BBC Radio 4

    That's easy for you to say...


    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.


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