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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2 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?

  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…

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