A number of broadcasting journalists are of Asian origin. Most – if not all – of them speak English without any trace of a “foreign” or non-native accent – until it comes to names from their parents’ part of the world. A case in point is Afghanistan, which Mishal Husain pronounces with a very un-English sound for the “gh” spelling. BBC policy for pronunciation has always been to use the nearest English sound for the native one for all languages, in order to make it easy for the presenter to pronounce, and for the listener to understand. The problem is that while Ms Husain may very well be able to pronounce Urdu or Pashtu or Dari with native competence, can she do the same for French, Spanish, Portuguese or German? And how about Hungarian or Xhosa? All she is doing is parading her knowledge to the audience (listen to me – I know how to pronounce this!) and at the same time exhibiting her ignorance of the languages she does not know. If we must now say a voiced uvular fricative instead of [g] in Afghanistan, then why not the rolled uvular ‘r’ in Paris (and don’t forget – the final ‘s’ is silent!) instead of the long-established ‘parriss’?


  1. Of course Miss Husain cannot, and is not supposed to know how to pronounce all foreign sounds in the news bulletin. Besides, we have to differentiate between foreign names that have been assimilated and became fully integrated and incorporated in the lexicon of the recipient language (e.g. /’paris/ as opposed to /pa’Ri:/) and place names of less known parts of the world. Definitely she can’t find Anglicized pronunciation for every foreign word. In fact, with the growing interest among people these days to know more about other cultures (including linguistic aspects), people like to know more about how names of places and people are pronounced in other vernaculars. In his English Pronouncing Dictionary, Daniel Jones lists both English and foreign pronunciation of non-English words in the English lexicon. Surely, Jones meant that if you know how to pronounce the foreign name, why not do so!

    Speaking about the voiced uvular fricative in Afghanistan, native speakers of English do have a sound similar to it. In casual rapid speech, the /g/ sound is realized as a lenis [g] i.e. a voiced velar fricative (gama). This occurs when /g/ comes in weak syllable in polysyllabic words (e.g. “logging”). Of course it is not exactly like the voiced uvular fricative but it approximates it and it is acceptable as the nearest sound.

  2. The BBC policy presumably exists for newscasters who don’t know the native pronunciation and, ergo, must rely on a standard guide.

    I doubt Ms.Husain is “parading her knowledge”. It would appear she is pronouncing it in the correct way – as should anybody if they happen to know it.

    There is a case to be made for non-native speakers to mispronounce these things, but to expect a native speaker to dumb it down in order to conform to BBC policy – which is hardly the last word, more a guide for the uninitiated – is simply regressive. For you to expect her to do so is an entirely provincial attitude.

  3. I have to agree with the previous two commentators : if Ms Husain /does/ know how to pronounce “Afghanistan” correctly (that is, as it would be pronounced by a native of that country), then I for one would be very happy to hear her use that pronunciation on air. A few pages back, the author of this column makes reference to “Łódź” : surely he would not suggest that a native Polish speaker, employed by the BBC as newscaster , should be required to use “Lodz’ to camera rather than “Woodge” ?!

  4. Abdul, angshu and Philip all believe that you should use the native pronunciation of a place name if you know what it is. Does this mean that when I am speaking French, I should continue to say “London” rather than “Londres”? Should Spaniards say “United States” rather than “Estados Unidos”. Are we to pronounce “Paris” as the French do, even when speaking English? I do not believe that Philip goes to those lengths.

    That is my point: Mishal Husain (and she is not the only broadcaster I criticise for this) is speaking English, not Dari, Pashtu or Urdu, when she is reading the BBC news. If she is happy to pronounce other names in their established English way, then as Afghanistan has been anglicised for at least two hundred years, she should be equally happy to use that anglicisation as well, just as I, and all other native English speakers, pronounce London, Canterbury, Dover – and England! – according to the custom of any other language we happen to be using from time to time.

  5. In retrospect, I think that Graham has a fair point, but would still be interested to know where he stands on a Polish newscaster, employed by the BBC, broadcasting in English and needing to refer to “Łódź” …

  6. I commented on Łódź being pronounced ‘lodz’ in my post on 20 March 2008, but it was only in passing, so I shall devote my next post to this particularly difficult name. Thanks to Philip for raising it.

  7. I’m willing to take a weaker line. It seems to me there are three kinds of places: those with English-specific names like Paris, those with more or less standard anglicizations like Afghanistan, and those with neither, like Zelazowa Wola (diacritics omitted), the birthplace of Chopin. About the first group there shouldn’t be any dispute: use the English name when speaking English. For the second and third groups, I believe it to be quite legitimate to use the native name if you are a native of the place (or in the same linguistic area, anyhow).

    Here’s an example from within the Anglosphere. People from Chicago use the THOUGHT vowel in the second (stressed) syllable; using the PALM vowel is associated with the lower class and heavily stigmatized. People from elsewhere normally use the PALM vowel. But I think it would be asking too much to make a radio announcer who hails from Chicagoland to use a standard pronunciation that *for him* is highly inappropriate.

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