The moment in the Leaders debate passed not unnoticed. Jeremy Corbyn referring to Jeffrey Epstein pronounced his name in the German fashion – ‘Ep-schtein’. Understandably, commentators were hanging on every word and syllable to find proof of Corbyn’s deep anti-Semitism, and here were syllables dripping with meaning – not ‘Epsteen’ as the man called himself, but ‘Ep-schtein’: make him sound German, very foreign, for the man was Jewish and in this way Corbyn could emphasise that and how set apart he was for that reason.
Actually though, I have to defend Jeremy Corbyn to a certain extent. I will not deny that he is an utter twerp unfit for public office, and agree that he has permitted a foul sewer of anti-Semitism to thrive and grow in the Labour Party, and his own remarks put him within that toxic culture so that he might be attracted to Jew-haters’ ideas, if he had an idea in his head. On this occasion though it was something else.
He was trying to be clever and correct. He saw a name, saw it looked German and so pronounced it as German. It is a habit of the Islington classes to try to show their universalism by pronouncing foreign names in the way the foreigners do, and even if they get it wrong, they have the kudos points.
I will admit it myself: I read and speak German frequently enough that I use German pronunciations without thinking even when the word has passed thoroughly into English. In IKEA, I have to check myself to stop using Swedish pronunciations for products (or in fact Swedish-as-mispronounced-by-a-Norwegian). French words that have been part of English for centuries still get a retro-pronunciation as French in some mouths, including some words that French borrowed from English in the first place.
It is not always a show-off (all right, often it is) and it may be a way to display having had an education, or to show ones own cosmopolitanism. Alternatively, and think this is the main reason, it may just be anxiety to get it right and not to mispronounce and be seen to be ignorant.
We get it wrong. How many of us, after all, speak all the languages that come across our plates from day to day? In most delicatessens the staff call a chorizo sausage a ‘choritso’, because they think it is the authentic Mediterranean pronunciation, which presupposes that the first half could be Spanish and the second half Italian. I do not expect them to speak either language, and I now grit my teeth rather than correct them all to the Spanish pronunciation (‘choreetho’). That is one Corbyn would not get wrong – he speaks Spanish very well as most of his wives so far have been Spanish.
Trying to get foreign names right is the best way to get them wrong. Use “Peking” in a newsroom and you could be facing a half-hour dressing-down and insistence that the old name is insulting to the Chinese and it has to be pronounced the Chinese way as “Bay-jing” – if only they knew that names written in Pinyin are not pronounced as if they were English, and the name is actually pronounced closer to ‘Pey-ching’; so ‘Bay-jing’ is surely just as insulting? I cannot think that ordinary Chinese folk care. In any case, a name can be different in different languages – no one bats an eyelid at our capital city’s being called ‘Londres’ in French or ‘Llundain’ in Welsh, and to be fair, the Welsh name is older than the English name. Names have become part of English been transformed to be spoken in English. However the worry about being incorrect or (most horrifying) sounding uneducated, weighs heavily on some, and they keep getting it wrong, and thus proving the limit if their education.
This over-correction is nothing new. Throughout the 1980s the BBC insisted that the White South African government operated a policy pronounced ‘apart-height’: that would be correct if it were German, but it was an Afrikaans word and is ‘apart-hate’ (somehow more appropriate).
It is in this context that Jeremy Corbyn mispronounced the name of the late Jeffrey Epstein: not out of malice to expel his race from society, but out of an ill-conceived attempt to be right. As with most of his ideas, his concern to be right has been exactly the opposite in result.
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