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That's easy for you to say...

Friday 22 May 2009, 19:00

Susan Rae Susan Rae

BBC guidance on pronouncing Llanfair PG

ANNOUNCERS' WEEK: DAY FIVE

Many years ago, there was a rookie girl announcer reading the travel news on Radio 4. There was a spot of bother near Towcester, which she confidently names Toe-chester. The phone rang. Peter Donaldson (for it was he) said: "It's Toaster, dear girl, as in pop-up". The announcer (for it was I) would like to say she never made that sort of mistake again. She'd like to. How important is it to get it right with people's names, place names, particular words? On the world's premier speech network, extremely important. It's not just a matter of professionalism, it's good manners.

It's why we have a dedicated Pronunciation Unit, peopled by a select band of crack linguists, and a battery of pronouncing dictionaries on our desk. The Unit's website is called Speakeasy: in the course of a day's newsreading you can be consulting it or phoning the team many times. This past week, we've all become expert at Sri Lankan names. For example, the leader of the Tamil Tigers, Vellupillai PRABHAKARAN pronounced: vell-uup-ill-AY pruh-BAA-kuh-ruhn (-uu as in book, ay as in say, aa as in father). Or the Sri Lankan PM, Mahinda RAJAPAKSE: muh-HIN-duh ruj-uh-PUCK-shuh (-u as in cup, j as in Jack, sh as in ship). This is Speakeasy's guide.

Never assume you know how to say something. There are traps everywhere. Taksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, pronounces himself Taksin Chin-a-wat. The 'ra' remains utterly silent, like the P in Wodehouse's Psmith. Of course I said it incorrectly the first time I encountered him, and thought crossly afterwards he was just showing off with his extra syllables.

It didn't stop me being smug when other people fell over it , though. And local British names , with their cunningly obvious spellings, can make you very vulnerable. (See above: 'Towcester')

How authentic does it have to be? Of course it's Paris, not Paree, but do try to get Sarkozy right, (emphasise the last syllable) without all that ostentatious gargling over the French rrr.

How do you try to make it right every time? What if it's late at night and you can't find the name on the website? If it's a foreign name, check with the appropriate language service at Bush House. If it's British, try that region's local radio station.

If it's late-breaking news and you've already started the summary, you might have about 18 seconds while an audio clip is playing to dash through the website looking frantically (but vocally calmly) for it. If it's spelled incorrectly on your script, you're toast. There's nothing else for it but to draw on your experience, your nouse, and utter it with all the suavity expected of a Radio 4 newsreader. (But do, if you can, try to track down one broadcaster's efforts when confronted live, for the first time, with Phuket. No, it wasn't a Radio 4 person. The very idea.)

Any tips? Don't change down a gear in your delivery when a big pronunciation approaches. It's your job to make something that's hard to say sound fluent, matter-of-fact. Even so, every broadcaster has had the following experience: As the bulletin proceeds, there is a corner of your brain that's steadily cantering up to the Becher's Brook of that Really Difficult Name. You're into the story: up you soar, it flows beautifully, you've said it like a native. Mentally executing a victory air-punch, you proceed to the next story and promptly crash on a really hard word, like 'the'. Rats.

Comments

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    Comment number 1.

    "Many years ago, there was a rookie girl announcer reading the travel news on Radio 4. There was a spot of bother near Towcester, which she confidently names Toe-chester. The phone rang. Peter Donaldson (for it was he) said: "It's Toaster, dear girl, as in pop-up"..."

    Reminds me of that young girl, who later went on to a great acting career, who on a Saturday's kids TV programme introduced an up and coming feature on motor racing as an interview with [name of driver] about the forthcoming Gand-pri... well to get past any the moderation, lets just say, what you could do do with a needle and your finger!

    "How authentic does it have to be? Of course it's Paris, not Paree,"

    Of course? If Paris is correct then surely so is Toe...chester?!...

    "[footnote] The Speakeasy web site is only available on the BBC's internal web site"

    What is the reason for that, technical, political or another example of people with commercial interests objecting to the BBC providing a free service to all (and no I don't want to get into another licence fee debate)?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the bit of fun about 'Towcester' - it has got my brain whirring!

    Lay-chester
    War-chester
    Buy-chester
    etc.

    (Leicester, Worcester, Bicester, etc.)

    It's quite interesting for me that you deviated from what seems to be the pronunciation norm in pronouncing 'Towcester' - I'd have expected the first syllable to be the one to perhaps catch people out (I suppose it could be rhymed with 'toe' or 'cow'). Still, at least the traffic wasn't a bit further east in Northants, because then you'd have had to battle with 'Cogenhoe'.... :-)

  • rate this
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    Comment number 3.

