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Taking the zhing out of Beijing

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April August 16, 2008 05:02 PM

Olympics watchers may have noticed that the balance of power is shifting between two pronunciations of Beijing. As the word spreads, announcers are trying -- some of them, anyway -- to say bay-jing instead of the faux-French bay-zhing.

Yesterday on "All Things Considered," NPR's Anthony Kuhn explained why it's "j as in juice." And today the Globe ran an AP story on it, contrasting Brian Williams's correct pronunciation with Bob Costas and Meredith Vieira's bay-zhing.

Bay-zhing came into usage because it sounded more foreign, said one AP source, echoing a common explanation -- that we tend to add a foreign sound, appropriate or not, to an unfamiliar but non-English word. It's not that we have to pronounce foreign place names as native speakers do: We don't say Paree or Venezia. But the pronunciation should make sense in English, if not in its language of origin, and the -zh- in bay-zhing fails that test.

Ossetia is a tougher one. Steve Dodson at LanguageHat blogged about it last Sunday:

I realize none of the broadcasters and reporters have ever heard of Ossetia before, but you'd think the patterns of English spelling would clue them in to its proper pronunciation, ah-SEE-shə.* I suppose it's another case of hyperforeignification, like "bei-ZHING."

That's right, he said ah-SEE-shə. You can hear Ossetia pronounced at Merriam-Webster's online dictionary (though they give it four syllables, not LanguageHat's three): ah-SEE-she-ə.

But Russians say os-SET-ee-ə, and if you listen to BBC radio, you may have heard Russian interviewees using this pronunciation -- which the British broadcasters echoed, naturally enough.

Also, there's a fairly universal impulse to use so-called spelling pronunciations, or at least to overarticulate words, when you think your listeners might not recognize them without help. That might explain why consortium is losing its -sh- sound; on the other hand, it could hardly apply to species or controversial, which are going the same way.

At any rate, opinion remains mixed on Ossetia, but on Beijing, the bay-jing wing is coming on strong. Tune your tongues accordingly.

*The first syllable can be ah- or oh-; see the 88 comments on LanguageHat's post for much, much more.

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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