John Wells’ blog of 13 April deals with the inability of many BBC reporters to pronounce the unfortunate earthquake-stricken Italian town. As he says, the Guardian’s Alexander Chancellor takes the Pronunciation Unit to task for not doing its job properly. Later in the week, on 16 April, John quotes Jo Kim’s reply: that the Unit is an advisory service, and cannot enforce its recommendations.

The BBC has done itself no favours by abolishing the post I held of “Pronunciation Adviser”: the Unit is now managed by a non-linguist, who cannot argue so forcefully with the Corporation as a linguist would be able to. One of my duties was to monitor the output, and I would send short memos to those who persistently failed to follow our advice, particularly when our sources were unassailable. Inevitably there were those who chose to ignore me, but on the whole broadcasters are keen to get it right, and not make fools of themselves, especially when they are on the spot.

Watching the reporting from L’Aquila, I got the impression that because George Alagiah was calling the town something like a Mexican liqueur, as Alexander Chancellor said, the regular BBC correspondent, Duncan Kennedy, was more-or-less forced to follow suit – earlier in the day, on radio as the news was breaking, he had been pronouncing it correctly.


  1. This is an interesting note. I think sometimes people pronounce words as they are pronounced in relay languages. As you have mentioned, L’Aquila was pronounced as if it was a Spanish or South American town. This may be due to the popularity of Spanish nowadays, which is itself related to its role in the United States. But as you have mentioned, such confusions can be easily avoided. I have blogged on the topic at: http://languageandglobalization.blogspot.com/2008/08/beyond-english-on-ronaldinho.html

  2. The popularity of Spanish may certainly be relevant, but knowledge of Spanish should still point one in the direction of the right answer, as L’Aquila looks like (and is) the Italian for El Águila. On all the TV broadcasts I’ve heard in France over the past couple of weeks it has always been pronounced with the stress on the penult. I thought that ought to be wrong, but not having a conveniently available Italian to ask I wasn’t sure until I saw your comments.

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