Foreign words: how (not) to be a Brit


Tony Blair ‘Bonjour a tous….’ (2007)

Two high-profile individuals from different parts of the world dominated recent headlines for meeting their premature deaths in gruesome circumstances. These sad events also presented non-native reporters and commentators with a major pronunciation challenge: how to say their names.

Should this be an issue? Yes, I think it should. Say, I were a famous novelist who met an untimely end. It would be nice to think they’d got my name right and didn’t just hurry it through as Jenny Ravioli or Jenny River-Areola. Ha ha, yes, but these are real and frequent (spoken) examples and they are wearing thin.

So should the unfortunate Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, whose surname is almost as long as that Welsh railway station, be pronounced ‘Wee-chai Sea Wattena Prappar‘ (per several BBC reporters and newsreaders) or more like ‘Vee-chai Shriva Dana Prava’ according to Al Jazeera English and others?

And was poor Jamal Khashoggi ‘Cash-Odd-She’ (a popular option), ‘Ha-Sod-Jee’ (newsreader Shaun Lay), or ‘Cash-Shid-Jee’ (Turkey’s President Erdogan)? Or even, as Eve Pollard suggested on this week’s Start The Week, ‘Ha-Shag-Jee’? Which sounds more like a tasteless headline from one of the red-tops she used to edit.

Anyway weren’t namesakes Soraya and her erstwhile husband the dodgy arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi usually referred to, in the UK at least, as ‘Cash-ogg-i’? In other words, just what the word looks like to a British reader.

When I began working for the BBC in the 1980s, there was a dusty little office (now long gone) on the fourth floor of Broadcasting House labelled ‘Pronunciation Unit’. Inside lived a small team of dedicated professionals who would rather have been strangled by their old school ties than have wrongly advised a BBC newsreader on how to pronounce ‘Mikhail Gorbachev’ or ‘the Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole’. I’m sure I remember Angela Rippon’s eyebrows rising even higher as she said their names.

So the BBC was proud to set the standard – but of course Joe Public was allowed to get it wrong. In fact we Brits hate no-one more than a show-off. In a kind of inverted snobbery, we even take pride in speaking foreign languages with an appalling accent. Like the ubiquitous Brit on the flight to Malaga who loudly says ‘Moo-chose Grassy-arse’ after being delivered of his fourth G&T and then laughs so much it makes his belly wobble over his ill-fitting shorts.

To many, even that is preferable to Tony Blair trying to demonstrate his good French – as here in 2007. I wish I could feel happier that he made the effort, but admit I only managed the first few sentences because he sounded and looked a little too pleased with himself.

As to our current prime minister – we can’t even agree whether Theresa should rhyme with geezer or razor. But she, at least, is more British in her approach to French with a stiff upper (and lower) lip delivery at this January meeting with Emmanuel Macron. 

All in all, it feels depressingly like a demonstration of Brexiteer insularity. Macron, of course, follows in impeccable English.

My English mother, in an attempt to bond (or narrow the communication gulf) with her Spanish sister-in-law, took a different approach. She tried to imagine how the Spanish might say it. She’d occasionally mention ‘Shack-es-pay-are-ray’ – our great bard from ‘E-strat-for’. This was usually met with a blank expression and an impatient shrug, which made me wish Mum had stuck with the real pronunciation.

But I admit I do advise the students in my Spanish evening classes to do something similar. After a frustrating visit to a pharmacy in Andalucia many years ago, I tell them if they want Vicks VapoRub they should ask for ‘Veece-Vappo-Roo‘. When in Spain…


Theresa May: the modest but less polished approach (2018)

Author: jennyrivarola

I'm a writer of blogs, poetry, short stories, articles, profiles and websites.

4 thoughts on “Foreign words: how (not) to be a Brit”

  1. I’m quite astonished by the variation in the Beeb’s pronunciation of Khashoggi too. Every newsreader and presenter has their ‘own’ way – which comes across as, I don’t know, slightly disrespectful. Even if it’s not strictly phonetically accurate, at least take the trouble to agree on a BBC way of saying the name.

    On a less censorious note – I and I suspect many others have a mnemonic for the Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He’s a Rigid-type Erdowan (other types not available).


  2. Jenny Riv (!): But Blair always looked smug. He had a degree in smugness, after taking lessons from his brother, Lionel. And speaking as my trekking group’s official translator, whatever the language, I know that pronunciation is less important than willingness. I find willingness will carry me a long way, especially with women! And Harry Pilgrim has no difficulty with language – it’s the listeners that are the problem. His adventures in Catalonia (herewith) illustrate this quite well… Hope you’re thriving, Ciaou, Len

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


    1. Quite right about Blair’s smugness of course. Though the leaders I respect most in the language department are those who have at least made an effort to master one other than English.
      Regarding pronunciation, the point is we need to try to make the right ‘music’ – otherwise listeners have difficulty tuning in.


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