Pronouncing a person's name

As administrator of the VOA Pronunciation Guide, I am constantly asked to provide the "correct" pronunciation of a person's name.  Phrased as such, the question implies that there is only one "correct" way, to the exclusion of all others.  

How do we know what is "correct"? Were it a perfect world, we would endeavor to carefully interview each person whose name we wish to learn how to pronounce.  We would question him or her about any slight nuances we hear and closely watch the lips move as the sounds are made.  Obviously, we almost never have such an opportunity.  Therefore, we must rely upon that person's colleagues, a VOA language service, a representative of that person's country at the United Nations, or other experts to further our research. 

Even then, opinions will vary.  How one says a name, a word, or a sound often depends upon the speaker's specific origin.  For instance, people from northern Afghanistan may speak differently from their southern counterparts even though they are both speaking the Pashto language.  Here in the United States, there are many recognizable accents.  Just ask a native of the Peach state about the former President and he may well tell you about "JIH-mih KAH-tuh" from "JAW-juh. " 

With this in mind, please be aware that every entry in the VOA Pronunciation Guide database is a compromise, to one degree or the other.  It is hoped that the experts we consult will vary in their opinions only by small degrees, but even this is not always the case.  I often borrow from the Merriam Webster Dictionary editors in pointing out that proper name pronunciation is not a matter of right and wrong.  Read the fine print at the beginning of Merriam Webster's Third International dictionary and you will be told that they are not the "pronunciation police. " Their panels of experts and editors recognize that even educated and informed people will vary in they way they pronounce sounds.  What you will find printed on their pages, and listed in the VOA Pronunciation Guide, is always a compromise.  It is the best information we have at any given time, but is always subject to change when we can find and verify a better source.  

Pronouncing a place name

At VOA, we treat people and place names differently.  For people, we try to say the name as they pronounce it, but do not try to include unusual sounds that we do not have in English.  (For instance, we do not try to imitate the many rising and falling diphthongs found in Chinese.  Nor do we incorporate the guttural sounds found in some European languages. ) 

However, for place names, we rely upon the Merriam Webster Geographic Dictionary as a first source.  If we find the place and pronunciation in the M-W "Green Book," we stop there.  If a place is not included there, we then turn to the Columbia Gazetteer of the World.  After that, if need be, we use VOA language services, United Nations representatives, and outside experts.  The important thing to note is this.  We do not go first to the indigenous people to ask how a place name is pronounced.  We intentionally use an English Geographic dictionary.  

Problem areas

Significant confusion can occur when Merriam Webster's Geographic Dictionary lists more than one pronunciation for a place name.  If a comma separates their choices, this means that they are all equal in "correctness. " Just because a pronunciation is listed first does not mean it is preferred.  With this in mind, VOA broadcasters should consult with their editors if there are multiple choices for place names.  As of this writing, VOA English has no defined methodology for dealing with this problem.  If you find a place name pronunciation in the VOA Pronunciation Guide, you may assume that is considered "correct" by one of our resources, but it may not be the only "correct" way to pronounce the place.  When asked for clarification, I have included pronunciations of a few place names that reflect VOA tradition.  However, without solid methodology for place names, I am hesitant to enter them in the VOA Pronunciation Guide.  

The guide is not intended to be a language teaching tool.  It is not a dictionary of all possible pronunciation permutations.  It is a resource that will help you pronounce difficult foreign names with a much greater degree of assurance than by simply guessing or attempting to Anglicize the sounds.  It is a resource designed for English speaking announcers who often must work under deadline pressure.  I like to use the analogy of shooting an arrow at a target.  The VOA Pronunciation Guide is intended to help your arrow hit the target, but not necessarily score a bulls-eye every time.  

Jim Tedder
July 2003