Stephen Colbert is not some sort of pronunciation savant

About a year ago, back before even one episode of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert ever aired on CBS, the network wanted to introduce its shiny new host to a broader audience. And so journalists like Dave Itzkoff found themselves with behind-the-scenes access as Colbert & friends frantically readied for their big launch. What they produced, generally speaking, was not journalism. Here’s a sample I found particularly objectionable:

Even with no cameras to play to, Mr. Colbert is quick-witted, acerbic and loquacious. He uses words like “catharsis” in casual conversation and can flawlessly pronounce the name of the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl.

I’m not going to dispute that Colbert is quick-witted, acerbic, or loquacious. And I’ll accept his use of “catharsis” as anecdotal evidence that Colbert, like Donald Trump, knows all the best words. However, I’m not sure what readers are meant to take away from the final fact related in this paragraph. We already know from his own name that Colbert takes an idiosyncratic approach to pronunciation. But the clear implication Itzkoff wants his readers to draw is that Colbert is some kind of pronunciation savant. If he can say “Quetzalcoatl”, what can’t the man pronounce??

But here’s the thing about pronunciation: it doesn’t lend itself well to argumentum a fortiori. Sure, “Quetzalcoatl” sounds impressive, but every language (or at least language family) — and the idiosyncratic practices that govern its transliteration into English — is typically sui generis. And Itzkoff gives little reason to believe Colbert has mastered the nuances of vocalizing ancient Aztec. Indeed, cursory investigation reveals the likely reason Colbert was able to drop Quetzalcoatl at the drop of a hat: this is one Werd of this language we already know he knows how to say.

Itzkoff almost certainly included the example because he witnessed the creation and/or planning of this pre-taped segment (the deity makes his appearance around the 3:20 mark):

Or maybe Itzkoff chose the word at random on the strength of the (at least) two times Colbert rattled it(zk)off on Comedy Central: once each for The Colbert Report and The Daily Show (a clip in which Stephen wishes his Jewish viewers a very happy Tisha B’av!).

Either way, the example implies very little about Colbert’s general ability to elocute tricky words. Don’t believe me?  Check out what happens when Colbert ventures into unfamiliar linguitory (in this case, “Enceladus”, around the 2:45 mark):

Just a helpful reminder to stick with what you know. If you’re COLBERT, stick to low Earth orbit. And if you’re ostensibly a journalist, maybe better to report the facts and not, say, provide CBS with free PR.


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