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Last Updated: Friday, 3 June, 2005, 15:21 GMT 16:21 UK
Nation speaks unto nation
Many viewers get in touch with the BBC not about the content of the news, but about how it is delivered. Wrong pronunciation of words is something that clearly annoys a large number of people.

Tim Gossling called NewsWatch about the way foreign names were being pronounced on the news.

"Names like Vladimir, Milosevic, places in Poland, Welsh names like Blaenau Gwent. There's absolutely no consistency in the way people pronounce names at the BBC," he said. "I don't know why this should be apart from the general British attitude that there are only two languages in the world - English and foreign.

"I really think the BBC's image would be much improved if it tried a bit harder."

Voice synthesiser

NewsWatch invited Tim to see how the BBC deals with the issue and how the information is passed to the reporters and presenters at the sharp end.

Tim Gossling
Tim Gossling: BBC could do better
He said he'd always had a vision of a BBC pronunciation unit consisting of one person in a basement room surrounded by piles of dusty dictionaries.

The dictionaries are still important, but these days technology means the work of the unit is instantly accessible across the BBC.

As well as telephoning or e-mailing the pronunciation unit, BBC broadcasters can check pronunciations online. The database contains more than 200,000 entries, researched and indexed over the past 80 years.

They are written using a phonetic spelling system and since 2003 there has also been a voice synthesiser to give an aural rendition of the word or phrase.

The database has more than 200,000 entries
"It reflects an anglicised version of the correct pronunciation," explained Catherine Sangster, one of the unit's three pronunciation linguists.

"But audio is not always helpful because you can't be putting headphones on to listen when you're on air in a studio!"

The unit adds about 100 new pronunciations a week and also tries to anticipate the requests it's likely to get.

"We look at online and print news sources and at the programme running orders and we choose perhaps 25 or 30 names which are going to be coming up in the news and put them together in a daily list," said Catherine.

"And before the election we researched all the Parliamentary constituency names for broadcasters involved in political programming and published them together in a special list.

Catherine Sangster
Catherine Sangster: "We try to anticipate demand"
"Stories are going to break during the day and if something is new we get it on the database and on to the list within a few minutes.

"We have a wonderful resource within the BBC in that the World Service staff and the staff at BBC Monitoring in Caversham speak hundreds of different languages and they are on the end of a phone and usually able to help us out very quickly.

"News are a major customer but we give advice to the whole BBC - on drama, football teams, Mastermind questions, all sorts of things. We think it's important to get these things right."


But finding the correct pronunciation isn't always straightforward. "Many major cities have an English pronunciation - obvious examples would be Paris or Rio de Janeiro - and these pronunciations appear in dictionaries and gazetteers," said Catherine.

"Nobody broadcasting in English would call Paris 'Par-ee', but with smaller places it gets more complicated because you get both the anglicised version and the native pronunciation.

"An example of that is Basra. All the English language gazetteers and encyclopaedias give 'baz-ra' as an accepted English pronunciation but the Arabic version sounds more like 'buss-ra', and you'll hear both forms being used."

Sophie Raworth, one of the presenters of the Six O'Clock News is a regular caller to the unit.

"I use them a lot, probably every day," she said. "I often ring them because I like to hear it from the horse's mouth as it were. I write it straight into my script so when it comes up on the Autocue at six o'clock I know I have written it in and I know exactly how to say it."

But she admits it can be difficult keeping the pronunciation purists happy all the time.

Sophie Raworth
Sophie Raworth: "My job is to get it right"
"Some words become accepted in our everyday language and it takes quite an effort to change that," explained Sophie.

"There are words that become anglicised. I am a linguist - I speak French and German - and if I start saying words with a French or German pronunciation, I can sound strange if they are words that people are used to hearing in a different way.

"But I do care about it because it's my job and I have got to get it right. I know how infuriating it is when you are sitting watching television and somebody says a word completely wrong when you know how it should be pronounced. But I'm sure that I care because I'm a linguist and because I hear words mispronounced all the time."

After his visit, Tim Gossling was pleased to see the subject being taken seriously.

"The pronunciation unit seems to be working very well," he said, "but despite all this a lot of mispronunciations are getting through.

"There seems to be a slight culture problem in that presenters and reporters are not always consulting it as often as they should and I think it could be done a lot better."


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