What is the deal with accents? Some news organizations and networks noticeably have begun to accent the names of individuals, places and things that carry a Spanish spelling. Some don’t. ESPN is almost meticulous about it. PBS not so much. The New York Times does it; other newspapers – of all news organizations that should – do not. How Spanish names and words began to lose their accents has itself been lost in time. Most of the loss, of course, has to do with the disrespect for the language fueled by anti-Spanish sentiment leading up to and after the U.S.-Mexican and U.S.-Spanish wars. As important was the market of the time.
Now, amid the new demography of the country, seeing a Spanish name in print or on a television screen with an accent stands out as much as seeing the same name the very next day without one.
How things are changing. Most printing presses as they came to be in the United States were not developed with handy Spanish accenting hardware. And there were not many Spanish speakers hanging around Faneuil Hall in Boston or the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. No market, no Spanish. Even if the hardware had been available, the composers using the presses probably would not have been aware of Spanish word structure. At one point, many of the newspapers in the United States were printed not in English but in German, which features many accents but, again, German is not Spanish. The precedent was set, so that by the time television came upon the scene and evolved, not accenting Spanish names and words became normal. And, of course, years later some computers these days gag when they run into an accent of any kind.
Many HispanicLatinos in this country always have accented their names properly; others did not. As they became a vulnerable minority population, many did not want to call attention to themselves. Others, still, were prohibited from speaking Spanish in school. Today, more people feel comfortable accenting their names. Many are reacting to the unyielding anti-immigrant rhetoric that many HispanicLatinos take as anti-HispanicLatino. And more people are pronouncing their names properly and naturally so that Treviño is not tre-veno or tree-veeno but treh-veen-nyo.
Years ago, in a skit on Saturday Night Live, Jimmy Smits, if memory serves, and a fellow comedian exaggerated the pronunciation of words in Spanish. Thus enchilada lost its quick, breezy English adaptation and became eeeen—chi—–laaa—-dah. It was a funny way to poke fun at individuals going out of their way to be politically correct and to signify sympathy with popular uprisings in Central America. The Sandinistas were very much in vogue.
Today, the market – not political correctness – is driving the change. The power of demography is making the minority a majority in many places and the near-majority in others and their combined impact on the national market is unavoidable. So HispanicLatinos now have the individual option to decide if they personally want to accent their names and to pronounce Spanish words correctly. Networks like ESPN that were the first to develop all-Spanish programming (aside from Univisión and Telemundo) probably responded to the massive influx of Spanish-speaking baseball ballplayers from the islands and Central and South America who when asked how to spell their names wrote down their names properly accented. Professional Spanish editors in the newsrooms also made their own editorial decisions to be correct journalistically.
More students – HispanicLatino or otherwise – taking Spanish in college to become better-equipped to handle a changing market increasingly will transfer their knowledge of Spanish and its accenting rules professionally into their work. Lo, those who don’t.
Some of the news organizations currently behind the times will catch up soon. Most will do so out of professional, journalistic responsibility.
More will do so to respect the demands of the new market around them.
Jesse Treviño is formerly editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.