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How should we pronounce Trindade?

In the 2015 version of the annual Check-list Redux article in Birder’s Guide to Listing and Taxonomy, one of the changes I listed was a split of Herald Petrel. The species found in the northern Atlantic Ocean (and, thus, in the Gulf Stream) is now called Trindade Petrel. Trindade isn’t a word most of us come across every day.

So how should Trindade be pronounced? (I know that some of you are thinking, “Who cares?” That’s fine, and I recommend clicking on to find a more interesting blog post. But to the rest of you, please read on.)


Trindade, which means “trinity” in Portuguese, is the name of a Brazilian island in the southern Atlantic Ocean. It is from this island, on which the petrel breeds, that the species gets it name. Within my article, I suggested a pronunciation for Trindade that is based on an easily-executed approximation of what Brazilians call the island. Should it not be as easy as asking what the people who live there call it, and then trying our best, within reason and within the constraints of English phonology, to match what they say? That’s my simple belief.

But Harry LeGrand disagrees. After reading my suggestion (magnified in the graphic above), he wrote me with the following:

[Y]ou have written that “‘Trindade’ is pronounced ‘treeng-DAH-jee‘.” This is certainly the correct Portuguese pronunciation, as Trindade Island is part of Brazil, which speaks Portuguese. However, we readers in the United States, Canada, etc., want and need to know the English pronunciation.

Here is what I found online, from Bob Flood, a noted pelagic birder and author:

“There is some debate concerning the most suitable vernacular name for Pterodroma arminjoniana, and the pronunciation of the vernacular name. Here is my take.

I use the name Trindade Petrel following Leandro Bugoni, a Brazilian ornithologist who has undertaken extensive research on the petrel on Trindade Island, the only known breeding location in the Atlantic. Other names used include Herald Petrel, South Trinidad Petrel, and Trinidade Petrel.
The Portuguese named the island Trindade, which is Portuguese for Trinity. In English, then, it is Trinity Island, but the name Trinity Petrel has never been used. Trinidad is sometimes used in Spanish, being the Spanish word for Trindade or Trinity, but this name would cause confusion with Trinidad and Tobago (in the Caribbean). Trinidade is a word that does not exist. It is a mix of Portuguese and Spanish and so is an invented or misspelled word.
So, how should we pronounce ‘Trindade’? I went back to Leandro, a native Portuguese speaker, and posed this question. He said transcribing it phonetically in English is hard, but would be something like ‘Treendádee’ . So there you go.

I [LeGrand] agree with Leandro [Bugoni], and support Bob [Flood]. The English pronunciation should be treen-DAH-dee or the very similar trin-DAH-dee…

Note that, in a similar vein [Mexico] is pronounced “MEH-hee-co” by the Spanish speaking people there, but here in the U.S. and Canada, we use the English pronunciation of “MECKS-i-co”.

The quote LeGrand lists above by Bob Flood is from a listserv discussion. In response to Flood, Stan Walens said, “Several years ago, I was at an anthropology conference with several Portuguese speakers, two from Brazil and one from Portugal, and we discussed the pronunciation for this species’s vernacular name. Their conclusion was that it should be trin-da-dzeh, as the final written ‘d’ is a soft ‘j’ sound, sometimes written in English as ‘dz’, softer than the ‘j’ in French je.” It’s worth noting here that the English sound “j” is actually a combination of two sounds: “d” and “ezh” (ʒ), the latter often transcribed as “zh” and sometimes referred to as “the French J”. So in English, “j” essentially represents the same sound as “dzh”.

Flood replied to Walens by saying, “Indeed, and Leandro [Bugoni] pointed me to this link where the guy pronounces [“Trindade” with a final -jee] twice in the first four seconds. My gringo pronunciation is more like Trin dah dee.”

In effect, Flood stated in his last sentence that he is mispronouncing the word. Change the last syllable from “dee” to “dzeh”, as Walens’s Portuguese-speaking colleagues suggest, and you have something very similar to what is heard in the video linked to above and to what I initially suggested.

I have great respect for Flood and the work he’s done with tubenoses in the Atlantic. But when creating a North American English transcription of a Brazilian Portuguese word, why we should take as gospel advice from an Englishman with a self-described “gringo pronunciation” who is a native speaker of neither North American English nor Brazilian Portuguese? At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, we might all be walking around asking for more jall-uh-PEE-nohs on our tor-TILL-uh chips if we followed that model. You may laugh, but I have heard those pronunciations used sincerely by speakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Most native English speakers in the ABA Area don’t pronounce jalapeño and tortilla as a fluent Spanish-speaker would, but we get it pretty close without it managing to sound affected. And neither do we sound like this or this. We approximate the Spanish sounds as best we can with sounds that already exist in North American English. It’s possible–and easy to do–with Trindade, as well.

