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How to say: Basel/Bâle/Basle/Basilea

10:39 UK time, Friday, 30 September 2011

An occasional guide to the words and names in the news from Marieke Martin of the BBC Pronunciation Unit.

Every now and then the third largest city in Switzerland has been the subject of audience correspondence and staff queries to the BBC Pronunciation Unit. This time it's because of a Twitter debate over a commentator's pronuncation during a Champions League game between Manchester United and FC Basel.

There are four different spellings in popular use - Basilea, Basel, Bâle and Basle - depending on the language and context they are all pronounced differently.

The city of Basle is situated in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, in the border triangle of Switzerland, Germany and France. The original Latin name was Basilea (or Basilia), which has been preserved in Italian and Romansh.

The German spelling is Basel, pronounced BAA-zuhl (-aa as in "father", -uh as "a" in "ago", stressed syllable in upper case).

Given that it is in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, one might expect the English pronunciation to be based on the German but, in fact, the English form is Basle and for the pronunciation we give the established anglicisation baal (-aa as in "father").

This pronunciation is possibly based on the French spelling Bâle, which is also pronounced baal.

So which pronunciation should we use? Our usual recommendation for place names is to recommend the established anglicisation, if one exists.

For instance, recommending bur-LIN (-ur as in "fur") for Berlin (not bair-LEEN) or Munich, pronounced MYOO-nick (-my as in "mute", -oo as in "boot") for the English form of München (MUEN-khuhn -ue as in German "fünf", -kh as in German "ich").

Here at the Pronunciation Unit, we advise our broadcasters to base the pronunciation of Basel, Bâle or Basle on the spelling they are using. When speaking about the city, people would generally use the English spelling Basle and pronounce it baal (-aa as in "father").

An example of an English-language use of the German spelling is in the context of football.

Our recommendation for the Swiss football club FC Basel 1893 is BAA-zuhl (-aa as in "father", -z as in "zoo").

When we spoke to the press office, the club confirmed that its official name uses the German spelling and pronunciation (BAA-zuhl) and that they preferred that this form be preserved in other languages.

For those who are interested the High German pronunciation is EFF tsay BAA-zuhl AKH-tsayn-drigh-uun(t)-NOYN-tsikh (-ts as in "bits", -z as in "zebra", 1st -kh as in Scottish "loch", -ay as in "day", -igh as in "high", -uu as in "book", -oy as in "boy", 2nd -kh as in German "ich", stressed syllables in upper case).

The pronunciation of place names is rarely as straightforward as one might think. As a native German speaker I can sympathise with foreigners who are met with a giggle when asking for WOR-sess-tuhr-shigh-uhr-SAWSS (-or as in "corn", -sh as in "ship", -igh as in "high", -aw as in "law").

Another example of a place name, which might be confusing, is Oudenaarde in Flemish Belgium. The established anglicisation for this place name is OO-duh-nard (stressed syllable in upper case, -oo as in "boot", -uh as "a" in "ago", -ar as in "bar").

The Flemish pronunciation is actually closer to OW-duh-nar-duh (-ow as in "now"). So you'd be forgiven for thinking that this is the French pronunciation, but actually the French spelling is Audenarde, pronounced closer to oh-duh-NARD (-oh as in "no"). The English pronunciation appears to be based on the French pronunciation of the Flemish spelling.

The key is to have a clear understanding of the context in which a pronunciation is to be used and to be aware of any cultural, political or language-related considerations.

To download the BBC Pronunciation Unit's guide to text spelling, click here.

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