Steller: A singular debate pits 'tamal' vs. 'tamale'

2013-12-13T00:00:00Z 2014-02-03T10:53:30Z Steller: A singular debate pits 'tamal' vs. 'tamale'Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

When Carmen Prezelski hears the offending word, she doesn’t speak up.

She just quietly, in her own mind, corrects the speaker.

“It’s ‘tamal,’ ” she says to herself, “not ‘tamale.’ ”

’Tis the season, it seems, for tamal purists to suffer. All over Southern Arizona, people such as Prezelski are getting ready to make tamales for the annual Christmas feast. And many more who don’t make them will buy them.

The plural form of the word is not controversial — in Spanish and English it is “tamales.”

But what do you call just one of these husk-wrapped, masa-stuffed delicacies? To an extent it’s a hypothetical question, because who eats just one? Still, there is an answer, purists insist. And that answer is tamal.

“It’s one of my little bugaboos,” Prezelski, a local political player and Spanish stickler, told me.

But it turns out she’s not the only one. It seems that many people raised speaking Spanish have trouble, when they’re speaking English, accepting that the singular of “tamales” is “tamale.”

Tamal, Ruben Sahagun Jr. told me in Spanish, “is how it should be.”

Sahagun is a native of Guadalajara who recently opened La Hacienda restaurant at East Camp Lowell Drive and North Swan Road. His multipage menu includes lunch specials such as No. 1, “Enchilada, tamal.”

The word “tamale,” Sahagun said, “doesn’t bother me, but it doesn’t sound right. It sounds wrong.”

In 2004, when the members of the staff of La Estrella de Tucson, the Star’s Spanish version, helped found a festival dedicated to this food at the Casino del Sol, they chose to use “tamal.” Jose Merino, who edited La Estrella at the time, told me most of the organizers of the event supported the word “tamal” and had to convince only a few “tamale lovers” that the word should be spelled without an e at the end.

Through this year, the event is still called the Tamal Festival.

To most English speakers, especially those who don’t know Spanish, “tamale” sounds perfectly OK. In fact, it is even in my Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “A native Mexican food of minced meat, tomato sauce and red peppers rolled in cornmeal, wrapped in corn husks or plantain leaves, and cooked by baking, steaming, etc.”

This recipe doesn’t sound quite right to me, but the word’s presence in the English dictionary helps bolster Todd Martin’s case for his business’s name.

Five years ago, Martin and his wife, Sheri, founded the Tucson Tamale Co., 2545 E. Broadway. They make gourmet tamales, including many nontraditional types, such as the yellow-curry-flavored New Delhi tamale.

“From a language perspective, Tucson Tamale sounded better than Tucson Tamal,” Martin said. “We certainly didn’t want it to be a controversy.”

In fact, tamales are one of the world’s ancient foods, thousands of years old. The name comes from the indigenous Nahuatl language of central Mexico, so it was adapted into Spanish before then becoming part of English.

There are no strict rules for how a foreign word should become part of a new language, Sonia Colina, a University of Arizona professor of Spanish, told me by email.

“Borrowed words can be more or less adapted to the language that they are borrowed into, to adjust to the rules and norms of that language,” she said. “The singular in Spanish is ‘tamal’, pl. tamales, but linguistically it could have also been ‘tamale’ sg., (as in ‘mole, moles’) because Spanish has singulars ending both in ‘l’ and in ‘le.’ ”

So, to English speakers “tamale” sounds right.

My advice, though, is to avoid the whole problem by getting a whole plate of tamales.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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