Pronouncing Pinochet

Former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte died this past Sunday, 10 December. Once again in the news, the issue of how to pronounce his name is again current. You hear three distinct pronunciations on American news, /pee-no-SHAY/, pee-no-CHAY/, and /pee-no-CHET/. Which is correct?

The answer is that all three are acceptable.

Generally in Spanish, the “ch” spelling is pronounced as it is in English, a voiceless post-alveolar affricate, which would seem to leave out the /pee-no-SHAY/ pronunciation. But in parts of Andalusia, in the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, in Panama, and in parts of Chile the “ch” spelling can take a softer /sh/ pronunciation, a voiceless post-alveolar fricative for those who want the technical term. There also seems to be some class distinction in the Chilean choice of pronunciation, with working classes preferring the /sh/ phoneme and upper classes the /ch/. It also helps that Pinochet is a French name and in French the “ch” would take the /sh/ sound.

Now we come to the pronunciation of the final “t.” We’ve got two conflicting tendencies in Spanish. First, there are very few Spanish words that end in a pronounced “t.” On the other hand, the last syllable in the name is stressed and there are very few Spanish words, especially words with more than two syllables, that end in a stressed vowel. So it can go either way. In practice, Chileans tend to drop the final /t/, except when speaking very deliberately.

But how did the dictator himself pronounce it? It seems that he said /pee-no-CHAY/.

And if his name is Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, why is he called Pinochet instead of Ugarte? It’s not because the general didn’t want to go by the name of Peter Lorre’s character in Casablanca. Rather, it has to do with the fact that Spanish surnames are awarded differently than in English.

In English, traditionally a person has a single surname, that of his or her father. But in Spanish a person is traditionally given two surnames. The first is the surname inherited from the paternal grandfather and the second from the maternal grandfather. So the general’s father was a Pinochet and his mother was an Ugarte. If I were named in the Spanish fashion, I would be David Wilton MacKenzie. It is the first, or father’s, surname that takes precedence; hence we know the dictator as Pinochet.

(Sources: ”Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” by Eric Bakovic, Language Log, 12 December 2006, ; and ”How Do You Pronounce Pinochet,” by Daniel Engber, Slate, 12 December 2006)

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