You say Ke-no-ah and I say Keen-wah

And here is Lizi Richards’s first blogpost (again, it isn’t as far as I know an issue in The Netherlands!): 

Even in 2018, a strong argument can be made that the British general public are obsessed with accents. Lesley Milroy, in an article called “Britain and the United States: Two nations divided by the same language (and different language ideologies)” (Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2001), stated that in Britain it is accent that is used as a measure to decide on whether something is standard or non-standard. For example, last year, BBC programme announcer Russell Evans was criticised for pronouncing ‘th’ as ‘f’, a common pronunciation feature in London and the South East today. In response, Evans said: “The reactions are merely an illustration of some of the limited viewpoints which continue to compound separatism and prevent inclusion in the workforce from becoming a reality.” A few years ago, in 2013, another BBC employee, journalist Steph McGovern, was offered £20 by a viewer “to correct” her Teeside accent. As these cases highlight, despite a concerted effort by organisations such as the BBC to “democratise” attitudes towards accent, a certain section of the British public only wants to listen to Received Pronunciation (RP), particularly on the BBC.

So, what do these two cases have to do with quinoa, popularly perceived as a food of the British middle-classes?  Well, it appears that there is a right and a wrong way to pronounce it. Googling “how to pronounce quinoa” will turn up around 985,000 hits. Videos such as this or this one are clear. It’s “keen-wah”. Mispronouncing it will earn you disappointed shakes of the head and barely hidden tuts from surrounding shoppers in Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, the supermarkets of the middle class. While out shopping one day, my mother was approached by a stranger who felt it was her duty to correct my mother for saying “ke-no-ah”. I should add that my mother has a very RP accent, so it appears that even when your accent is good enough to be a BBC presenter, some Brits like to judge you even further. The pronunciation of quinoa helps classify you as U or non-U. “Ke-no-ah” is perceived as decidedly non-U.

However, there has been a fight back to this prescriptive attitude. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the word quinoa  originally derives from Quechua, a pre-Conquest Latin American language. The word travelled to Europe via Spanish, where is it pronounced as “kee-NO-wah”. Therefore, maybe the “keen-wah” prescriptivists need to relax their standards and accept both pronunciations. Language Log (started by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum at the University of Pennsylvania), contains a blog post on this subject, written by Victor Mair. Mair very sensibly concludes: “The ‘correct’ pronunciation of the word is so hotly contested that I have decided not to be vexed about trying to get it ‘right’.” This laissez-fair attitude to quinoa’s pronunciation is also found on the website for the largest importer of quinoa into the UK.

It is fascinating that the group who are already held up as the “ideal” type of speaker in the UK – those having an RP accent – are still looking for ways with which to impose further rules of acceptability.  The swiftness with which an innocuous food, quinoa, has been used to gauge and reinforce class differences (particularly in the UK) shows that nearly 20 years later Milroy is correct, and that accent prescriptivism is still alive and kicking within a certain section of the British public.


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5 Responses to You say Ke-no-ah and I say Keen-wah

  1. Interesting! I immediately reached for my copy of John Wells’s (Wells’?) “Longman Pronunciation Dictionary”, which gives figures for variant usages, only to find that it’s not even listed in the 75,000+ words of the 1990 first edition! The Concise Oxford (2008 eleventh revised edition) lists “keen-oh-ah” (stress on “keen”) and “kwi-noh-ah” (stress on “noh”), but there’s no mention of “keen-wah”, so where did it come from? If it’s meant to be based on the Spanish, then Easy Translator 12 (for Mac OSX) gives it three syllables, not two, so could it be a hyper-correction?

    • David says:

      Your pronunciation is correct. Quinoa is a Spanish word, and sounds like KEY-NO-AH. Spanish grammar says to put the stress on the NO. The keen-wah comes, essentially, from people pronouncing it as if they were speaking Quechua. Or, they’ve heard someone else say it wrong, but it sounds French that way, so they think it makes them sound more sophisticated. Most of them, trust me, have never heard of Quechua, so the argument that they are speaking it is void. In other words, they’re applying the Quechua pronunciation to what is clearly a Spanish word. With Spanish having no OA diphthong, it’s impossible to get the WAH pronunciation out of it. I will grant that, saying it quickly, you do hear something of a wah sound, nonetheless, all of the vowels are there and accounted for. Regards from Indiana!

  2. F. Moncomble says:

    A moot point indeed. The third edition of Wells'(s) dictionary (2008) has it and offers two pronunciations for BrE: ki ˈnəʊ ə and ˈkiːn wɑː, the first being the recommended one. However, I’ve only ever heard the pronunciation quoted by Adrian Stenton as the first listed in the Concise Oxford…

  3. Here is a comment from Paul Bennett, which he sent to me by email. Paul Bennett is the author of “Bennett’s Wordfinder” (accessible elsewhere on this blog) which helps readers find their way in Fowler’s Modern English Usage

    In case you are interested, here is my view, shared by Winston Churchill and H W Fowler, on Keen-wah. Reproduced below are extracts from an article I wrote on things like keen-wah vs Kwin-oah. If people want to sound correct all the time, they’d better start to learn about twenty languages, just for starters. At my grammar school in England in the 1950s, the Classics-trained masters, all with an MSc as a minimum, said Don Quick-sot. They would have thought it pretentious to say Don Kee-ho-tay. If you say Keen-wah then you’d better say Veen when you talk about Austria’s capital. You can’t have it both ways.

    From my article “Foreign Affairs”:
    Why is it that well-meaning, Engish-speaking people make the blunder of trying to imitate the sound that natives make when pronouncing the names of their towns or other things indigenous to their country? Not only is it often an insult to the people who speak the language naturally, it’s also an insult to anyone else in the room who has not studied foreign languages and who simply cannot be expected to know that a double l in French or Spanish is pronounced like a y.

    But because the 21st century has apparently been earmarked as a time when we must abandon English pronunciations of foreign place names or things, we continually hear Chee-lay for Chile, Nich-waugh-waugh for Nicaragua, Barthelona for Barcelona, Seveeya for Seville, manzaneeya for manzanilla, and semi-yon for semillon.

    If people must pose like this instead of having the courage to use the most common English sound, why don’t they say Paree for Paris, Veen for Vienna, or Roma for Rome? And why do they say Moscow?

    As usual when looking for politeness in speech, we turn to Fowler. He puts it better that I can in his article “Didactism” (in which he lumps foreign-language pronunciation with the unnecessary use of technical terms): “If English is not entitled to give what form it chooses to foreign words … why do we say Germany and Athens instead of Deutschland and the rest, or allow the French to insult us with Londres and Angleterre?” …

    When people say things like keen-wa in stead of kwin-oa they forget that other people, who are unlearned and naturally speak English not in foreign words but in English, do not enjoy being cowed by the fear of seeming ignorant.

  4. Regrettably, although it survived the second edition of Gowers, “didacticism” was excised from Burchfield’s third edition!

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