The Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation

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This is the latest in a succession of publications dating back to the 1920s to put before the public the BBC’s recommendations on pronunciation.

The Advisory Committee on Spoken English, which functioned from 1926 to the outbreak of the Second World War, first published the results of its deliberations in short articles in Radio Times, before gathering them together in a series of booklets called Broadcast English. The first of these dealt with “words of doubtful pronunciation”, and subsequent volumes covered English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish Place Names, British Family Names and Titles, and lastly, Foreign Place Names. The proposed final volume, on Foreign Personal Names, was never completed because of the outbreak of the Second World War.

After the War, during which the Pronunciation Unit had taken over some of the duties of the Advisory Committee, its head, Miss G.M. “Elizabeth” Miller, proposed a new publication which would combine the contents of the pre-war booklets, but BBC Publications showed no interest in the project, and it was not until 1971 that the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, edited by her, was published by Oxford University Press. I was the editor of its second edition, in 1983, which went into paperback in 1990, but after that, neither the BBC nor the Press was keen to publish a third edition its sales, while steady, were not high enough in the new hard-nosed commercial world of Thatcher, Birt and Blair to be thought worth while.

The new volume, written by Lena Olausson and Catherine Sangster, two of the current members of the Pronunciation Unit, fulfils some of the purpose of the Pronouncing Dictionary, but extends its remit to cover foreign names and the “words of doubtful pronunciation” of the original Broadcast English booklets, and also contains some very useful panels, including a number on the pronunciation of the more familiar foreign languages. This allows the authors to explain for the first time how the Unit arrives at its decisions. It is inevitable when trying to find a satisfactory way of pronouncing a foreign name one that trips fairly easily off the tongue of a native English speaker while sounding suitably impressive, but at the same time does not annoy speakers of the language aimed at by its total inaccuracy that there may be room for disagreement. In Dutch, for instance, should the sound spelt with the letter ‘w’ be pronounced in English as ‘v’ or ‘w’? Again in Dutch, should the English interpretation of the sound spelt ‘ei’ and ‘ij’ (e.g. in Leiden and Pijper), be the ‘ay’ sound of “day”, or the ‘igh’ sound of “night”? The panel tells us which way the BBC has jumped. I am sorry that the authors have not taken the opportunity of including the complete list of syllables used in the Pinyin transliteration of Mandarin Chinese. Broadcasters frequently mispronounce even the capital city, Beijing, substituting the semi-foreign sound ‘zh’ for the consonant “j”, when a simple “jingle” sound is all that is needed. Perhaps if they could see the complete list in front of them, it might persuade some at least that there is nothing complicated about it.

Other panels tell us about terms used in the field of phonetics that often puzzle members of the public, such as “clicks”, “tone”, “accent”, and also “what are the most frequent complaints received by the BBC about pronunciation”. They haven’t changed much in the last thirty years: controversy, the letter H, harass, and kilometre are still there, as they were when I joined the unit. A new one is clostridium difficile, and I have to admit that I agree with the complainants on this one: the fact that the microbiology and infection control experts consulted by the Unit all agreed in pronouncing the second word as if it were bad French: ‘diff-iss-il’ (better French would have been ‘diff-i-seel‘), the fact remains that this is a Latin word, and the linguistic ignorance of the scientific experts should not lead the BBC astray. A similar situation arose in the 1970s, when the Medici String Quartet was founded. The members’ lack of knowledge of Italian led them to pronounce their own name as ‘muh-deetch-i’, but following many complaints to the BBC, the Unit and Radio 3 announcers together managed to persuade them to change this to ‘med-itch-i’, more in line with Italian stress patterns. It is true that medical Latin is often anglicised, and the entry for clostridium difficile points us to the panel on Latin, but the rules and tendencies laid out there at no point suggest that ‘diff-iss-il’ would be acceptable in any version, while ‘di-fiss-i-li’ is good anglicized Latin, and easy enough to say.

