Thursday, 22 October 2009

Che cosa? ¿Qué?

In the male-voice choir I belong to we warm up thoroughly at the start of every rehearsal. This involves body mobilization like the exercises that actors do, humming, and singing scales to syllables such as ba, mɛ.
After that we sing scales to words. One exercise we often do involves going up and down doh-mi-so-dohʹ…doh…, usually to the words I am a zebra (with /e/, of course, not /iː/, because we’re mostly British) or I am a walrus (where some sing /ɔː/ and some /ɒ/, as you might expect).
But there’s another set of words we sing to this that I don’t know how to spell. Phonetically they go ˈbe la se ˈnjɔ ra. Presumably they mean “beautiful lady”: but in what language? Probably most people in the choir think they’re Spanish, though the sprinkling of native speakers of Spanish that we have could quickly disabuse them: señora is fine, but not *bela. They’re not Italian, either: here bella is fine, but not *segniora.
No, this phrase is a hybrid. The first word is Italian (sort of), the second one Spanish (sort of — we can’t manage a proper ɲ, of course). I wonder where it came from.
And before you ask, it’s not Esperanto either.

20 comments:

  1. I thought it's Anglo-Romance - isn't it the usual thing for an Englishman to address an Italian woman as "signorita" or "señorina"?

    Concerning the zebra - that says British to you? I always somewhat felt it to be slightly wisecracking or hypercorrect, and meanwhile people grwo up with it, but never paid attention to the continents.

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  2. As Italian I agree with Lipman. It's not uncommon that foreigners not acquainted with the italian language mix it up with spanish. But where exactly it comes from, well I don't have idea

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  3. Portuguese? You mean Anglo-Romance Portuguese? Here's a lovely example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoA98baRxl0

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  4. Well, why not Portuguese? As far as I know, bela senhora is grammatical Portuguese, and would be pronounced [ˈbɛlɐ seˈɲɔɾɐ] (or [-ˈɲo-]?) in European Portuguese, which is certainly close enough to what John's choir (and mine too, incidentally) sings.

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  5. bella seniora is interlingua

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  6. But /'zi:br@/ is still the first pronunciation listed by OED?

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  7. /se'njOra/, if it existed, would be spelt "seniora" in Italian; "segniora" would be /seJ'Jjora/, /seJJi'ora/ or ditto with /O/ instead of /o/.

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  8. It could be Spanish, maybe somehow archaic, but "bella señora" is as correct as "señora bella". Nowadays "bello/a" is considered bookish, but one or two centuries ago it was common.
    The pronunciation of "ll" as /l/ instead of /L/ or /J/ could be just a confusion with Italian.

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  9. It's like "Que sera sera".

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  10. Except that "che/que sera sera" actually works in both languages (I think), whereas this example doesn't work in either. Given that singing is an Italian art more than a Spanish one, my guess is that the phrase began as "bella signora" and got corrupted.

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  11. Regarding the varying pronunciations of "walrus" within the choir, I was wondering how much regional variation is tolerated in British choirs? From what I remember of the choirs of my youth, everyone did their own thing, Scots would roll their r and men of Kent wouldn't, for example. Swedish choirs don't usually tolerate the uvular r of the southern provinces, even in the south. I recall a recording of Handel's Messiah by a Cornish choir obviously mostly composed of locals.

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  12. [ˈbe la se ˈnjɔ ra] seems to me to belong to the same language as "expresso" and "basso profundo": a word or phrase from Italian gets into circulation in English, but people mangle it into something that borrows from Spanish.

    (For anyone who doesn't know what is wrong with those two examples, the Italian terms are "espresso" and "basso profondo," the Spanish ones "expreso" and "bajo profundo.")

    To John Cowan: "Qué será, será" [ke se'ra se'ra] (or possibly [kɛ sɛ'ra sɛ'ra]?) is Spanish and "Che sarà, sarà" [ke sa'ra sa'ra] (or, to be properly Tuscan, [ke ssa'ra ssa'ra]); so not quite the same.

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  13. to Sidney Wood: I think it depends on the choirmaster. Ours makes us sing a short [æ] in Abba's Dancing Queen — but that's usual in pop music anyway. He also has taught us a palatal approximant for the Zulu uJehova (Jehovah) in Thula Sizwe, though I'm pretty sure it has [dʒ] in pukka Zulu. We have a sprinkling of rhotic speakers in the choir, but no one has ever mentioned anything about that. Our practice tapes include several (to me) very bnoticeable intrusive r's, which are clearly regarded as normal.

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  14. It sounds like Brazilin Portuguese. European Portuguese would sound like [ˈbɛlɐ ˈsɲoɾɐ]

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  15. David Marjanović24 October 2009 at 15:34

    [ke se'ra se'ra] (or possibly [kɛ sɛ'ra sɛ'ra]?)

    Depends on which kind of Spanish it is. In Colombia and parts of Mexico, I think, [e] and [o] are used, while an important part of a Spain-Spanish or Chilean accent in French is consistent and complete failure to get [e] right.

    (I still don't understand why the IPA symbols were chosen the way they were. At least in Europe, and probably the world over, [ɛ] and [ɔ] are much more common than [e] and [o].)

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  16. A song called "Bella señora" indeed exists in Spanish. Of course the "ll" is usually pronounced as an "y", as you discussed in another post, but perhaps someone thought that it was pronounced as a (double) "l", and hence the confusion. You can imagine how people in Spain pronounce the pop hits in English :-)

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  17. How about Catalan? That usually sounds like a compromise between Italian and Spanish (and of course historically is one of the chain of continuous dialects from North Spain to Venice.)

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  18. As a native speaker of Portuguese, I'd say it really sounds like my own language: "bela senhora" [ˈbɛlɐ seˈɲɔɾɐ]

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