More on BBC Pronunciation


It’s been very noticeable over the past week or so that almost all BBC broadcasters, from whatever department, are now saying ‘bay-jing’ for the Chinese capital. It’s been confirmed today by “a BBC employee” that a directive has been sent out by senior management that everyone must toe this line.

At least this is telling people to do the right thing. The last time such a thing happened it was over Althorp.

There ought not to be any need for directives of this nature to be sent out. In 1974, the then BBC Board of Management (affectionately known as BoM, to be contrasted with BoG – Board of Governors) issued a booklet called BBC Pronunciation Policy and Practice, which laid down that all BBC staff newsreaders and presenters must follow the recommendations of the Pronunciation Unit, and it advised all other broadcasters to take heed of the Unit’s advice. Whether the intention was to mean all staff newsreaders, and only staff presenters, or all staff newsreaders and all presenters (good linguists should recognise the “old men and women” example from the 1960s here), we cannot know, but a similar instruction now would do no harm whatsoever. When Althorp was targeted in this way, the newsreaders were clearly made afraid for their jobs if they disobeyed it – despite the instruction being against the rules according to the 1974 decision. The distinction between staff and contract or freelance is lost on the public, who do not know that John Humphrys is on a personal contract, while Harriet Cass is a member of staff, so the freedom of the one, and the constraints put on the other, simply confuse listeners and viewers.

The problem as I see it is that the Pronunciation Unit is managed as part of the library service, which is considered as a peripheral part of the Corporation. When it was set up, it was a part of Presentation, so that the line manager was the Chief Announcer (in the 1940s, John Snagge). When I joined the Corporation, it had already been transferred to the libraries, but I was high enough up the managerial ladder that my immediate line manager reported to The Secretary, who was a member of BoM. By the time I left, the head of my department was not even a librarian, but more used to managing plumbers and decorators, and I did not even report to him. My view is that the Unit should be transferred to Editorial Policy, where it would be at the centre of the Corporation’s operation. As language is at the heart of all broadcasting, whether news or anything else, and the BBC prides itself on its accuracy – English by Radio, BBC English as it calls itself now, has taught many millions of people how to use our language – it would make a great deal of sense for the Pronunciation Unit to have access to the “top table” as it were. I suspect that it will never happen – a former Controller of Editorial Policy referred to pronunciation as a “can of worms” that he wanted nothing to do with, although all he would need to do would be to accept the recommendations of the Unit – all its members are very good linguists, and spend their lives researching the pronunciations which journalists often dismiss in two seconds flat.

Perhaps a start could be made by standardising the French President’s name: there is still a lot of disagreement between the second-syllable and third-syllable stressers.


  1. Perhaps a start could be made by standardising the French President’s name: there is still a lot of disagreement between the second-syllable and third-syllable stressers.

    No first-syllable stressers? Or are there no speakers of Hungarian origin on the BBC? What about non-stressers (as it almost is in French)?

  2. Thanks for the BBC PU info. From this post:
    “… Beizzhing has no real sponsors, no BBC Pronunciation Unit rooting for it.

  3. Normally I can never remember exactly how Sarkozy is pronounced on French television, and when I hear the name I tend not to be thinking about this sort of discussion. So in my posting yesterday I was writing from an uncertain memory. This morning, however, I have three times heard a recording in which the Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, talks about his forthcoming meeting with the Dalai Lama in the presence of Carla Bruni Sarkozy. The third time I listed carefully and could detect virtually no difference in stress between the three syllables.

  4. Athel – I don’t remember hearing anyone stressing Sarkozy on the first syllable in English, although most three-syllable French names seem to be anglicized to first-syllable stress (think Baudelaire, Mitterrand, etc). I say “most”, because of such names as Debussy (second syllable) and Lafontaine (third). English doesn’t really accept a lack of stress on a multi-syllabic word, so that option isn’t available, and equal strong stresses wouldn’t work either (the tendency would be to weaken the middle syllable of the three – as Jack Windsor Lewis has pointed out here).

  5. I don’t see the point of requiring that everyone pronounce Beijing in the same way since regional pronunciations on the news seem to as well accepted as the traditional BBC accent these days, as long as they are understandable to the general English speaking public.

  6. Heather –
    Regional pronunciation doesn’t affect the phonological distinction between the two words ‘leisure’ and ‘ledger’: the first always has a voiced palato-alveolar fricative as its medial consonant, and the second always has a voiced affricate. The second produces the closer approximation to the Mandarin pronunciation of Beijing.

  7. Well, obviously if bay-jing is not pronounced the same way as it’s called (according to the two characters of the capital) then Chinese born after 70’s and most parts of the world wouldn’t know what place the BBC is talking about if they continue to pronounce the old pe-king mispronounced by westerners for at least 156 years. and, in China you can never find anyone would pronounce the capital that way Graham. Anyway I believe it’s about time the BBC abandoned ‘pe-king’, and at least people in China are pleased about this.

  8. Alan –
    I don’t speak any Chinese, Mandarin or otherwise, but I’m willing to bet that the Mandarin pronunciation of European capital cities is not always identical to that used by native speakers of the relevant languages in Europe itself. This does not stop Europeans who do speak Mandarin recognizing the names when they hear them, and likewise Chinese who speak English will learn that Peking was the established anglicization of their capital’s name for over a hundred years.

  9. I have just had cause to email the BBC World Service after hearing a newsreader pronounce the Venezuelan president’s name as ‘Shavez’. As any BBC newsreader should know, given that Spanish is a major world language with dogmatically consistent pronunciation rules that are very easily learnt, the consonant cluster ‘ch’ is always pronounced in Spanish exactly as it normally is in English, i.e., as in ‘church’. On top of that, Hugo Chavez is a very regular newsmaker!

    So much for the Pronunciation Unit.

    Of course, there’s a longstanding precedent here: that strange revolutionary Irish goalkeeper, Shay Guevara.

  10. The BBC can’t even get consistent pronunciation of “hospital” so what hope is there?

  11. When referring to countries, the country that the Dutch live in is called Holland??? Holland is a province in the country, the actual name of the country is The Netherlands, pronunciation of words in Dutch also needs to be looked at, on only connect tonight 02 March the word for the number 2 was pronounced as it was spelt TWEE, when actually it should be pronounced TVAY, surely the BBC should be getting such basics correct

  12. Chris – I agree that “the BBC” should get these things right, but was the perpetrator of this solecism actually a BBC employee? As for “Holland” and “Netherlands”, the same could be said for “Team GB” which ‘ought’ to be called “Team UK” since Great Britain is only a part, although the biggest part, of the United Kingdom. I suppose calling our country “Great Britain” is marginally better than saying “England” when the whole nation is meant. I have heard (on Spanish television a long time ago, although it wouldn’t surprise me to hear the same today) “Scotland is in the north of England”!

    Going back to your other point, if you can sort out who the “staff announcers and newsreaders” are, in the myriad of voices we hear on BBC Radio and Television, then you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din – and I was in charge of the Pron. Unit for over twenty years.

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