A viral video making the rounds in December bore the very descriptive title “Ten Germans Try to Say the Word ‘Squirrel’” — and nobody seemed to think that it was racist or xenophobic, even though our Teutonic friends were being held up as figures of fun for something that is deeply embedded in their culture. Indeed, the Germans seemed to be as much amused as anybody else. The phenomenon is nothing new to students of linguistics: Not every phoneme exists in every language, and it is extraordinarily difficult for adults to process phonemes that are not part of their linguistic patrimony. Anglophone adults learning Sanskrit have a desperately hard time with the difference between aspirated and non-aspirated “d” sounds, just as somebody who had been raised hearing nothing but Japanese would find it difficult or impossible to distinguish between “r” and “l” sounds in English. Native speakers of non-tonal languages have a rough time with Chinese. Welsh, Romanian, and Dutch all contain sounds that are famous for being unpronounceable by the Anglophone. A “burro” is an ass, and a “burrow” is a hole in the ground, but your typical English-speaking person can’t tell one from the other.
This sort of thing is terribly distressing to Matthew Salesses, fiction editor at The Good Men Project, an online magazine, who published a hilariously self-parodic essay titled “Racism in the Classroom: When Even Our Names Are Not Our Own.” He began with this tale of pearl-clutching terror, his soul pierced by the unsettling childhood recollections of a classmate:
He described how, when he was a boy, he couldn’t figure out what a certain newscaster’s name was. The student complained that because the newscaster pronounced his name with a “Mexican” accent, he couldn’t understand it.
There are many possible explanations for this episode. But, racism?