Mark Krikorian of the National Review Online is upset that he’s supposed to pronounce Sonia Sotomayor’s last name with the stress on the final syllable:

“Deferring to people’s own pronunciation of their names should obviously be our first inclination, but there ought to be limits. Putting the emphasis on the final syllable of Sotomayor is unnatural in English […] and insisting on an unnatural pronunciation is something we shouldn’t be giving in to.”

Now, Krikorian is right that final stress is rare in multisyllabic English words.  But it is certainly not unheard of, and it’s certainly not “unnatural”.  Consider these common English words, all of which have final-syllable stress:

  1. personnel
  2. Japanese
  3. volunteer

In fact, according to a study of the subset of English in the Hoosier Mental Lexicon (Clopper 2002), 11% of the multisyllabic words had their primary stress on the final syllable.  By comparison, Wikipedia notes that about 2-6% of the U.S. population has red hair, and around 10% is left-handed.  So if final-syllable stress is unnatural, so’s red hair and left-handedness.

Furthermore, I’m willing to bet that Krikorian isn’t always so obstinate.  I’ll bet he doesn’t go into Victoria’s Secret and ask to buy “lingery” because the pseudo-French pronuciation is too unnatural.  I’d be surprised to hear he refers to a sauté pan as a “soat” pan to avoid that unnatural final stress.  And I’d be shocked if he can’t go to a Starbucks because it’s a café.

What Krikorian is complaining about is having to use a stress pattern that occurs in a full 10% of multisyllabic English words.  He’s looking for an excuse to be lazy, and does a terrible job justifying it with his foray into armchair phonology.

Oh, and Krikorian also whines about “the whole Latina/Latino thing — English dropped gender in nouns, what, 1,000 years ago?”  He’s spot-on there.  That’s why you can say that Brad Pitt is a hunky actress and that Joan of Arc was burnt for being a warlock.  Or that Sonia Sotomayor is an intelligent man and Mark Krikorian is a confused woman.  Right?