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The internet seems to be full of disagreement about how to pronounce El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. Here is a small sampling:

  • The US Forest Service website claims it's el-ZHUN-kay (although as a word is Spanish, I don't think that really makes sense; that said it may or may not be Taíno in origin)
  • Mario Gonzalez, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company pronounces it "YOON-kay"
  • Respondents to this thread use both "Yun-K" and "June-Kay"
  • However, a Reddit user who claims to have lived in Puerto Rico all his life says that "You can't pronounce the word Yunque with a J"
  • But the Colorado school of Mines library actually spells it El Junque.

How do I know which one is right so that I don't mess it up, and why is this so confusing? (For example, if "YOON-kay" is right, why are so many people saying "JOON-kay" -- that's not an obvious mistake an english speaker would make!)

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    If people who are local and engaged in PR forest management and tourism use multiple pronunciations, then multiple pronunciations will be commonly accepted. From an academic POV, there may be an answer to your question. From a practical POV, the answer doesn't matter. Commented May 11, 2020 at 15:36
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    I realize this may not be relevant to Puerto Rico, but I once met someone from Spain who pronounced the ll in his name (Guille, short for Guillermo) more or less with the zh sound of English pleasure. This is clearly not the standard Spanish pronunciation; the usual English approximation of this phoneme is the y sound of yes. It does however serve to indicate that different dialects have different degrees of palatalization. As to the spelling, 100 or more years ago it was common to spell names differently ("Porto Rico" is an example).
    – phoog
    Commented May 11, 2020 at 17:42
  • For what it's worth, the CSM library only calls it "El Junque" because the engineer who took the photo you've linked to titled it that. Commented May 12, 2020 at 6:22
  • Curiously enough, there is an equally named mountain in Cuba. Everybody I heard talking about that one pronounced it like a spanish word, i.e. as explained in phoog's answer. From the alternatives you give, I'd say Yun-K fits that best. However, people in Puerto Rico might be more open to an more english pronounciation than in Cuba. Commented May 12, 2020 at 8:33
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    I don't know what any of your phonetic descriptions sound like. What sounds do the notations Zhoon, Yoon, Yun, June, or Joon correspond to? People pronounce a z in El Yunque?
    – gerrit
    Commented May 12, 2020 at 12:00

1 Answer 1

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English Wiktionary and Spanish Wiktionary disagree on the pronunciation of the word, but they both could be reasonably approximated by the English J sound. English Wiktionary:

/ˈɟ͡ʝunke/, [ˈɟ͡ʝũŋke]

Spanish Wiktionary:

ʝuŋ.ke

The difference between the two is that the first is an affricate, while the second is a fricative. This is analogous to the difference between English ledger and leisure. (English doesn't have the corresponding sound at the beginnings of words, or at least not as far as I can think of, but if you know French pronunciation, you will recognize the difference as that between English j of jam and French j of jambon.)

In this case, however, the affricate is palatal, whereas the sound in English is palato-alveolar or post-alveolar; in other words, the English sound made farther forward on the roof of the mouth, the Spanish sound farther back.

The Spanish sound is made on the palate, like the ch in German ich, but unlike that sound, it is voiced. This difference is analogous to the difference between ch in chunk and j in junk.

The article on Caribbean Spanish in (English) Wikipedia notes that one feature is

Yeismo, where /ʎ/ and /ʝ/ merge to /ʝ/, as in many other Spanish dialects.

(The first sign represents the sound that is normally spelled ll in Spanish; this sound is commonly rendered with the English y sound, as in La Jolla, California, the spelling of which I did not connect for many years to the name that I had been hearing as "La Hoya.")

To an English speaker's ear, both of these will sound more or less like the sound of y in yes, because the sounds represented by Spanish ll and y don't exist in English. The English sound is a palatal approximant, which means that the tongue approaches the palate less closely so there is no audible hissing. If you say yes and stress the y by bringing your tongue very close to your palate, you will actually produce the Spanish sound.

So the answer is that the standard Spanish pronunciation shares some features with both English y and English j. It is articulated in the same place as y and it is either a fricative like g in mirage or an affricate like j in junk, and it is articulated in almost the same place. Taking these similarities into account, it is no longer surprising that English speakers sometimes adapt the pronunciation using one English sound and sometimes using the other.

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  • You forgot that in Latin America indigenous culture and population is very important, and many words are mingled with spanish/or other vocabulary sounds. Even from region to region in a same country, sounds of single letters are different. For example, the x in nahuatl was transalted to spanish as in saxo, but in mayan people who speak spanish, the x is pronounced as sh, as in shallow. Commented May 12, 2020 at 18:43
  • @user2820579 I didn't so much forget it as decide not to get into it. From what I can tell, the possible link between El Yunque and the Taíno language is uncertain, and even if there is a real link, the word is also a regular Spanish word, so it would presumably be pronounced the same as it is in regular Spanish. If you have some information about the pronunciation of El Yunque being different from standard Spanish because of its Taíno heritage (whether real or perceived), please post an answer and I will upvote it.
    – phoog
    Commented May 16, 2020 at 3:38

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