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Pronunciation Minefield

October 8, 2009

svejda.jpegRadio presenters -- especially ones engaged in hosting cultural programs -- are very particular about the way they pronounce proper nouns. This is of course very important: You have to get names right or you risk causing offense to the bearer of the noun in question and/or being completely misunderstood by listeners.

I was having a conversation about this topic yesterday over lunch in downtown Los Angeles with the classical music radio station KUSC's great veteran host, Jim Svejda (pictured). Jim talked about how annoying it is that radio hosts mispronounce names like John Barbirolli -- turning the penultimate noun in the faous 20th century British conductor and cellist's last name into a long "oh" instead of a short "o".

Sometimes there's a case to be made for mispronouncing proper nouns on the radio, though. A seasoned radio producer who listened to the pilot episodes of my vocal music radio series, VoiceBox, brought this fact home to me a couple of months ago when he pointed out the shortcomings of saying certain proper names in the way they absolutely should be pronounced. The name in question was Edith Piaf. On the radio, I had pronounced the French chanteuse's name with a perfect French accent, instead of employing the fashion in which the singer's name is usually pronounced in the US, with the stress placed on the first syllables, as in EEdith pEEaf. On the radio, I pronounced the name in this way: "edYt piAHf", with a clipped "e" and "t", and the stresses placed on the second syllable, rather than the first.

My pronunciation was correct by French standards. But because it sounded so different to how most American listeners would say and hear the name, it made more sense to mispronounce it on the radio than use the French articulation.

This all goes to stress one important point about speaking on the radio (or indeed any oral medium): Comprehension should be the ultimate arbiter of pronunciation.


  • I know this is an old thread but Svejda is the last person in the world to talk about pronunciation. He may have an idea about "Barbiroli", but anyone who says "Bow-row-deen", combined with his pompous presentation will forever lose my respect.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At March 23, 2016 at 11:28 PM  

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