This might be a good time to point out that most forms of British English pronounce quite differently many words recently derived from Spanish and Italian than do most forms of North American English. Pasta, taco, junta, Rioja, risotto, mafia, and paella all come to mind. In these examples, the standard American English pronunciation is much closer to that of the language of origin. Indeed, as one British author states, “Most of us [Britons] are particularly rubbish at Spanish pronunciations”. It would stand to reason that this phenomenon extends to the closely-related Portuguese.

I asked Rich Hoyer, a birder who is a native speaker of North American English and a fluent speaker of Brazilian Portuguese, for his take on the pronunciation of Trindade. He offered up “trin-DAH-dgee, with a soft dg” as an English approximation. As you can see, there is a “zh” or “g/j” sound in the final syllable–not a lone D, as LeGrand and Flood advocate.

Besides LeGrand and I simply disagreeing on the larger issue, I do not believe that Mexico is a good analogy for this situation. Mexico is a word that almost every single native English-speaking adult knows how to say. Millions upon millions of us say “MEHKS-ih-ko” every day. It’s an established English pronunciation, far from controversial, and there is no alternate English word for it. At least, not since New Spain disappeared from the map in 1821.

Which brings us the the other reason it’s not a good analogy: We have a perfectly good English-language alternative for Trindade. When the British administered the island toward the end of the 19th century, they called it South Trinidad (to avoid confusion with Caribbean Trinidad). Before British administration, the island was the self-declared Principality of Trinidad. (Click the link for some trivial, if comical, history.) In any case, it’s pretty clear to me that South Trinidad is the English-language name for the island of Trindade. The AOU could have used an English-language term and called the bird South Trinidad Petrel (or, opting for a direct translation, Trinity Petrel). And perhaps that would have been a good idea, but it’s not what happened. We are left with a bird whose “first name” is in Brazilian Portuguese.

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 10.21.11 PM

Trindade Petrel. Photo © Michael Sammer

Rather than Mexico, I think a much better analogy would be to compare Trindade with Côte d’Ivoire. That country also has a perfectly good, easily pronounced and understood English name: Ivory Coast. Do you know how to pronounce Côte d’Ivoire? If you don’t speak French, I’m going to guess probably not instinctively. There is, however, a handy English-language approximation that tries to mimic the French pronunciation (KOHT dee-VWAHR). I would argue that this is how we should try to pronounce the name of the country, and, indeed, this is how Ivorians ask that we do so. But if in doubt, why not just call it Ivory Coast? It is, after all, the (unofficial) English name for the country, and people will definitely know what you mean. What good comes of manufacturing a hybrid pronunciation? KOHT DIE-vree? KOHT-ee dee VOY-ree? Let’s not make this more complicated than it needs to be. The Ivorians won’t understand you, and probably fewer English-speakers will understand you than would have if you’d used either the French-to-English transcription or the English translation. The whole point of language is to be understood, right? If that’s your goal, I content that you should either try to pronounce Côte d’Ivoire as closely as you can to the original French, or you should use the English name.

I’ll close with my belief that, just like “proper” grammar and syntax, “correct” pronunciation changes over time. While there may be a preferred or even nearly universally accepted English-language pronunciation for some words (e.g., swift, goose, Canada), there is anything but that for others (e.g., pileated, plover, skua, parula…even wren, flicker, and scarlet). I would argue that the only words with an absolutely proper pronunciation are names. We can ask a person how ze wants zir name to be pronounced. In most cases where that’s not possible, we can look into the literature or ask a family member to see if there is any record of that pronunciation, as is the case with Bachman’s (BACK-muhnz) Sparrow and Vaux’s (VOKS-uhz) Swift.

Anyway, my point is that–as with scientific names–there really is no correct or incorrect way to pronounce most English-language bird names, and Trindade Petrel is no exception. That won’t stop people from trying to establish one, though, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Communication is what it’s all about. When the shout goes up that the bird is below the horizon and crossing the bow to port, we all want to understand and to be understood. With that in mind, maybe a change to “South Trinidad Petrel” is in order. I could get behind that.

What’s your take?

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Michael Retter
Michael L. P. Retter is the editor of the ABA's newest magazine, Birder's Guide. He also wears his ABA cap while working as a Technical Reviewer for Birding magazine. When not at home, Michael is often leading tours in Middle America (Mexico through Panama). He currently lives with his fiancé, Matt, in Fort Worth, Texas. In his fleeting free time there, he pursues interests in horticulture (especially orchids), music, cooking, and numismatics. Michael also runs GBNA, the continent's informal club and email list for LGBT birders.
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