New Anglo-Spanish – the Case of the Torrrtilla and the Quezadilla

One of the fun things about “contact language studies” is being able to observe some incorrect generalizations that Language A may have about Language B. In this case I’m talking about English (U.S. & U.K) and Spanish. English speakers, especially those in North America, are generally familiar with some Spanish words, but occasionally we still goof up. Sometimes we over-trill the /r/ in tortilla and sometimes we may blank out on a Spanish spelling convention and pronounce quesadilla with a /z/.

Over Trilling the “r” in tortilla

You may have seen the recent Dairy Queen ad announcing a new food product with corn tortillas. It stars a pair of floating red lips standing before a mirror practicing his best Spanish trill. As represented in English orthography


The Anglophone lips are of course practicing the notorious Spanish trill, spelled as “rr” in Spanish and transcribed as simply [r] (IPA) or sometimes [r̃] (r with tilde on top). If only he knew…there is no trill in tortilla. He could have used a much shorter “r” and been more accurate. ¡Qué tormento!

Spanish actually has two types of r’s. The trill [r] which is fairly long and complex and a simpler tap or “single r”; this is transcribed as [ɾ]. And Spanish speakers do distinguish both as in the famous minimal pair perro [per̃o] ‘dog’ vs. pero [peɾo] ‘but’.

Interestingly though, the trill can only appear in to phonetic environments. One is between vowels perro [per̃o] ‘dog’ as in and the other is at the beginning of words where ONLY the trill appears. In other words, if a Spanish word begins with r, it will be a trill as in ratón [r̃aton] ‘rat’.

When the /r/ is before a consonant as in tortilla, it is ALWAYS A TAP, so tortilla is not *[tor̃tija] torrtilla but [toɾtija] with “single r”. The DQ Lips is making a decent Spanish trill, but doing it at the wrong time…Ooops.

Poor English speakers though, we only have one /r/ (and it’s neither a trill or a flap but the approximant [ɹ]). If we hear every /r/ word beginning with a trill, we naturally assume EVERY /r/ is a trill, unless we are told otherwise in Spanish class.

The interesting question is … did the ad writer remember this factoid from Spanish class or not? What do you think?

Aug 13 2009 – Taco Grrande

Weird Al also over trills in the parody Taco Grande /tako gr̃ande/ sung to the tune of Rico Suave by one-hit wonder Gerardo. I get the feeling though that Weird Al is doing this deliberately and knows the actual Spanish pronunciation of “grande” with just the flap.

Why the /z/ in quesadilla?

Recently British food chef Nigella Lawson was demonstrating some easy-to-prepare Mexican (or TexMex) recipes including the quesadilla which in Spanish is [kesadija] with an /s/. Furthermore, quesadilla is also pronounced with an /s/ in every TacoBell and ChiChi’s restaurant I’ve ever been to.

American speakers rarely screw up Spanish “s” because “s” is actually [s]…so I was surprised and intrigued that Nigella said [kezadija] with a [z]. Where did that come from?

I decided that there were two factors here. One is that American speakers do get more “authentic” exposure to Spanish than in Britain both because of a relatively large group of Latin immigrants and because of our border with Mexico. Britain and Spain, on the other hand, have not had nearly the same amount of contact. Therefore, I think American speakers a little more familiar with Spanish phonology overall even if we do trip up now and again.

I think the second error was that Nigella is more familiar with Italian spelling than Spanish. Italian and Spanish are sister languages and many words look very similar…but there are some gotchas. One of them is that single “s” in Italian is usually /z/ as in Milanese [milaneze], but /s/ in Spanish. So if quesa- had been an Italian root, it really would have been [keza]. Interestingly, she did remember that “ll” is usually [j] (or “y”) and not double l as it would be in Italian.

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