Pronunciamentos: Saying It Right

NPR is considered by many to be the standard bearer for Standard American English. Listeners from around the country and around the world say that they find NPR English is the clearest and most comprehensible broadcast English available. They can hear that crisp American English on NPR member stations, on their Web sites, on line at npr.org or on the listeners' shortwave receivers.

Visitors to Washington, D.C. may note that upon entering a D.C. taxicab, the car radio is often tuned to one of the two local NPR member stations — WAMU or WETA. The drivers, many of whom hail from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia, tell me that listening to NPR helps improve their English.

Language and pronunciation are important to many public radio listeners, possibly because they are (so the audience research tells us) a well-read and information-hungry group. So listeners are quick to point out examples of any perceived lowering of standards.

As ombudsman, I receive a regular flow of comments and observations about language on NPR. These are regularly forwarded to the staff and to Kee Malesky, NPR's reference librarian. She keeps track of these comments and issues timely reminders to NPR's on-air staff about correct pronunciations, especially when reporters need prompting about foreign names and places.

Over the last few weeks, I have received an unusually large number of comments about NPR pronunciations and uses of grammar, including one from the program director from NPR member station WMUB in Oxford, Ohio:

I was listening... at 10 o'clock on Friday, Nov. 4 and I heard the news of violent protests in the capital of Uruguay. I was mortified, however, when I heard the reporter pronounce the name of the capital as "Mont-e-VID-eo" instead of "Monte-vid-AY-o". As a whole, we Americans slaughter most other language pronunciations, but I expected more from... NPR.

John Hingsbergen

Newscasters often write their copy at the last minute before racing into the studio. But double checking the pronunciation of foreign words with a colleague is always useful on deadline.

Accuracy? Or Clarity? A Tough Choice

The question of how to pronounce foreign names and places has always been a point of lively discussion among listeners and staff. Should we err on the side of meticulous accuracy? Or unambiguous clarity?

Should we say "Pah-REE" instead of Paris? The former is linguistically correct, but that sounds très pretentious to American ears. And perhaps this is an important point not to be lost: NPR is in the business of communicating news and information to a primarily American audience.

'Linguism?'

Some who contact me are hearing reporters who pronounce place names in an indigenous manner. This moved listener Peter Hall to ask how NPR decides which foreign words should be pronounced as the locals might and which should be pronounced with an American accent:

Why do I hear NPR announcers pronouncing some foreign names (including their own) and place names with a foreign accent, but others without? It's jolting to hear a story that's mostly in broadcast English but peppered with foreign-accented words.

As well, there seems to be an implicit racism, or "lingualism," or "culturalism" in the odd, inconsistent practice. I can only assume that foreign-accented pronunciations are done in the spirit of respect. But if pronouncing foreign words with a foreign accent is respectful to that culture and its language, doesn't it then follow that there's an implied disrespect to cultures (that) are not given the same treatment?

... We live in a multi-lingual, pluralistic world, and people must understand everywhere that those who do not speak their language fluently are bound to mispronounce it according to their standards.

In my opinion, the implicit message there is, "Oh, well, this group over here, they aren't sophisticated to understand that we English-speaking Americans don't know how to pronounce their language properly, so we'll help them along by doing verbal back-flips and contortions in our radio broadcasts." That's not very enlightened. And I don't think the people of the United States, collectively, are fooling anybody into thinking we're enlightened these days. Rich, powerful and often helpful, yes; enlightened, no.

I think that Mr. Hall raises interesting points, especially about those NPR reporters with non-English names. Is Mr. Hall suggesting that they do not have the right to pronounce their own names as they see fit? I shouldn't think so.

But American English has always been a flexible language. The way we speak can be influenced by waves of immigration, or by the degree of interest or disinterest we express from time to time about the rest of the world.

The Old 'Who' Vs. 'Whom' Rule

Mason Smith, a listener with good ears and a good sense of grammar writes:

I hate to be bothering you with anything so trivial, but can we possibly get writers and speakers for the radio who know when (to use) "who" and when to use "whom?"... in a report on the nomination of Judge Alito, we have him reportedly complimenting Sandra Day O'Connor "whom he said went out of her way," etc. I'd hate to see the language change to accept this. There's a way to do it with the objective case of the pronoun, but this ain't it.

Absolutely. Whom and where was the editor? [I note with some surprise, that the spell-checker on this computer software has failed to remind me that my use of the word "whom" in the previous sentence, while a weak attempt at humor, is in fact, incorrect! Note to self: Call Bill Gates…].

Hands Up!

And while our attention is on matters legal, a learned listener, David Kraft, points out that some terminology stems from physical manifestations:

Indictments are handed UP, not down, as (NPR) reported.

The reference is to the bench. Indictments are handed up while sentences are handed down.

Editors Should Know Their Fates

Robert Smithson noted a report that seems to misunderstand the concept of "fate."

I was really surprised to hear an NPR report (on Oct. 29) totally misuse the word "fate." The report stated:

"After weeks of speculation, the two men at the center of this investigation finally learned their fates. Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, received good news. His lawyer released a statement this morning saying in part, 'The special counsel has advised Mr. Rove that he has made no decision about whether or not to bring charges and that Mr. Rove's status has not changed.' Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff, was not as fortunate."

Huh?? Rove DIDN'T learn his fate — his fate has not been determined. ONLY Libby's fate was decided.

How does a clear mistake like this get through reporters and editors?

'... Dropping Aitches Everywhere...'

Charles Everest notes that NPR reporters and newsreaders regularly misuse the aspirate "h."

Please let all of your reporters, commentators etc. know that words that start with H are not prefaced with an, as in "an historic setting" or "an historic event". The only H words that use "an" are: an hour, an herb (only in the American pronunciation) and an honor etc.... A historic, a history, a hysterical, etc. are correct. Almost every announcer on NPR and WUNC says "an historical" etc.

It really grates on my nerves, and it is not correct use of the language or common parlance.

Mr. Everest's complaint underscores the fact that a spoken language is, as mentioned, a dynamic process, and language does change over time. Checking a number of reference guides and one reference librarian, here's what I found:

The use of "an historic" is in fact, not technically incorrect but is now considered archaic and pedantic. According to Fowler's Dictionary of English Usage:

A is used before all consonants except silent 'h' (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced, the distinction has become pedantic, and a historical should be said and written...

NPR's reference librarian uses a more journalistic source to back Mr. Everest's concern. According to Kee Malesky:

The AP Stylebook 2005 agrees:

Use the article a before consonant sounds: a historic event...

(As we discussed, this is just a personal affectation. It should be discouraged.)

An Infestation of the 'Apostrofly'*

Mr. Everest also raised a question about when to use the plural possessive on the radio.

For example: should we say "John Roberts' confirmation" or "John Roberts's confirmation?" Mr. Everest is advocating the latter.

In print this is a constant issue. My esteemed colleague Ian Mayes is the readers' editor (aka, the Ombudsman) at the Guardian in London. He has referred to this inappropriate use of the apostrophe as a dropping by that mythic creature, the *"Apostrofly." Ian has had to call in the exterminators to the offices of the Guardian more than once.

But in the court of audio appeal, Kee Malesky thinks that although Mr. Everest may be technically correct, it would sound odd on the radio. The use of the additional "s" on words that end in the letter "s" is now considered archaic.

NPR wouldn't and shouldn't refer either to John "Roberts-es" or Harriet "Miers-es" nominations.

On the radio, what may be linguistically and grammatically correct can also sound like a "clanger" to the ear. When that happens, people just stop listening because they are distracted by what they have just heard.

And that goes against another law — the law of good radio.

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