or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, November 12, 2005


This, from Languagehat.com, is the sort of thing that makes me, at least a little, not want to try to pronounce anything that isn't obviously an English word:

I just heard a radio news announcer say "In Beijing... uh, Beizhing..." My wife gets nervous when I swear at the radio, so I'll say it here: there is no /zh/ sound in Mandarin Chinese! Why on earth do people insist on looking at a pinyin j, which is pronounced pretty much exactly like an English j, and reading it as if it were French? Stop it, all of you, just stop it!

I don't think I ever did it, but if I did, I'll stop it, all right. But you know what? Most people in North America aren't fluent in Mandarin Chinese. Ten years or so ago, we're told that "Peking", which most of us grew up with, isn't the correct way to spell it--doesn't match the Chinese pronunciation--so we're instructed to replace it with the spelling "Beijing". (The same is true of other words, such as the former "tao", now increasingly often rendered and pronounced "dao".) Fine; done, although I note that we still have, immutably, the Pekingese dog and tasty Peking duck. But the more observant among us note that the actress Zhang Ziyi has the dreaded "zh-" in front of her name, and in English, how are we supposed to pronounce that except exactly as it looks? If there's no "zh-" in Mandarin, then what's that doing there? Should it be "Jang Ziyi"? Or isn't that near enough, either?

Every language makes compromises when dealing with other languages that present orthographic or pronunciational challenges; it isn't just true of us barbaric English speakers. It's true that we don't pronounce "Paris" as the French do, it's true that Germans don't call their country "Germany" as we do, but they don't pronounce or spell "New Brunswick" the way Canadians do, either.

I bow to no-one in my desire for accuracy and precision in language, and that does apply to words freshly imported from other languages. (I've already noted that most people get "Pinochet" wrong and should try a little harder.) But when people are making an effort, when they're trying to get something from a foreign language correct, when they're doing the best they can with the tools they have at hand, we cut them a little slack.


Blogger language said...

Hey, I'm happy to cut people slack in these matters -- I'm the last person in the world to insist people pronounce foreign names and words "correctly." What gets my goat is that in this case the word is insanely easy to pronounce: just read it as if it were English. Beijing = bay-jing. What could be simpler? And yet the announcers import this un-English zh sound just to make themselves sound, I don't know, authoritative. Shouldn't news announcers have some idea how to pronounce things, anyway?

Monday, November 14, 2005 4:43:00 PM  
Blogger pyramus said...

They should, but they don't seem to get any training in pronunciation, do they? (I'll bet BBC newscasters do.) "The Simpsons" nailed the problem when they showed pretentious newsman Kent Brockman rehearsing before the evening's broadcast, repeatedly mangling "Kuala Lumpur" in his script before scratching it out and replacing it with "France".

It's good to know that "Beijing" is pronounced the way it looks; transliteration can be a real morass (particularly, I think, Arabic; I'm told it has a number of sounds not present in English, which explains the huge number of spellings for "Qaddafi"). You wouldn't happen to know why Zhang Ziyi's name is spelled that way in English, though, would you?

Monday, November 14, 2005 5:02:00 PM  

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