Crime against Scandinavia


The BBC’s Arts guru Mark Lawson is setting himself up as an expert in Scandinavian crime writing. As such, you would think that he would care about the pronunciation of the names of the writers he’s interviewing and talking about, wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it! In a programme broadcast this lunchtime on BBC Radio 4, he managed to mangle Sjöwall (his version: /ʃəˈvæl/), Wahlöö (/vəˈluː/), Staalesen (/ˈstɑːlÉ™sÉ™n/), and  Ã…sa (Larsson) (/ˈeɪsÉ™/). I’ll forgive him /ˈlɑːsÉ™n/, as some dialects of Swedish would pronounce the ‘s’ in this way, but the others simply prove that he has no ear for language at all – at least two of these names were spoken by other Scandinavians in the course of the programme.

I’ve thought before that he is too proud to consult the Pronunciation Unit (I don’t remember ever speaking to him when I worked there). Either that, or he thinks he knows better. Whichever, his producer should have more control.

Better anglicized pronunciations for these names would have been: /ˈʃɜvæl/, /ˈvɑːlɜ/, /ˈstɔːləsən/, /ˈɔːsə/, and /ˈlɑːʃən/.


  1. I’ll take your word for it, but it seems to be a bit carping for what is a fascinating series, and at no time did I get the impression that Lawson was “setting himself up as an expert on Scandinavian crime writing”, or any of the four other geographical areas he’s talked about so far in the series, with another ten to come. In any case much of the programmes consist of crime writers talking, or dramatised extracts, not Lawson. Are you also expecting him to be an expert at pronouncing German, French, Dutch, Czech, and Sicilian names? And that’s only in the first seven programmes.

    After all, the Pronunciation Unit didn’t seem to have had much success teaching newsreaders how to say “Sarkosy”, a rather more serious error, I would have thought. That was repeated as /sÉ‘:’kəʊsɪ/ almost every other day by God knows how many newsreaders, even after they had heard Paris correspondents or French interviewees pronouncing it correctly.

  2. WWill – Yes, I think he should be competent in pronouncing the German, French, etc names at least in a way that would be recognisable to speakers of those languages. I don’t suggest that he should try to imitate exactly the sounds of all those languages (e.g. using a uvular sound for French or German /r/) but as the presenter of the series, he is put forward as an “expert”, and as such, my view is that out of courtesy both to his listeners, who presumably expect to learn something from the programmes, and to his subjects, he ought to make more effort – and his producer ought to make certain that he does. In my view, part of being a professional broadcaster is to prepare the script well, and that includes its pronunciation, just as it does the grammatical structures and word use.
    “Sarkozy” – not “Sarkosy” – was almost unanimously pronounced with final syllable stress by at least the Radio 4 newsreaders, and I assume by Radio 2 and Radio 3 ones too. The size of the Pronunciation Unit precludes its personal influence reaching all parts of the BBC, but the advice is there for anyone who can be bothered to find it, or who is not so arrogant as to think they don’t need it, on their desktop or other device, at all times.

  3. Sorry about my misspelling, but I invariably heard (on TV admittedly) Sarkozy stressed on the second syllable, with a long “o”. And stressing the last syllable would surely be nearly as bad – French is an equal stress language. –

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I imagine that most listeners would have, like me, been more interested in the content of the programme than worrying too much about a little mispronunciation of names.

  4. WWill – I wonder if your atitude would have been the same if you had been reading a book on the same subject in which the author consistently mis-spelled the names of the people he was writing about, or if the presenter of a radio or TV programme about your local area consistently mispronounced any of the unusual place names he or she came across. For me, pronunciation in a broadcast is as important as spelling is in a written context. Failing even to attempt to get either spelling or pronunciation right (typos are another matter) shows arrogance on the part of the writer/broadcaster and contempt for the reader/listener.

  5. In Mark Lawson’s latest episode, broadcast at lunch time today, he again deals with Scandinavian writers. I can accept that Jo Nesbø is pretty close to being bilingual in English and Norwegian, and is happy for both his own name and that of his detective Harry Hole to be thoroughly anglicized, but as Lawson was discussing pronunciation, it made it even more unacceptable that his version of Staalesen (/ˈʃtɑːlÉ™sÉ™n/ this time) was so bad. Yesterday, he also called Stig Larsson /ʃtiːg/ – why does he think that initial ‘s’ before a consonant is pronounced /ʃ/ – does he believe that that is the case for all Germanic languages, instead of just German?
    It is not just Scandinavian names, but Spanish and Italian too, that he has mangled. Tomorrow we have the delights of Russian crime writers. I wonder what he will do with them.

  6. I’m interested in this thread as I have a bit of a background in the Scandinavian languages, having taught English in Sweden, taken a London University external degree in Scandinavian Studies then done literary translation from these languages (mainly from Swedish) for 20-odd years.

    I think I take a position about midway between Graham and Warsaw Will. I agree that a distinguished critic speaking on the airwaves with some authority about foreign writers ought to make some effort to master the pronunciation of their names, but tho’ I’m a linguist myself I’m pretty fatalistic about the inability or unwillingness of Brits generally to get their tongues round foreign sounds.

    I’ll tell you something that does arouse my ire though. Why have British publishers stopped spelling the names of Scandinavian writers properly? I have copies of Jo Nesbø’s novels “Nemesis”, “The Redbreast” and “The Devil’s Star”, with his name spelt correctly on the covers, but on the covers of “The Snowman” and “The Redeemer” his name is spelt Nesbo without the ø.

    I have Camilla Läckberg’s “The Preacher”, with her name given in the correct form on the cover, but on the cover of “The Stone Cutter” it is given as Lackberg.

    I don’t expect British or American readers of these books to bother about such minutiae or to give a damn about the pronunciation, but I do expect the publishers to at least do the authors the courtesy of spelling their names properly.


  7. Harry – I completely agree with you, and I’m not advocating the mastery of foreign sounds – just the use of the nearest English sound to the foreign one. In the case of Jo Nesbø, though, it is possible that he deletes the stroke himself when writing in English – after all, he lived in Australia for many years, and his English is perfect apart from a Norwegian accent. My copies of “The Redbreast” and “The Devil’s Star” have “Nesbo” on the spine (probably more recent printings than yours). On the other hand, I have books by HÃ¥kan Nesser, Ã…sa Larsson and Arnaldur IndriÄ‘ason spelt exactly like that on the spine. In these days of unicode, there should be no real problem for any publisher to find the right character.

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