Haiyan and Tacloban


It’s over a week since the appalling typhoon hit the Philippines and I’m still unsure what the “official” BBC pronunciation of these names is.

Most broadcasters are calling the typhoon itself /ˈhaiˈjæn/ or /ˈhaiˈæn/, but Radio 4 newsreaders appear to be saying /ˈhaiˈjen/, which puzzles me: the name is Chinese, and I always understood that the usual anglicisation for the Pinyin syllable yan was /jæn/, not /jen/, regardless of the tone (for instance the port of Yantai: /ˈjanˈtʌɪ/ – OBGP transcription).

As for the city most affected, I’ve lost count of the number of different pronunciations I’ve heard, sometimes from the same person within a few seconds. Here, you can hear a “male from Philippines” say the name as /taʔˈklobÉ™n/, but there is no indication as to his first language. Stress has appeared on any of the three syllables, and sometimes on first and third. I am sure that the Pronunciation Unit is recommending only one of these, but clearly nobody is taking much notice. The one chosen is not so important as the making of a choice and sticking to it.

A few weeks ago Tony, Lord Hall, the Director General, made a speech in which he said he wanted to get back to the Reithian triad of the BBC’s purpose: to inform, educate and entertain. There have been at least two occasions in the past 15 years when  direct orders have come from on high to use a particular pronunciation – the notorious case of Althorp, and the more benign one of Beijing during the 2008 Olympics. Surely the same could happen again. It would ‘educate’ (in teaching a standard) and ‘inform’ (by clarifying the identity of the place referred to).

Print journalists have to conform to the style of their organ, including using standardised spellings for proper names. The equivalent in broadcasting is standardised pronunciations.


  1. I have heard a recent outbreak of /heɪæn/, both with initial and final stress. These instances were all on the BBC. Tut tut.

  2. John – this version has passed me by. I shall have to listen more carefully!

  3. Quite the opposite. The correct pronunciation of mandarin pinyin yan is /jen/, not /jæn/. The broadcaster was correct.

  4. Yi Li – Thanks for this clarification. Does the quality of the vowel change depending on the tone?

  5. We had both /haɪjen/ (George Alagiah) and /haɪjan/ (don’t know who) on the 10 o’clock news tonight.

    My experience is that the vowel is opener for tone 3 than for the other three tones for all syllables ending in Pinyin -an when preceded by a j medial — yan, mian, bian, qian, xian etc.

  6. BBC’s Ros Atkins yesterday pronounced “Haiyan” [ËŒhaɪˈɑːn], if my memory serves me well.

  7. When the New China News Agency decided at the beginning of 1979 that in future all Chinese names would be given in Pinyin and Pinyin only, the BBC Chinese Service provided us in the Pronunciation Unit with a recording of every one of the syllables spoken on all four tones. We then mede decisions about the most appropriate anglicisation for each syllable, and as I recall, we decided to ignore any differences of vowel quality from one tone to another (we could not guarantee discovering which tone was correct for every syllable of every name, and in any case we could not expect broadcasters to distinguish between the tones). For syllables ending in ‘-ian’ we did recommend /-jen/, but I can’t remember what we did for the syllable ‘yan’, and if it was /jen/, then why does OBGP give /jan’tai/ for Yantai?

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