Stressing Pelé

Since the Brazilian footballer Pelé died last month, we have been treated to many TV clips of this uniquely brilliant player. One thing that struck me is how British football commentators have changed the way they pronounce his name over the last 60 years.

Change in stress pattern

In commentary from the 1958, 1962 or 1966 World Cups, British commentators placed a strong stress on the second syllable, and little or no stress on the first syllable. That is consistent with the Brazilian Portuguese pronunciation.

By the 1970 World Cup, British commentators seemed to place the heaviest stress on the 1st syllable, though there was still a reasonably strong secondary stress on the second syllable.

Since 1970, things have changed even further in that direction. Now, the normal British pronunciation seems to be with a strong stress on the 1st syllable and little or no stress on the second syllable.

To my ear, stressing the 1st syllable of this name makes it sound more like a native English word, but stressing the 2nd syllable makes it seem more like an exotic import from another language. If other speakers of British English share this perception, that may be what has driven the change since the early 1960s.

Why did people switch to a more ‘English’ stress pattern?

Perhaps early commentators preferred to adopt a more ‘exotic’ pronunciation when the teenaged Pelé suddenly emerged as a global superstar in 1958. But as he—and his name—became more familiar to the general public, maybe subconscious pressures grew to switch to a pronunciation pattern that fits better with how native English words are pronounced.  

Why does one pattern sound exotic?

Finally, I haven’t yet worked out what makes the pronunciation with stress on the 2nd syllable sound so exotic to me. It can’t just be the 2nd syllable itself. A common English word with that vowel stressed in the 2nd syllable is away. And another (though much less common English) word rhymes more fully with the Brazilian pronunciation: belay.  So, I’m still looking for an answer.  

4 comments

  1. When I lived in Montreal, a Puerto Rican baseball player called Tony Pérez came to play for the Montreal Expos. Whenever he was interviewed on TV, he would include a plea to everyone to stress his name on the first syllable instead of the second.
    As a former resident of Newfoundland, I’ve spent 50 years trying to teach people to pronounce its name properly: it should be stressed on the final syllable, as in “understand”, with the middle syllable reduced to a schwa: so, Newf’ndLAND.

    1. Interesting. I’ve always thought the way to pronounce it was with the middle syllable reduced to a schwa, but with stress on the first syllable: so, NEWf’ndland. We happened to spend some time with two people from Newfoundland last year. They don’t pull me up on my pronunciation, but I expect they were being polite.
      I’ve only been to Newfoundland once. When I was 9, our family holiday took us to New York: a 13-hour flight on a turboprop, all in rear-facing seats, and with a refuelling stop in Gander. We went again the next year, but luckily we’d moved up to a jet (707), so the flight was non-stop and only 6 or 7 hours.
      By the way, I mentioned a book that discusses Newfoundland English (among other ‘lesser-known varieties’) at https://languagemiscellany.com/2021/07/want-a-tongs-for-eat-it/

  2. Hi Pete, I’m Juan Fº. This variation in accent also occurs, among English-speaking people, with the last name Dalí. Normally they change the strength of the final syllable and place it on the first. The surname Dalí, in this way, sounds Daaaah-li, instead of Dal(Í), with the force in the final syllable. In English, ‘to me’ would rhyme with Dalí. I have also noticed something curious with the Italian surname Capone. Many English speakers pronounce Al Capon, dropping the final e. Capone should rhyme with the word ‘mascarpone’. All the best.

    1. Hi Juan Fº. I agree that most English people nearly always stress Dalí strongly on the first syllable. I too generally use that pronunciation talking to English people, though I try to use the Spanish stress pattern with Spanish speakers.
      I don’t know how Capone pronounced his name himself, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the Italian pronunciation in English. Maybe the family had already anglicised the pronunciation to drop the final vowel. I see that’s the only pronunciation given in the Wikipedia article on him.

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