Descriptive or prescriptive?


syz takes me to task for wanting people to follow the BBC (and John Wells’) recommendation for Beijing, and implies that as linguists should describe language, I am guilty of prescriptivism.

Linguists are in a bind here: we all pay lip service to the need for the objective description of language, but as soon as we start to teach a language, we become prescriptive. Necessarily so, because otherwise, what would be the point of the teaching? If anything goes, because native speakers will (generally speaking) make allowances for foreigners, and native speakers don’t need to be taught grammar, spelling, pronunciation, because they already “know” it (do we/they?), then we are all redundant, surely? A much discussed word in the linguistic blogs is “whatever” (or wev), and this is what (in my humble opinion anyway – I refuse to use textspeak abbreviations) is the end result of pure descriptivism.

One of the justifications to me for making recommendations, especially for the pronunciation of names, is courtesy: I think that very few of us are complacent about the mispronunciation of our own name, and are grateful when non-native speakers make the effort to get it right. [Digression: I remember being amazed when a Frenchman actually pronounced “Graham” correctly (in two syllables, with the first like the word ‘grey’). I asked him how he knew, and he said he was a fan of Graham Norton (comedian and TV chat show host). It turned out that this man, a waiter at a hotel in northern France, had spent six months in England. I asked him where: “Dover”.] Place names, for me, are an extension of this. While a personal name is “owned” by its bearer, a place name can be said to be “owned” by its inhabitants. This was always the BBC’s reasoning for advising the pronunciation of British place names that was favoured by local people, and why I stuck to the recommendation for Althorp that was used by Earl Spencer and his family even when the senior management of the BBC insisted otherwise (see my post on Althorp).

Now syz tells us that there are Mandarin-speaking expats who use [beɪʒɪŋ] rather than [beɪdʒɪŋ] as the pronunciation of their capital. I assume he means native English speakers living in China. I wonder what pronunciation they use when speaking Mandarin. The BBC’s correspondents have all continued to use [beɪdʒɪŋ], even the ones who often disagreed with the Pronunciation Unit’s recommendations, and so can’t be accused of simply following the party line, so some of the toothpaste must still be in the tube!
There may well come a time when [beɪʒɪŋ] is accepted universally as the anglicization, but until that time, my view is that the BBC is right to try and uphold a more authentic pronunciation.


  1. “One of the justifications to me for making recommendations, especially for the pronunciation of names, is courtesy…”

    I strongly disagree with this. Names, like all words in a language, exist for the benefit of the speaker, not the thing spoken of. When I speak English, I may say Germany instead of Deutschland, Japan instead of Nihon, and hiss the s in Paris to my heart’s content. A Chinese person has no business telling me how to pronounce the capital of China in English, just as I have no business telling him to say “Vancouver” instead of Wengehua when he speaks Mandarin.

    All names change pronunciation when they are spoken in another language. Trying to nitpick the details is ridiculous. What’s next, are we going to insist on proper tones when saying “Beijing” in English?

    (And we’d never have this Beijing problem if we’d just kept with the perfectly good name of Peking in English.)

  2. Perhaps in this context it’s worth quoting Churchill’s famous minute to the Foreign Office:

    “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts. Where the name has not particular significance the local custom should be followed. However, ‘Constantinople’ should never be abandoned, though for stupid people ‘Istanbul’ nay be written in brackets after it. As for ‘Angora,’ long familiar with us through the Angora cats, I will resist to the utmost of my power its degradation to ‘Ankara.’

    “You should note, by the way, the bad luck which always pursues peoples who change the names of their cities. Fortune is rightly malignant to those who break with the traditions and customs of the past. As long as I have a word to say in the matter ‘Ankara’ is banned, unless in brackets afterwards. If we do not make a stand we shall in a few weeks be asked to call Leghorn ‘Livorno,’ and the BBC will be pronouncing ‘Paris’ Paree. Foreign names were made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names. I date this minute St. George’s Day.”

    “Foreigners living in those parts” is splendid. The last sentence shows that his remarks were at least slightly tongue in cheek …

  3. Nigel: “Foreigners living in those parts” almost made me cover the table with the noodle soup I was eating. Classic. It’s an amusing parallel to how expat Chinese in America still refer to the natives there.

    Graham, I feel your pain. You gotta teach something, and I agree that if you know how native Beijingers say the name of their fair city, it seems a bit odd to teach something like Beizzhing (my preferred spelling).

    But Churchill’s only got half his tongue in his cheek, and Paul D. makes the same point with his comment about teaching tones. Where are you gonna stop with trying to sound more “authentic”? Here are the constraints I’d put on naming:

    1. Since it’s a name given to the city by speakers of English. It has to be consistent with the sounds of English (which both Beizzhing and Bay-Jing are). Trying to throw in tones or the Mandarin “b” or “j” would be forbidden by this rule.
    2. It shouldn’t be grossly offensive to the current inhabitants

    And after that, well, it’s up to the masses. As much as I would (and I really would) prefer that the masses had chosen Bay-Jing, it appears to me that they haven’t. I suppose an enormous marketing effort by news agencies, in coordination with the Olympic marketer-fest (and not to mention John Wells and your fine blog!), might push Bay-Jing back into the popular consciousness.

    But probably not.

    So I’m going to swallow my tongue and let Beizzhing live.
    And yes, I still say Bay-Jing in English even though I leave off the tones. People probably just think I don’t know how to pronounce it.

  4. It seems to me that the Bay-Jing pronunciation would require either a very distinctive and un-English glottal stop between the two words, or a weird tonal emphasis on the second syllable that feels completely unnatural to me as an English speaker. Beizzhing just seems easier.

    But my primary reason for commenting on this entry was the struggle you face as a linguist over prescriptivism vs. descriptivism. I am an editor and translator by trade, with little linguistic training, and perhaps because of this I found your name justification compelling. I wrote on my own blog last week about my search for a happy medium between descriptivism and prescriptivism prompted by the very name-calling (no pun intended) that you address in this post.

    Can there be a middle ground? I would really appreciate your take on this as linguists. The post is here.

  5. In reply to Casey’s comment about Beijing with a ‘j’ sound being completely unnatural, how about words like “rejoice”, which has a stressed second syllable, or “staging”, which has the same ‘jing’ in the second syllable, albeit not stressed. I think Casey’s problem is personal rather than systemic to the language.

    I don’t understand why syz puts two z letters in the middle of his/her respelling. Perhaps (s)he can enlighten us.

    Paul’s comment is being answered by later posts.

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