It is easy in reviewing a book such as this to focus on the items missing: I would have liked guidance on the Sarbanes-Oxley Law passed by the American Congress: the first name appears to be Hispanic, which would make it ‘sar-bah-nayss’, but his first name is Paul … In fact the family name is pronounced in this case at least ‘sar-baynz’. The town of Happisburgh (pronounced ‘hayz-buh-ruh’) in Norfolk is included, but Wymondham (‘wind-uhm’), equally well-known, and also in Norfolk, is not. The Earl of Harewood, his home Harewood House (both pronounced ‘har-wuud’) and the village of Harewood (‘hair-wuud’) is not listed, but Althorp, the home of Earl Spencer, and the title borne by his eldest son, is there, with some mention of the controversy over its pronunciation. There is a misleading statement here: the authors say that the pronunciation ‘awl-thorp’ is used “in the village”, as if this justifies the pronunciation. But which village? The only village near the estate of Althorp is called Great Brington. The village of Althorpe (note the final E) is near Scunthorpe, about 120 miles away. The contrast of the situation with Harewood is striking: while the Earl of Harewood calls himself, and his house ‘har-wuud’, the villagers living in Harewood just down the road call their village ‘hair-wuud’. That is their prerogative: they live in the village; he lives at the “big house”, and they each “own” their own pronunciation. The BBC has always respected the distinction. In 1997, when Diana Princess of Wales was killed, the BBC’s senior management ignored all well-established guidelines, and overruled the Earl Spencer’s own pronunciation in favour of the inhabitants of a village with a different name, on very spurious grounds.

I am sure the authors are kicking themselves already over a fairly large number of names and words they could have included. I hope they have opportunities in the coming years for updates. As it is, this book provides a valuable snapshot of the current concerns of the Unit. It is a very smart-looking book: the type is clear, not too small for comfortable reading with well-distinguished typefaces for the different parts of each entry. It is a pleasure to handle as well as read. It deserves to have a large sale.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for confirming my view on “clostridium difficile” — I have heard “difficile” pronounced as though it were French at least twenty times on TV and radio: not once has it been pronounced as Latin (that includes other channels than BBC ones)

  2. How can you look up a word if you can’t spell it?

    There are many English pronouncing dictionaries that can give the pronunciation of the words if you know their spelling. But the problem these days is that many foreign learners of English gain their new vocabulary from both written as well as spoken sources, like radio, TV, and other electronic audio media. The problem arises when they want to check the meaning in a dictionary. How to spell words like /jot/ “yacht”, /nu:/ “gnu”, /fasa:d/ “facade” or the name /pa’nelapi/ “Penelope” ? To my knowledge, there are only two books that can give some help in this respect. One is Daniel Jones’ Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language (published first in Leipzig a 100 years ago and reprinted by Routledge recently) and the second is a quite different book entitled Sound-it-right Speller Dictionary http://phonicspeller.com/how-to-use.html. This one will be very useful for learners of English who are not familiar with IPA phonetic symbols. See discussion in the forum http://www.antimoon.com/forum/t5862.htm

  3. It is quite customary to hear some RP actors try to roll their Rs in BBC classical drama (including Shakespeare). This of course applies only to the pre-vocalic R which is normally realized as a frictionless continuant by such speakers. I notice that this happens only when they want to emphasize a word, because in other instances the frictionless continuant is used. I think this shows a ‘prescriptive’ attitude in which the RP speakers think that the rolled r is the correct one and, therefore, elevated pronunciation deserves the fortis (as opposed to ‘lenis’) realization of the sound.

  4. Graham,

    do you know of any webpages that will enlighten me on the history of the BBC Pronunciation Unit? Were there any sub-units? Did it change its name? Does it still exist? WHo heads it? By what qualification?
    Thanks for any hints!
    Petr

  5. I found your blog via Google while searching for English family law and your post regarding Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation – Linguism looks very interesting to me. I was impressed by your site and offerings. I was looking at some of the articles and it really impressed me. All I can say is congratulations on creating this site and what took you so long? I look forward to returning.

  6. The only person I have heard pronouncing “clostridium difficile” correctly on radio was Ann Widdecombe, who used the classical Latin pronunciation “dif-FICK-ilay”. “Dif-FISS-ilay” would be equally acceptable. But to pronounce “difficile” as if it were the French word which happens to share that spelling is quite insupportable.

  7. Graham,

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. I have actually purchased the book and think it’s an invaluable source of information in my line of work.

    I was lucky enough to have the Pronunciation Unit only a phone call away and thought it was a marvellous department and was sad when I left the Corporation and could no longer use it.

  8. Dear whoever
    I’ll give you a simple one which a good proportion of supposedly learned people get wrong,
    One of the words is [ DRAWING] as in drawing room or drawingboard
    they will persist in inserting an extra [R] between the [W] and the[I]
    making the word into [DRAWRING] ! WRONG !!!!!
    please correct them I consider it to be ignorance of thelearning of
    pronunciation.
    Regards .Mr.Leighton

  9. try getting a BBC newsreader to say “clostridium difficile in hospitals” and see what comes out….

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