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Don Quixote and Mexico

Why do we write Don Quixote with an x when in Spanish it’s written “don Quijote”? And why is it “Don Quichotte” in France and “Don Chisciotte” in Italy?

When Cervantes wrote the novel in the early 17th century, he wrote “Don Quixote de la Mancha”, pronounced kish’ote where the -x- was like the first phoneme in the English words sheet and shame (and sure and sugar).

The first English translations took the Spanish spelling and prounounced it the English way, Don kwiks@t (the @ represents the neutral English vowel which replaces just about any vowel in unstressed position), and have done so ever since. We still have the adjective “quixotic” (kwiksotik).

The Italians took the Spanish pronunciation and rewrote the name so that it sounded right in their own language – Don Chisciotte, doubling the t. The French did the same with Quichotte, except that the final -e is mute. Portuguese has “Dom Quixote” with the -x- still pronounced -sh-.

Meanwhile, Spanish pronunciation was changing and the old -sh- sound shifted backwards to become a velar fricative, rather like the German and Scottish final -ch (Bach, loch) and the Russian x (usually transliterated as -kh, as in Khrushchev). To distinguish this new sound from other pronunciations of x – it’s pronounced -ks- in words like “exacto” but like -kh- in “ejemplo” (example), the spelling was changed to j in all cases where x had been used before (with one exception – see below).

So, while Spain change both the pronunciation and the spelling of Cervantes’s hero into Quijote, everybody else continued to use the original. One of the problems with spelling reforms is that old books get reprinted with new spelling – which the author would not have recognised – and give new generations a wrong idea of the original. Why can’t they just leave them alone?

Now for the exception.

When the Spanish arrived in the Aztec capital 1519 they wrote the name of the city as “México” (the accent indicates the tonic stress), using the -sh- sound they heard the locals say. The original meaning is believed to be “in the navel of the Moon”. When the Spanish sound and spelling changed, it became Méjico, pronounced -kh-. That’s the way it’s still pronounded today (except that the Mexian pronunciation of -j- is less fricative, somewhat closer to a aspriated English aitch (h)). For a long time the Mexicans continued to write México while Spain wrote Méjico. Eventually, in the late 20th century, Spain gave in and now everyone writes México. Hence the single exception to the spelling rule.

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