The BBC and its Pronunciation Unit


Petr Roesel asks about the history of the Pronunciation Unit, and various other questions.

The Unit had a predecessor body called the Advisory Committee on Spoken English, that was set up by the BBC’s first Director General, John Reith, in 1926 – when the C still stood for Company rather than Corporation. This committee originally had six members, including the then Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges, as Chairman, and George Bernard Shaw as Deputy Chairman. The Secretary was Arthur Lloyd James, at that time a lecturer in phonetics at the School of Oriental Studies, London University, but later to become the Professor of Phonetics there. Daniel Jones, the Professor of Phonetics at University college, London, and author of the English Pronouncing Dictionary, was also a member. The initial job of the committee was to make recommendations to announcers on the pronunciation of words that presented them with some difficulty – either because they were unfamiliar, or because they had two or more current pronunciations. The linguists on the committee were well aware that they were not deciding on correctness, but Bridges and Shaw, and the other non-professionals on the committee, believed that they were helping to maintain high standards in English usage. When Bridges died in 1930 (aged 86), Shaw (who was merely 74 years old) took his place as Chairman, and other luminaries were asked to join. The Committee eventually reached a figure of thirty members, and as anyone who has worked on committees knows, the greater the number of members, the smaller the amount of work completed. However, apart from the pronunciation of vocabulary words, the Committee set about discovering the pronunciations of place names and personal names, first in the British Isles, and later in the wider world. For British names in particular, this is something about which some degree on unanimity can be achieved – establish who “owns” a name (the bearer if a person, or the inhabitants if a place), and follow them. Inevitably there are a few disagreements, such as the quality of the vowel in the place Bath: long (as in the south) or short (as in the north)? In some cases, the inhabitants of a place disagree among themselves: Shrewsbury: -ew as in ‘sew’, or as in ‘shrew’? There are even families some of whose members pronounce the family name in one way, others in a different one. Foreign names are more problematical, as I have pointed out in other posts, since the differences between English phonology and that of the language from which the word or name is borrowed have to be accommodated in some way.

The Committee was suspended at the outbreak of the Second World War, and replaced (originally ‘for the duration’, but so far the War has apparently not ended!) by the Pronunciation Unit, staffed by two Scottish maiden ladies: G.M.(‘Elizabeth’) Miller, and Elspeth Anderson (‘Andy’), and a clerk. Despite an increasing workload – more radio and TV networks, more daily hours of broadcasting – this remained the entire staff until 1957, when a third linguist was appointed. I never met either Elizabeth or Andy, but their influence was still felt when I joined the Unit in 1979, when I succeeded yet another Scot, Mrs Hazel Wright, as head of the Unit, with the title Pronunciation Adviser. One of Elizabeth’s last successes was the publication by OUP of the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names (1971), and I was the editor of the second edition which came out in 1983 (paperback 1990). This is now out of print, and neither the BBC nor OUP seems interested in a third edition, which I feel is a shame, as there is no equivalent available.

I eventually persuaded my management in 1984 that we needed more staff, and a fourth linguist was appointed, but five years later, in one of the BBC’s periodic hair shirt periods of retrenchment, that post was withdrawn when one of our number resigned. From the start of my career in the Unit, I was keen to improve the technology employed, and suggested as early as 1983 that the index, by then numbering the hundreds of thousands, could be computerized, and a synthesized voice added so that our service would be available 24 hours a day. No money was forthcoming for this until the early 90s, but eventually by 2002, the index was available to every employee on the BBC desktop, complete with the audio component. I also got the official name of the Unit changed to Pronunciation Research Unit, to reflect more accurately the nature of the work we were doing.

In 2001 another round of cuts required volunteers for redundancy, and since my management had been hounding me for the last four years, I decided that enough was enough, and put my name forward. It was accepted with alacrity, and the post of Pronunciation Adviser was closed. The Unit is now managed, so far as I understand, by a non-linguist, although one of the three remaining linguists (the clerk’s post disappeared with computerization) has the title Co-ordinator. Her name is Catherine Sangster, and her CV can be found on the BBC website.

I hope this answers Petr’s questions?


  1. Thanks, yes it does indeed


  2. To add a little contemporary detail to Graham’s excellent post, the Unit today is staffed by three full-time pronunciation linguists qualified by both general phonetic and linguistic training (to postgraduate level) and varying language specialisms. However, we’re currently briefly luxuriating in having four linguists, as our Arabic and Persian specialist overlaps with our newest recruit (who boasts Korean and Mandarin) for a couple of months.
    I too wish I’d had the chance to meet Elizabeth and Andy!

  3. I’ve found this most interesting site by accident, but perhaps the Pronunciation Unit would like to comment on the fact that only 1 of the actors in this week’s ‘Larkrise to Candleford’ knew the correct pronunciation of ‘seamstress’, & Liz Smith, who said correctly ‘semstress’ was supposed to be speaking the more dialectal form: I suspect people have just forgotten how it is said.
    Geoffrey White,

  4. Graham, thanks for this reminder of Elspeth Anderson. She would be delighted with your discussions I am sure. I travelled with her from London to Kathmandu (overland) in 1971. A Belgian traveller with us was amazed at Elspeth’s French accent! It was acquired in infancy in Cairo! She was a wonderful person to be travelling with. I never did master phonetics, despite our conversations.

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