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.