used in French as a loanword, it’s pronounced just like chaud; in fact, in IPA the pronunciations of show (as said by a Scot or a West Indian) and chaud would be written the same way: [ʃo], regardless of how different they actually sound.

The real problem with the IPA, for me, has always been the representation of affricates. as, for example, the English sounds represented by ch and j or ge in such words as judge, charge and change. Note that these words all come from  French, and at the time they were borrowed their pronunciation of these consonants in French (Old French, that is) was not that different from what it is in English. But French lost its affricates as it changed from Old to Middle, and when speakers of modern French borrow words from languages that have them, they pronounce these sounds as stop + fricative. That is, a French-speaker would approximate the English phrase ‘catch it’ as ‘cat shit’; one need only  listen to native francophones pronouncing  such words as tchèque, jazz, pizza or tsar. In IPA these are written as [tʃɛk], [dʒaz], [pidza] and [tsar].

But what happened was that the IPAss decided to keep these representations for all languages, even those in which a fricative is a single consonant (in my native language, Polish, there are six such sounds). It was only on the insistence of some non-French linguists that ligatures (such as ʦ, ʧ, ʤ) or over- or under-bows (such as t͡s or t͜s) were allowed “when necessary,” but they are still usually omitted from IPA charts. Many linguists resort to non-IPA symbols, such as č for the ch sound.

So much, then, for “international,” “phonetic” and “alphabet.”

Franzen’s “hacelo”

November 29, 2016

Jonathan Franzen writes long novels. At least some of their length is due to his deep delving into the minutiae of his characters’ occupations, be they business, politics, sports, music, cooking or whatever. This depth seems to be a result of meticulous ad hoc research, since in his appearances on Jeopardy! Franzen did not impress as a man with a breadth of knowledge at his fingertips. But the writing, as technical as it may get, is never didactic, it flows smoothly and is a pleasure to read.

When it comes to things German, as displayed in Purity, Franzen’s knowledge appears to be echt, since he studied German as an undergraduate and spent several years in Germany. What little German is actually quoted is impeccable, though the dialogue that is supposedly in German but written in English does not read as if it were translated from German. (In my novels in which dialogue written in English is meant to be spoken in another language, I made a point of thinking it first in Spanish, Hebrew or German before writing it down, but then I am not a professional writer.) There is, moreover, a tour de force in the form of a bilingual English-German poem, with the English part carrying a scandalous German acrostic that lands its author, a German named Andreas Wolf, in trouble. Franzen leaves it up to the reader to figure out that the acrostic reads something like “To your socialism I dedicate a splendid ejaculation.”

I have, in the last few years, developed a hobby (described here) of reviewing English-language novelists for their language lapses, especially relating to Spanish. Spanish appears only sporadically in Franzen’s writing, but I am pleased to report that when it does, it is invariably flawlessly idiomatic. (I have seen nothing in his biography indicating any profound exposure to Spanish.) One instance deserves special attention.

In Purity,  when a character is told (in Spanish) that someone is there to see him, he replies, Hacelo pasar,” meaning ‘let him in’ or, literally, ‘make him pass.’ Hacelo does, in fact, mean ‘make him,’ but not in standard Spanish; there it would be hazlo (with ) or hágalo (with usted) (or, in Spain, possibly hazle or hágale). The setting here, though, is eastern Bolivia, which happens to belong to that portion of Hispanic America where vos is used instead of , and hacelo is the form consistent with vos. Franzen’s familiarity with this form — which is almost never taught to Spanish-learners — is impressive.

But there is a problem. The person making the utterance is the aforementioned German, Andreas Wolf. We are not told how or where he learned Spanish. In Bolivia he lives at Los Volcanes, an isolated compound where English, not Spanish, is the prevailing language. In my case, I learned the vos forms when I lived in Costa Rica, because my friends and colleagues there used them with me. At Los Volcanes, the only local is the driver Pedro, and it’s in response to his announcement of a caller that Wolf says Hacelo pasarNow, what Pedro says is, “Hay un señor en la puerta que dice que es su amigo”  (‘There is a man at the door who says he’s your friend.’)   Su amigo, not tu amigo, indicating that Pedro addresses Wolf with usted. It’s a double mystery, then, that Wolf comes to use vos in return: first, it isn’t clear how he learned it; and, second, it seems out of character for him to be in a master-servant kind of asymmetric address relationship.

Perhaps Franzen’s meticulous research — this time into language use — carried him a bit too far.

IPA

November 25, 2016

Quebec language notes

October 26, 2016

My wife and I have just come back from a ten-day trip to the province of Quebec, a place that we had both meant to visit for many years and had not managed to do until now. We were both enthralled by the beauty of the fall foliage and the charm of the historic old cities — old Montreal, Trois-Rivières and especially Quebec City — but for me there was another point of interest: to explore the bilingualism of Montreal.

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I am fascinated by by bilingual societies. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, every bilingual society is bilingual in its own way.

I come from a bilingual family. My parents, Polish Jews born respectively in 1905 and 1913, both had Yiddish as their native language. But by time my mother started school Poland had regained its independence (in 1918), so that all of her schooling was in Polish, which soon became her primary language, while Yiddish remained that of my father. In their conversations with each other, as far back as I remember, he spoke in Yiddish and she spoke in Polish. To me, however, they spoke only in Polish, and I did not actually speak Yiddish fluently until I was ten or so, in different circumstances. Consequently, I am not a native bilingual, as are some of my Barcelona friends who cannot recall a time when they didn’t speak both Catalan and Spanish.

