Pronunciation of non-English words in old movies

Last night, I watched the Rat Pack version of Ocean’s Eleven on TCM. Apart from being struck by all the cigarettes :open_mouth: one thing really hit me. When Bergdorf came out of the military school after seeing his son, he was playing with the gift his son made for him. He called it an “uh-BAY-cus” - did people really not know how to pronounce abacus in 1960? Was it that exotic a word?

I can’t think of any specifics, but over the years, I’ve noticed other times when seemingly simple foreign words were grossly mispronounced, especially Spanish words. The only exception I can think of is John Wayne in his various cowboy incarnations - he spoke Spanish as you might expect an American to, but with some effort to say things correctly.

These days, it seems better in movies and on TV, if not perfect. Anyone else notice this? Is it a matter of being more educated, or more aware of non-English words? Not an earth-shaking issue, I know, but it really hit me this time.

It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but am I correct in assuming that Bergdorf was a WWII vet of humble origins, maybe from someplace like Brooklyn or da Bronx?

I think it’s highly likely that someone of his background would be absolutely unacquainted with the finer points of Asian culture. I’m sure most of what my dad (a WWII vet of humble origins from Milwaukee) knew he picked up in the Army.

BTW, I haven’t noticed any improvement in how actors pronounce foreign words. Gibbs on NCIS in particular is cringeworthy every time he tries to speak Russian.

I don’t speak Russian, but in general, I’ve found NCIS doesn’t seem to sweat accuracy.

All of the eleven were WWII vets from the same outfit, but I don’t recall all the back stories. It still seemed odd to me that he knew what the abacus was for but he didn’t know the name. My husband suggested maybe it was deliberate, but I don’t know. Wish I could think of more specifics - I’ve heard so many bad pronunciations in old movies, I have to think no one bothered to find out the right way. Or maybe I’m just being a language snob…

Malaprops are often used as comedic devices, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it was deliberate. I’d have to see the movie again to make a better judgment.

(Out of curiosity, did you find it amusing?)

On NCIS, it isn’t just Gibbs and Russian. Ziva constantly mispronounced Hebrew words (the actress was from Colombia, IIRC). Chris O’Donnell on NCIS: LA claims to speak German with both Bavarian and Austrian accents, but he sounds just like my classmates in high school German class.

The effect is really jarring when native speakers of whatever language the regular cast is mangling appear on the show.

1)“Abacus” was an “eye word” to a lot of people at that point, something you saw in print, but almost never heard in speech. John Ciardi, who coined that phrase, pointed out that even some educated people who used that sort of words did so without the least idea of how exactly to pronounce them.

2)Abaci might be seen as an asian sorta thing now, but “abacus” is a western word. Latinized Greek, which in turn possibly came from Phoenician.

3)Before classical pronunciation was revived, educated people put a lot of long vowels in Latin words. Mr. Chips joked about this.

3)Abacus is also an architectural term, and pronunciation of those words in the trades is often…creative. “Col-yume”, “Pie-laster”, and so forth.

4)This might have been done deliberately by the actor, screenwriter, or director to suggest something about the characted.

‘Ktfino, in other words.

I don’t think this was a movie, I think it was an old TV show (possibly The Lone Ranger?) but I remember people talking about putting on/going to a rodeo, and kept pronouncing it “ro-DEE-oh”.

Huh. I’ve heard of “ro-DAY-ohs,” but never “ro-DEE-ohs.” Interesting.

My older brother was once writing a work of fiction and got frustrated because he couldn’t find out what Germans call a rodeo. (This was long before the Internet was available.)

I told him they probably use it as a loan word and say “ro-DAY-oh.”. A logical assumption; I hope I was right.

Ro-Day-Oh is how I’ve heard the Aaron Copland ballet pronounced.

I believe it’s the original (Spanish) pronunciation as well.

In LA, the ordinary western sport is called a ‘ROH-dee-oh’, as you’d expect. The famous street in Beverly Hills is definitely ‘Roh-DAY-oh Drive.’ We’ve got some pretty curious local manglings of Spanish names here, but of course they also vary by the native language of the speaker and listeners.

Like San Pedro which no one who knows the town pronounces in Spanish.

This wasn’t a foreign word, but in a William Powell/Myrna Loy detective movie (not sure if it was one of their Thin Man ones – they made several other non-Thin Man detective movies) they pronounced the word “suspects” as “susPECTS.” It was so weird-sounding. We picked that pronunciation up and used it for years.

There’s a church in Baltimore - St. Rose of Lima - pronounced by the parishiners like the bean, not the city in Peru. A visiting priest was corrected when he used the “incorrect” pronunciation.

Similarly, the county seat of Charles County, MD, is La Plata - pronounced Luh PLAY-tuh.

So they pronounce it like the city in Ohio.

All three of Wayne’s wives were (I think) native Spanish speakers.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere the incident when I was castigated by a Wisconsinite for daring to pronounce “Lyons” like the name of the city in France instead of “Lions.”

In one episode of (the old) “Hawaii Five-O,” McGarrett refers to a ‘cassette’ as a ‘kay-set.’

Can’t think of any specific examples at the moment, but I’ve definitely heard some older movies where characters pronounce “homicide” as HOME-i-cide, with a long “o” sound.

According to several websites, it’s pronounced with a long “o” in British English and a short “o” in American English.

On the radio version of Dragnet, Jack Webb called his city Los ANG-uh-ess, with a hard G, instead of the more standard soft g you hear today.

That was a common pronunciation once.