Could you pronounce Reims if you had to say it on radio? | radioinfo

Could you pronounce Reims if you had to say it on radio?

Wednesday 05 August, 2020
The Cathedral at Reims in the Champagne district of France

With tongue in cheek and other parts of his mouth, John Patkin voices a few words on pronunciation.

The recent fire in the Nantes cathedral reminded me of the pronunciation carnage of proper nouns that occurs every four years with the summer Olympics. We are inviolably familiar with our local athletes, and kind of accept our peccadillos for words such as either and lieutenant, but it’s the nascent jargon and foreign proper nouns that sprauchle us. 

Ripping and reading the news from 1992 summer games, I listed the results of the Hong Kong athletes faultlessly and then stumbled through the other competitor’s names and remarked, “I think I need a medal.” That prompted a save from my co-anchor who retorted, “What John means is that there are a lot of unfamiliar names.” Yes, I was guilty of discrimination and ignorance and learnt my lesson.

Back then we couldn’t type a name into Google or howjsay and hear how it was pronounced, so we often relied on experience, colleagues and sometimes the AP’s pronunciation guide. Organisations such as the Association of Tennis Professionals published alphabetically-organised yearbooks which provided a pronunciation guide.

Looking ahead to the 2021 Tokyo games, morning sportscasters will get a little reprieve as they should be able to familiarize themselves with many of the names as they’ll be providing a wrap-up of the previous day’s winners and a look forward to events involving Australians or well-known athletes.

But sports is just one problem area. What can we do when we suddenly come across difficult words? Do we eschew them, swallow them quickly, or confidently ‘have a go’? Excluding an exigent word is not recommended. In some cases, a name or place may be the centerpiece or epergne of a story. 

UrumqiUyghur and Xinjiang gave me a shock when they first appeared in wire copy in the 1990s. Unsure of how to pronounce these names, I changed Urumqi, Xinjiang, and Uyghur to “Muslims in a province in Northwestern China bordering Kazakhstan…” These changes may be seen as dumbing down or even insulting to some, but it answered basic news questions such as who and where. Once new vocabulary has been introduced to the mass media, we become familiar with an accepted pronunciation so these days UrumqiUyghur and Xinjiang should easily roll of the tongue. 

There will always be a more knowledgeable listener (and reader) and mispronunciations will occur but there are steps to mitigate this, especially when you are under pressure and need a quick answer. Be thankful if a listener takes the time to contact you with the correct pronunciation, even the apoplectic ones. Google and Wikipedia are a good starting point but can be misleading due to their bias towards North American and British pronunciation. If you’re doing an interview, ask the person to say their name for a “sound check” beforehand. 

Another solution is to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which is used in most dictionaries. It’s not suitable for every situation but it’s helpful for new vocab when you only have access to a textual guide. For example, Nantes is written /nɒ̃t/ but decoding that requires IPA knowledge (see IPA is common in many Asian countries as it used to help learn English as a second language. The type of IPA used will depend on the region. The main versions are British and American.

Pronunciation is extremely localised and personalised. Next time you tune into coverage of the NRL or AFL, listen to how the different commentators pronounce the words schoolpooldance, and cobra. One friend who moved between Australian states said apart from learning east coast pronunciations, she asked her new colleagues to help her go through local maps and newspapers to familiarize herself with the names of places, streets, prominent community members and sports teams. From Albany and Coober Pedy to Berejiklian and Palaszczuk, Australia is a minefield for broadcasters. Say it right and no one will notice, but get it wrong and you’ll be ridiculed and possibly ostracised.

ABC Adelaide’s Peter Goers is a glowing example of learning local pronunciations. His weather report is peppered with each town’s unique pronunciation from the guttural Whyalla to the well-delineated Robe. But Goersy holds no prisoners when it comes to the eighth letter of the alphabet. He’ll stop an interviewee midsentence if they say haitch the antithesis of his preferred aitch. It’s more hyperbole than breviary for Goers and his pyrrhic victory as haitch is firmly rooted in Catholic schools.

As an aural medium, radio is built on audience familiarity and using a community’s shibboleths will foster stronger relations. Mispronunciations stand out like a campanile so presenters should be mindful of his/her authoritative role which can influence thousands and sometimes lead to chiacking. Let’s just hope nothing happens in Reims.
Just for fun, here is a list of words to try. Can you think of any others?

Darren Ng
Deng Xiaoping
Dr. Seuss
habeas corpus
Ku Klux Klan
Wagga Wagga

John Patkin is a Hong Kong based researcher involved in projects related to media use and English as a second language. He earned his doctorate from Southern Cross University, MEd from the University of Wollongong, and MA from Middlesex University. He is a graduate of the first full-time radio course at the Australian Film, TV and Radio School.  






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Vincent O'Donnell
5 August 2020 - 11:16am
Iper (also Ypres), Troyes, Amiens.
5 August 2020 - 3:09pm
And of course Aussie place names are traps for beginning players and new employees in regional stations. Mispronunciation of these names is a big giveaway to the audience that you are not a local nor have you studied up on the local area.

I am also noticing some basic mistakes in news reading:
May-oar for Mayor (pronounced mare, like the horse)
mauve (wrongly pronounced moore-v)
nuclear (wrongly pronounced nu-kell-ar)
eleven - so many times I have heard it pronounced with an A at the beginning, wrongly as A-leven, not EE-leven.

Oh, so many words, so little time to list them all...


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