I just finished Luis Alberto Urrea’s magnificent novel, The House of Broken Angels. The book is beautifully read on Audible by the author. It touches mi alma y mi corazón to hear the characters' names and many other Spanish words said in ways that are familiar. Listening to Urrea’s pronunciation of his own name reminded of how often the common and beautiful Spanish first name, Luis, is mispronounced. Many folks say it as two syllables, Lou-ease.
My family says I have thousands of pet peeves, and this is one of them. It’s quite possible that folks who say the name are not aware they are mispronouncing it. Here’s how to test yourself: say Luis, out loud. If it sounds like the woman’s name Louise, then you could use a wee bit of coaching, which I happily offer free of charge.
Think of me as your personal Name Whisperer.
NERD ALERT: first, some background about sounds. Beyond having an absolute love of language and its many quirks, I was a teaching assistant at University of Notre Dame, Department of Modern Languages, that’s how I how I put myself through law school. In that capacity I had to learn a little bit about phonetics along with various tips for helping people learn to say Spanish words.
Luis is pronounced as one syllable, because the “ui” is a diphthong. That’s just a fancy word to describe a combination of vowels that blend together and make one sound. A couple of examples of diphthongs in English words: “oi” in the word toilet, pronounced as one sound “oy.” We don’t say to-i-let. Then there’s book, the “oo” has a long single u sound, it is not boo-ook. You can learn more about diphthongs here: https://www.ebcteflcourse.com/english-diphthongs/
One last tip to help with the pronunciation of Luis. Think of the word oui, yes, the French word for yes. Even if we’ve never studied French, somehow all of us know that oui is one sound: we. We don’t say ou-we. That combination of vowels blend together to make one sound, just like the ui in Luis. So put an "L" before saying the French “oui” and add an "s". Voilá that will give you the proper pronunciation of Luis. Surprise your friend Luis next time you see him by saying his name correctly.
Now back to The House of Broken Angels. In an article that appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Urrea was called "the literary conscience of the border.” The book is rich with history and captures so accurately the experience of being treated as outsiders regardless of the fact that as mestizos, (descendants of the mixing of Indigenous and Spanish peoples) our ties to America, los Estados Unidos, is centuries old. Check out this story and the video where you can hear Luis Urrea’s great storyteller’s voice, http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-ent-luis-urrea-0311-story.html.
It pleases me to no end to see our stories on the page and on the stage depicting us not as stereotypes, but as real life human beings with all the complexities and contradictions that live within all of us. Many of us grew up reading books devoid of characters who bore any resemblance to us. Slowly but surely the landscape of American literature is growing more inclusive, not just of Latinxs, it also reflects the racial and ethnic diversity that is America.
Do you have a mispronunciation pet peeve related to a person’s name? Please send it along.