Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pronunciation snobbery and Beijing

The other day the radio, I heard an NPR reporter doing explicitly something that has always implicitly bothered me about NPR reporters. She was talking with their China correspondent and asked him how to pronounce "Beijing". He explained that it's actually (in Chinese) pronounced [beʤɪŋ] (with a "j" as in "juice") and not [bejʒɪŋ] (with a "j" as the "s" in "vision" or "treasure"). An article I found here at goes so far as to make this hyperbolic claim:

Television networks should be setting a higher standard of pronunciation and fulfilling their role of informing and educating the viewing public," he said. "Mispronunciations are misinformation. The casual attitude of the networks towards this matter is, at best, negligent and, at worst, bordering on disrespect for China and the Chinese."

This is absurd of course. No one is recommending we actually try to reproduce the Chinese pronunciation of "Beijing", in which nearly every sound would be foreign to us (I believe it begins with an unvoiced non-aspirated bilabial -- not a voiced bilabial like we use) and in which we'd have to make sure we got the tones right. In no way does not speaking Chinese border on disrespect for the Chinese.

This is a more widespread phenomenon. I see it when the NPR folks try to spanishify their pronunciations of Latin American countries, (saying "chee - lay" instead of "chilly" for "Chile", for example). Have they forgotten that they're speaking English? It also reminds me of a habit of a certain acquaintance-who-will-go-unnamed who always strikes me as terribly pretentious in pronouncing all foreign words with faux-correctness, taking care to avoid flapping the "t" in words like "risotto", for example.

It strikes me that the NPR version of this has something to do with not wanting to offend people, or with the belief that Americans generally are woefully, shamefully ignorant. But isn't it obvious that all over the world people speak a handful of languages at best, and frequently just one or two (as we do), and that when they refer to other people's words, they follow the sound patterns of their own languages? I of course can pronounce Spanish place names just fine when I speak Spanish, but I find it awkward to try to pronounce them in Spanish when I'm speaking English -- that's why we warp pronunciations to fit our own sound patterns in the first place.

All of this rant is premised on my assumption the Beijing is always pronounced [bejʒɪŋ]. That does the beg question of whether I'm wrong and [bejʒɪŋ] and [beʤɪŋ] have existed as variants for some time. Is that the case? Has anyone ever heard the [beʤɪŋ] pronunciation used commonly? Is it common in Britain or other English-speaking countries? (note: pronunciations by Chinese speakers and hyper-self-conscious broadcasters don't count as common use).


syz said...

Hi Tom,
Got here thru your comment on Language Log. I've got a post with a recording of the NPR clip you probably heard. I like your point about the B, "it begins with an unvoiced non-aspirated bilabial -- not a voiced bilabial like we use". The J is a similar case, of course.

I'm afraid you're right, that it's pure snobbery that leads people into this hypercorrection. But just saying that won't get them to change. Instead, you ought to send them over to Grant Hutchison.

Sam M said...

It's an interesting question, though -- does that mean we get to pronounce foreign words or names however we want to? Where's the line between pretentiousness-avoidance and actual willfull ignorance? For instance, is it ignorant or perfectly ok to say "SAD-dumb" (as in Hussein) instead of "Sud-DAHM," as a certain politician does?

That said, I'm totally on board with you about words like "risotto" that are now part of English.

(Besides, a radio station on which people named "Michelle" pronounce it "MEE-shell" could be expected to get worked up about this sort of thing. :) )

Tom Hinkle said...

I have no idea how "Saddam" is pronounced in Arabic, or if it is pronounced in a variety of different ways in different or what.

I do know enough about American liberals (and I am one of them) to be deeply suspicious of claims that George Bush "misprounces" things like this.

Tom Hinkle said...

typo in last comment (seems I can't edit):
s/different ways in different/different ways in different dialects/

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that people unconsciously pronounce "risotto" in different ways?

Also, I am totally with Sam about wondering where one draws the line on word pronunciation. In fact, I tend to prefer less anglicized pronunciations of words. On the other hand, the Beijing thing really rubbed me the wrong way. When I heard the NPR story (a Saturday morning one), I was mostly struck at how the tonal Mandarin pronunciation sounded nothing like the English no matter how you pronounced the j.

Tom Hinkle said...

I think the problem is that it's impossible not to anglicize while you're speaking (unless you are actually a speaker of the target language and you shift your whole phonemic sensibility mid-sentence -- what I call "putting your mouth in i.e. Spanish). Today on NPR I heard another terribly annoying pronunciation: "Bar-the-lo-na", pronounced with a lisp. Now I know the announcer was proud of knowing about Spanish dialects and how the Spanish use the lisp, and he probably even knows the apocryphal story about the king's lisp... but the thing is that every sound in that announcer's pronunciation of "Barcelona" was American -- the r-colored "a", the American "r", the shwa-ified terminal "a"... why on God's green earth would he pick the most obscure sound to pronounce "correctly", if not out of a snobbish desire to show that he knows just a bit more about Spanish pronunciation than the average Joe.

Anonymous said...

The worst thing about the lisp in Barcelona is that of course there is no lisp in Catalan.

Meanwhile at my workplace I have to listen to the worst mispronunciations. Hostos Community College is pronounced "Hostess". "Museu" turns into "Muse-ee-u".

Surely there is a happy medium somewhere between complete Anglicization and Twinkies.