James Craik: loans, voseo and K-dropping

There is a town in Argentina called James Craik. The locals pronounce it as if it were a Spanish word written Jamescrái or Jamescray, that is, xamexˈkɾai̯. This is the reason for the joke some people tell about the place:

-Vengo de Jamescrái.
-¡Que bien que lo pronunciái!

Several things come to my mind when I think about this joke. The first one is how people adopt loanwords. In this case it’s a place name derived from a person’s name, but in this regard it’s not different from any other loan. When people adopt a loan from hearing it, they adapt their pronunciation based on what they hear, producing the closest thing they can manage based on what they heard and on what they can pronounce; both factors strongly related to the sound system of their own language, especially if they have no knowledge of the other language. On the other hand, when people adopt a loan from reading it, their pronunciation can go in two different directions. If they are familiar with the spelling-to-reading rules, their approximation will come closer to that of a “heard” loan. If they are only partly familiar, the pronunciation will be somewhere in the middle (cases in point: the American pronunciation of the LL in Cabrillo and Amarillo as English /l/, and the Argentinian pronunciation of cd-rom as cd-room (siðiˈrum)). If they are totally unfamiliar, they will apply the spelling-to-reading rules of their native language whole cloth, as in the case of Jamescrái.

The second thing that comes to mind is the word pronunciái. This is a vos (second person singular informal) form of the verb pronunciar. However, it doesn’t follow the pattern of Argentinian, Uruguayan and Paraguayan (among many other places) vos present tense verb conjugation. That would be pronunciás. It follows the Chilean pattern of vos conjugation. Why is this? It’s pretty clear that the form is used to make the rhyme and the joke work; it doesn’t necessarily mean that the person who came up with the joke used the form themselves. But the person who came up with the joke had to be familiar with the pronunciation. The thing is, James Craik is in Córdoba, nowhere near Chile or the Chilean border.

I think two explanations are possible. The first is that the person who came up with the joke just happened to be familiar with Chilean voseo verb patterns. The second one is that this pattern could also have been characteristic of Argentinian country speech at some point. Perhaps a quick way to figure that out would be to check if any -ái verb endings show up in Martín Fierro or other examples of poesía gauchesca. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did. Chilean voseo patterns are just as plausible sound-change wise as Argentinian ones. It’s just an accident of history that the Chilean ones are in the minority.

The person who came up with the joke, however, was aware of how Argentinians generally feel about these forms, namely, that they think they are “countrier” and “wronger”. So, to make fun of the small-town pronunciation of James Craik as Jamescrái, it makes perfect comedic sense to enlist pronunciái.

The last thing that comes to mind is how phonotactics come into place when adopting loans. Spanish has a /k/ phoneme with an unaspirated k allophone. So why does it then drop the k in James Craik? The answer is phonotactics. Spanish does not usually end a syllable with k, especially word-finally. The only Spanish words with word-final k that immediatly come to my mind are relatively low frequency loans like frac, rock, crack or Irak. Bearing that in mind, it’s pretty understandable that James Craiksians would drop that k.


2 thoughts on “James Craik: loans, voseo and K-dropping

  1. Thank you for your selection of Jamescrai as an example… I was a frequent visitor in this small town far away and long ago, and your writing brought happy memories!


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