Bahhhhrain, but not Frrrrrance. Why Anglicise selectively?

Posted on 17 March 2011

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Anchorman Ron Burgundy wasn't immune from it either

As the news swings back from earthquake- and tsunami-hit Japan, casting its gaze back on events in the Arab World, one of my favourite things about newsreaders is back on our screens.

Ever notice how some people who read the news change accents when reading some foreign cities or names?

If you have, you’re not alone.

I’m sure “Bahrain” was always pronounced without that protruding ‘h’, just /bɑ:ˈreɪn/ – bah like a sheep, then rain like the wet stuff.

No more. The phlegm is well and truly flying.

But what seems to be happening is that we’ve got too excited about pronouncing the various Arabic /H/ sounds – and I have a sneaking suspicions it started after people began congregating in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

This has now spread to Bahrain, with people trying to recreate the glorious pharyngeal voiceless fricative [ħ] (represented by the letter ḥāʾح, in the original Arabic word), or at least its velar cousin [x] (which would actually be a different letter, hāʾخ).

The obvious problems are – more often or not, it won’t be the correct pronunciation anyway, and more like a stereotypical comedy accent – and if you do get it right, it can sound horrifically pretentious.

But for our newsreaders there’s a bigger problem: it distracts the listener for a good few seconds, and the next two or three sentences might as well be in a language understood by no more than five or six Inuits.

The last time this happened so obviously was following the Haitian earthquake in January 2010.

The capital of the country, which was the scene of most of the devastation, is Port-au-Prince.

Newsreaders in the UK fell into rival groups: those who put on a French pronunciation (something like Porrrt o Prans” /pɔʁtopʁɛ̃s/) and those who didn’t budge an inch (“Port-oh-Prince” /pɔ:təʊˈprɪns/).

The point is – group one isn’t right either. It’s pronounced [pɔtopɣɛ̃s] in the local Haitian Creole.

Another example that pops up occasionally is normally due to the handful of Arabic or Farsi speakers amongst the country’s newsreaders – and this is when Afghanistan starts sounding very un-English.

The BBC's Kim Ghattas sometimes gets the 'gh' treatment

The [a]s become something closer to [o]s, and the ‘gh’ is rendered with its delightful voiced velar fricative, [ɣ].

There are a lot of examples – all capable of being funny, annoying, pretentious – or just obstructive.

After all, we don’t do it with regional places in the UK or in other English-speaking countries – you don’t throw on a Welsh accent for ‘Llandudno’. Nor do you west-country it up for ‘Penzance’, Bronx it up for ‘New York’, or Aussie it up for ‘Melbourne’.

I’m probably definitely not immune from it. I find myself overdoing some words even if I know just a tiny bit of the original language. It can be tempting to let the linguist inside you pop out and give ‘Fuerteventura’ its Spanish twang.

But equally, entire phrases can be Anglicised if their currency is great enough, e.g. c’est la vieplus ça change, en route – which we very much Anglicise.

Words that we use commonly fall into a more or less standard pronunciation – something that will be close to the most natural set of sounds, given your language, ironing out sounds that are alien or distracting.

As previously uncommon words gain frequency of usage, users have to go through that journey of naturalisation: Bahrain was in virtually all bulletins today, Port-au-Prince was new to people just over a year ago. This is common normal – and to be fair, pretty excusable.

You notice that as soon as the word looks difficult – it’s strictly English sounds: Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov doesn’t get much Turkmen charm.

But it’s when people make a point of hamming it up – showing their knowledge or ability to pronounce that unusual sound – that it actually forms a barrier to comprehension.

Working on radio, when it comes to pronouncing foreign words, you’re nearly always told to play it somewhere down the middle if there’s not a very common Anglicised pronunciation.

Basically – annoy as few people as possible. Don’t distract people. Make it fit into the sentence.

If it’s an extremely unusual word – e.g. with some foreign names, or unheard-of towns – where there’s an argument for making a point of slowing down or articulating it clearly, but there’s no excuse for going mad over it.

Of course, you won’t satisfy everyone. No doubt some people will be up-in-arms that you didn’t put the right falling tone in a particular Chinese word, or the right alveolar click in that Xhosa phrase.

But there’s a fine between removing all exoticness from the word – and rendering it very English-ly – and landing yourself in a comedy sketch.

I suppose it’s best to be as consistent as possible, otherwise we might as well pronounce Afghanistan – Of(g)hanistOn, Brazil – Braziwww, and Egypt – Misr.

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