You say tomato
Introducing a new feature to this blog.
One of the beauties of an organisation such as the BBC is having a resource like the Pronunciation Research Unit. It is staffed by three full-time pronunciation linguists (from left, Martha Figueroa-Clark, Catherine Sangster and Lena Olausson), whose job is to provide advice on the pronunciation of any words in any language required by anybody in the BBC. They research and maintain a database of pronunciations which have been researched and indexed over the course of the past 80 years. It now consists of around 200,000 entries.
In his book on language, Mother Tongue (1990), Bill Bryson says: "The problem [of pronouncing names correctly] is so extensive, and the possibility of gaffes so omnipresent, that the BBC employs an entire pronunciation unit, a small group of dedicated orthoepists (professional pronouncers) who spend their working lives getting to grips with these illogical pronunciations so that broadcasters don't have to do it on the air."
In fact the BBC has had a pronunciation advice service since its earliest days. Lord Reith set up an Advisory Committee on Spoken English in 1926, chaired by Robert Bridges, poet laureate of the day. Other board members included playwright George Bernard Shaw and phonetics professor Daniel Jones. The committee's original task was to advise announcers on words of doubtful pronunciation. The modern Pronunciation Research Unit provides an advisory service to the entire BBC. One of its services for BBC News is to prepare a daily list of pronunciations of names, places and phrases which relate to the day's news.
The Unit's advice is based on the following policies:
• For placenames in English-speaking countries, a standardised version of the local pronunciation is recommended. The same is true for placenames in non-English-speaking countries, but if there is an established English form of a placename (e.g. Florence, Munich), then this is recommended rather than the local form (Firenze, Muenchen). For placenames which have sounds which would cause difficulties of production (for the speaker) or comprehension (for the listener), an anglicised form as close as possible to the native pronunciation is devised.
• For people's names, the pronunciation that the individual prefers is recommended. Family members, colleagues and agents are consulted.
• For words and phrases, recommendations are made based on the Unit staff's own language fluencies, a wide range of reference works, and consultation with native speakers. In the case of English words which can be pronounced in more than one way, the Unit can advise on which pronunciation is more traditional or usual.
From tomorrow, The Editors will be featuring a news-related pronunciation of the day, taken from the unit's daily list. Your queries and thoughts are, as ever, welcome.