    Do you have the pronunciation written out phonetically in your script? Or the name as it is actually spelled and you have to remember what was instructed by the authority which you consulted earlier?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 4.

    Oh dear dear dear.

    Llanfair. the 'fair' does NOT rhyme with wire, or vire, or shire.
    Maybe you should ask a Welsh person. There is an awful lot of this going on. And people pronouncing 'Erddig' as 'Uh-thig'.

    And Simon Schama pronouncing 'Dolbadarn' as 'doll bad un'. The other thing which is immensely annoying is when Harriet Cass [who is in all other respects superb at pronunciation ] simply does not understand that in Welsh the concept of 'rolling your os' does not exist !!!
    Why don't you just ask to speak to a Welsh person ??? It is like Andrew Marr pronouncing 'Iwan' as 'Euan'. Arrrgggghhhh !!!!!

    The thing is, Susan, you are making a bit of a rod for your own back here. If you make an effort to get these foreign politicians right, then it does raise an expectation that the way you pronounce Welsh names will be spot on. And so people will think that it is us, the Welshies, who are getting it wrong !!! This is beyond annoying.

    Maybe a more sensible approach is required. At the moment there seems to be a bizarre triangulation going on between having the super-posh tones of Charlotte Green and Harriet Cass balanced with the likes of Neil Nunes and Kathy Clugston. Why not settle for somewhere in the middle by eliminating the competition and having more Susan Rae and Carolyn Brown, and 'middle-of-the-road' tones like the sonorous Huw Edwards and Eddie Mair.

    Maybe you should have slapped down Peter Donaldson who does have a lovely voice and accent, but does labour under the delusion that there is a single 'correct' way of pronouncing English words anyway. That would be possible under a logical phonetic language like Welsh or Latin.

    Several complaints to the pronunciation unit have resulted in my being, quite rightly, slapped down as follows.

    * Dylan Thomas's first name is pronounced the same as Bob Dylan's surname, because Mr Thomas didn't speak much Welsh.

    * 'Mall' pronounced as 'mawl' might sound stupid when saying 'Pall Mall' but there is, apparently, no illegality in pronouncing it as 'mawl'.

    So when Anita Anand struggles with pronouncing 'Heathcote-Amory' rather than sniggering, should we not embrace that on the basis that the way he would pronounce it was surely something that came into 'custom and practice' in the past as a precedent which stuck ??

    What is a 'right pronunciation' anyway ?? How does one pronounce 'Skype' correctly ? We could kinda deal with BBC English pronouncing Welsh names in a 'tourist phrase book fashion', if they didn't set the bar of high expectations to the point where they are doomed to failure.

    I also noted on the Today Programme this morning a place being referred to as being in Ceredigion. Nonsense. You don't refer to other places as being in 'Sir Benfro' [Pembrokeshire] Or 'Sir Gar' [Carmarthenshire].

    Why doesn't the BBC overcome this problem by having all place names, worldwide known by their local variants. It would take a while to switch over to Napoli and Dunquerque or whatever, but be far simpler than a Heinz 57 varieties of names. And the problems of the BBC and pronunciation could be solved at a stroke by only broadcasting in latin in future, across the globe. I'm sure it would catch on at a stroke, and Boris Johnson could champion the whole thing.

  • rate this
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    Comment number 5.

    "(But do, if you can, try to track down one broadcaster's efforts when confronted live, for the first time, with Phuket. No, it wasn't a Radio 4 person. The very idea.)"

    What patronising class-ridden twaddle !!! Are we now to re-pronounce Fokker aircraft because it might upset someone's sensibilities ??

    Are we just trying to condescend to people who we might be labouring under the delusion are less educated than we are ??

    What I find most detestable about this whole thing is this hideous awful and disgusting class prejudice, which seems to be acceptable in a way that racial or religious prejudice is not, is that if someone pronounces a French word incorrectly there is a sort of expression in polite society almost as though someone has broken wind. But someone getting Welsh pronunciation wrong is seen as having exported the problem to the natives for giving the colonials such a bother with an awkward lingo.

    What we expect from Radio 4 is 'intelligent speech'. Not suave. Not posh. Just crisp, clear, correct diction. Leave the rest to the rapidly diminishing class of people that believe in social stratification and the 'not one of us, dear' brigade.

 
 

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