Marcel Berlins and the BBC Pronunciation Unit


The debate over the pronunciation of Pres. Sarkozy’s name rumbles on. John Wells today seems to be advocating middle syllable stress as the obvious one for English speakers, but he is ignoring the predecents of Mitterrand and Pompidou. He suggests that only an out-of-touch pedant would advise the Hungarian stress, but neither Mitterrand nor Pompidou had this justification for initial stress, and yet they tripped off the English tongue just fine, while MitTERRand and PomPIdou would have sounded bizarre. Names from other languages often have final syllable stress transferred to the initial syllable in English: Khrushchëv and Gorbachëv are two Russian names that immediately spring to mind.

John’s comments are prompted by Marcel Berlins’ column in yesterday’s Guardian. Mr Berlins has, as they say, ‘previous’, in complaining about the BBC Pronunciation Unit: about ten years ago, he wrote a piece in which he claimed that a member of the Unit had told him he was mispronouncing his own name. I wrote him a polite letter saying that it was most unlikely that any member of the Unit should have suggested such a thing, as policy was always to recommend the version preferred by the bearer of the name. In fact, no member of the Unit recalled having even spoken to Mr Berlins, let alone having discussed the pronunciation of his name with him. Instead of writing back to me, Mr Berlins returned to the topic in his column, and (one assumes jocularly) threatened legal action for doubting his word. As a good BBC employee, I let the matter drop at that time, but it is clear that he enjoys attacking those who cannot answer back in kind. I find it difficult to believe that any current member of the Unit could write a “snide, sniffy and defensive letter”, as he says.

Rather than just assert this to be the case through his column, he should publish the offending words, and let us see for ourselves just how unpleasant the current members of the Unit are, so that we may all know how to treat them in future. Perhaps Mr Berlins should take the trouble to visit the Unit, and meet the three highly qualified, and very personable, linguists, and develop a personal relationship with them rather than making “snide” and “sniffy” comments about them from afar.

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