American English has had an influx of foreign words as much as our nation has had immigrants. After years of common use, we can easily stop becoming aware of their origins. Words such as restaurant and entree (French), delicatessen [often shortened to “deli”] and kindergarten (German)1 , vodka (Russian), as well as fiasco and prima donna (Italian)2 fit into our daily conversations smoothly.
With the increase of those with Hispanic heritage, many Spanish words have become prevalent in our conversations. Sometimes the words are used even when an English equivalent exists. This brings us to “queso” or cheese. A recent fast food television commercial used the Spanish word throughout rather than its English equivalent.
Fine, many ads do that. But why is the word pronounced “KAY-so” instead of “KEH-so”? In the first place, the long “a” is practically unique to the English language. Secondly, the correct “eh” sound for the Spanish “e” is already familiar to us Americans. For example, we have “impressive (“im-PREHS-sihv”), beneficial (beh-neh-FISH-al), etc.
The closest to a long “a” sound in Spanish comes from words with the “ei” diphthong3 such as in “beisbol” (meaning baseball).
While we’re on the subject, the common unit of currency in several nations, the “peso,” is pronounced “PEH-so”, not “PAY-so.” Of course, Spanish words aren’t the only ones with foreign origins which are mispronounced when they are easily said correctly. Perhaps these will be addressed in a future article.
1 – “German loanwords in English,” http://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/words/loanwords.htm
3 – “A diphthong… also known as a gliding vowel, is a combination of two adjacent vowel soundswithin the same syllable,” from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diphthong