It’s a fact of life, of linguistic life, that people often mangle words borrowed from a foreign language into their own. One such word that I’ve seen deformed in written English is voilà, taken from French, and used as an interjection that we might translate as ‘and there you have it, lo and behold.’ The French pronunciation, and the normal English one, is /vwalá/, but the increasingly frequent English misspelling viola makes me wonder how people who write the word that way say it to themselves: do they hear /vwalá/ but merely dyslexify the spelling, or do they hear the viola that’s the name of a flower and a stringed instrument?

Whatever the (mis)spelling and possible (mis)pronunciation of voilà, let’s make the etymological connection to Spanish. French voilà is two words written as a slightly simplified (in its spelling) single word. The first is vois, /vwa/, the cognate of the Spanish imperative ve that means ‘see.’ The second component is , which corresponds to Spanish allá ‘there.’* To say voilà is to say literally ‘Look there, see there.’ From that literal meaning came the looser senses ‘now look at what you have, look what that leads to, there you have it, there you are.’

So voilà, there you have it. But let me go just a bit further and add that English doesn’t always write voilà with an accent. That’s the case in the example given by Cambridge Dictionaries Online, and an example particularly relevant to Spanish it is: “Corn tortillas can be cut into strips, fried until golden, and sprinkled with salt — voila! tortilla chips.”


* The written accent in French never indicates which syllable to stress, as it usually does in Spanish; in this case it distinguishes the French that means ‘there’ from the identically pronounced feminine singular article la that Spanish shares. That use of a written accent for differentiation is similar to the one that distinguishes Spanish ‘you’ from tu ‘your.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 24, 2012 @ 23:18:42

    And of course we can’t forget the spelling and pronunciation of “voila” preferred by a certain subset of the population: “Wah-lah”. I see it in blogs, sometimes written in all capital letters, and sometimes hear it in conversation – usually after at least two margaritas, when the story-telling’s getting more animated.

    You might get a kick out of this discussion. If you can manage to ignore the graphics, it’s an interesting glimpse into “just people” talking about language.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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