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.

  8. Thank you for engaging in a debate about Mishal Husains adoption of Pashtu instead of English during items on a critical situation. It profits noone for her to carry on arrogantly as she does but Asian correspondents probably started the trend and their reports are rendered hopelessly irritating on the ear when they are dispatched. They may have every justification to pronounce words in the way they do but Mishal Husain does not. She is showing off and expects everyone to greet her obsequiously when she announces on Today .

  9. Jason’s views are necessarily his own. My post was published in 2007, when Ms Husain was pronouncing ‘Afghanistan’ with a voiced fricative for the ‘gh’. She has since modified her pronunciation to the more standard English voiced plosive /g/. but as I pointed out in my most recent post, BBC journalists with a South Asian heritage are adopting the un-English dental rather than alveolar articulation for the initial sound of Taliban. I am now wondering how many of us English-speakers who also speak French adopt the French pronunciation of /r/ when pronouncing French place or personal names, or other words borrowed recently from French. Not in ‘Paris’, unless we go the whole hog and say [paʁi/, but in less well-known names such as ‘Macron’ or ‘Mitterrand’.
    In fairness to Ms Husain, I have always considered her to be one of the best of the BBC’s journalists, ever since I saw her presenting Hard Talk on BBC World 20 years ago.

  10. I have been listening to Radio 4’s Today programme, as I do every morning, and noticed that Ms Husain is now (perhaps she always has been) pronouncing Al-Qa’ida with a dental /d/ as well as using a uvular [q] for what all English speakers of non-South Asian heritage have naturally pronounced /k/. In the case of Qatar, a frequent pronunciation interprets the initial ‘Q’ as /g/. In fact, I have heard all of the following for that name: /ˈkʌtɑː(r)/ – the BBC recommendation; /kəˈtɑː(r)/; /ˈkætɑː(r)/; and even /ˈgʌtə(r)/ (the bracketed ‘r’ is for linking purposes to a following syllable beginning with a vowel).
    I have not yet noticed any of our politicians of a similar heritage using these non-native sounds, but Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Security Correspondent, who has spent a lot of time in the Arab world, and speaks Arabic, does. The question remains – how many of these journalists actually speak one of the languages of Afghanistan, rather than Urdu or other languages of India and Pakistan? How can they be so sure that they are not simply imposing their own impression of what the sounds “should” be, rather than what they are? How many of them would be able to perform as well if the events they were reporting on were happening in, say, Germany? Would they be able to distinguish, for instance, the sounds /ç/ and /x/ correctly and consistently, and then also produce the ‘correct’ sound for /r/? I doubt it. It is this special treatment of a single group of languages which makes Jason accuse Ms Husain of “showing off”.

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