According to statistics cited in Wikipedia, only 0.8% of the residents of Greater Montreal reported speaking both English and French “as a first language.” (By contrast, 17% of the people of Brussels speak both French and Dutch at home.) On the other hand, “most of its residents” are said to possess a “working knowledge of both.”

That working knowledge can be quite variable. Except in Westmount and at an Italian restaurant near the airport  in Dorval, nearly all the people we dealt with were francophones (some of whom may have been French), and their English, on the whole, was not very different from what one hears from younger people working in tourist-oriented occupations around the world. I found this surprising, since I thought that these people were far more exposed to English — from their anglophone fellow citizens and from English-language television and radio — than their counterparts elsewhere.

There may have been one or two people that we met who were of the 0.8% — native-sounding in both English and French. Our English-language guide at the Notre-Dame Basilica spoke with an almost perfect North American accent, but gave herself away when she said “we are Monday” (a calque of nous sommes  lundi) when meaning to say “today is Monday.”

Another difference from Brussels is the near-absence of bilingual signage. Even streets whose names are untranslated  English (such as University, McGill College, or City Councillors) are prefixed rue, with no “street” (see here for a Brussels example). Largely anglophone Westmount (now a separate city) gets away with neither rue nor street. All signage on freeways throughout Quebec, even warning signs, is in French only — I wonder how English Canadians driving, say, from Nova Scotia to Ontario, through their own country feel about that. Station announcements in the Montreal metro are in French only. Only federal institutions such as post offices carry bilingual signs consistently.

Once outside Montreal, even in a nearby suburb such as Repentigny, one might as well be in provincial France. Except in tourist-heavy old Quebec and nearby Ile d’Orléans, bilingual menus are less common than in Paris, and seem to be found only in chain restaurants.

I have to confess that I have written two novels, books 2 and 3 of my Wilner Trilogy, whose respective protagonists are Montreal native bilinguals (they are brother and sister), and whose action takes place to a significant degree in Montreal. I wrote these books without ever having been in Quebec, that is, in direct defiance of the “write about what you know” dictum; what details I needed I got from the Web. My visit satisfied me that I made no big blunders. But much of the action takes place in what was then the town of Saint-Laurent (now it’s a Montreal borough), and this is an area that I didn’t have time to visit during this trip. I’ll have to take another one.

More on respelling

October 1, 2016

This is a continuation of a previous post, in which I discussed how writers of English respelled the Latin word for ‘black’ (niger) by adding a second g so that the word would be pronounced with a “short i” as in Latin, and how Italians modified (1) their word for ‘foundry’ (getto) by adding an h so as to give it the German pronunciation with which the Jews of Venice called their district, and (2) their word for ‘brothel’ (casino) by putting a grave accent on the o in order to give it the French pronunciation designating a gambling establishment. I also cited one example of a proper name, Picasso, being an Italian respelling of the Spanish Picazo.

Another such example is Borgia, an Italian respelling of the Spanish Borja (as it would have been pronounced in 15th-century Spanish and still is in Catalan). But unlike Picasso, the Borgias (sons of Pope Alexander VI, and their offspring) who moved “back” to Spain used the Spanish spelling there. Thus the Catholic saint known in English as Francis Borgia is known as Francisco de Borja in Spanish and Francesc de Borja in Catalan.

The converse — a Spanish respelling of an Italian surname — is rare. The only one that comes to mind is that of the Marquis of Squillace, who became Esquilache in Spain.

In fact, Italian surnames are usually kept intact wherever their bearers may move to. As I recently pointed out, the Italian alphabet is writer-friendly, so that even almost illiterate people  would know how their names are written. What this means is that, outside Italy, such names are liable to mispronunciation, especially with respect to syllabic accent, and with such letter combination as sci, ggi, chi and so on. A prominent news story in the US featured someone surnamed Schiavo, which was not pronounced /’skjavo/ as in Italian but /’ʃajvoʊ/. And the name Podestà is usually written Podesta and pronounced /poʊ’dɛstɐ/, while Lepore is pronounced /lə’poʊr/, not /’lepore/.

Enter William Shakespeare.

The Bard was fond of Italian names. A good many of his plays take place in various places in Italy, and while not all the characters in them have Italian names (Tybalt, Shylock, Katherine), you can find such names in non-Italian settings (Angelo, Claudio, Lucio and Vincentio in Vienna; Malvolio and Orsino in Illyria).

I don’t know if Shakespeare knew Italian. (There is, of course, the theory that he was actually Italian; and he may have been friends with John Florio.) But we do know (1) that before the 18th century writers of English didn’t care much about “correct” spelling, and (2) that Shakespeare wrote his plays to be read by English actors, so that he would write foreign names so as to be English-reader-friendly. He wrote the name of the actual artist Giulio Romano, in Winter’s Tale, as Julio; and in The Taming of the Shrew he wrote the Italian name Petruccio (-uccio is a common diminutive suffix) as Petruchio — in both cases, obviously, so as not to confuse English readers with funny Italian letter combinations like gi or cci.

But now enter sophisticated Shakespeareans who, showing off their knowledge of Italian, insist on pronouncing Petruchio as though it were an actual Italian name, and say ‘Petrukio’!