I've heard more than one BBC newsreader pronounce the first name of the president of the United States the way I (an American) would refer to a military quartering, approximately "BERReck." This flies in the face of the way American journalists pronounce it, the way Kenyans -- who might be said to have first dibs -- pronounce it (which is not quite the same, as the r is an alveolar flap and both syllables are equally stressed), and the way the man himself pronounces it: roughly "BuhROCK." I was wondering what the reason for this might be; is this how the BBC has decided to pronounce the name, did I happen to hear a random couple of errors, or do different newsreaders get to choose the way they pronounce the names of world leaders?
And then I had message from Damien Hall, a sociolinguist at York University, who said:
Just checked in at SBaCL again, and found a comment on the latest post about the (?former) British habit of pronouncing the new President 'BA-r@ck Obama'. [DH is using the @ to stand for the schwa sound--i.e. an unstressed, reduced vowel--ed.] I have resisted the temptation to launch into a response on it, as I predict that the response could be quite lengthy (tempting though it was, as my (American) wife and I have talked about this difference: my observation is that almost all Brits used to pronounce 'Barack' with initial stress but, once he became more familiar, many/most learned that that wasn't where the stress went; and my theory is that it just fits into BrE's usual greater tendency to nativise foreign things including stress-patterns, cf garage etc).
In response to American Anne T. at this post:
I've just come from listening to NPR (National Public Radio) on which a British reporter, didn't catch his name, was interviewing Pakistani people about what they expect from Barack Obama. BARack Obama, he said, repeatedly. With a hard first A and stress on the first syllable, instead of BaRACK with a soft first (and second) A and stress on the second syllable. Why oh why?Which just goes to prove that this blog is not a democracy, since the poor, mispronounced man has been in office for over a year now, and I've failed to respond to what has to be the most requested topic in my inbox. Since then, I've had further correspondence with Damien, who points out this joke at the pronunciation's expense:
Early on, when he was but a candidate for the Democratic nomination (whom people over here seemed to unanimously think would lose to Hillary Clinton, though that's only my impression, as I was in America at the time), the misperception that his name was pronounced 'BA-r@ck' gave rise to a memorable moment from Andy Parsons on Mock The Week. I can't find a video of it, but the line was essentially this:This is only funny if you know the BrE use of barrack as a verb that means mean 'to heckle, to shout down' (particularly with reference to politicians--see the examples here). (And, yes, you can say shit on the BBC--but only (BrE) after the watershed.) Damien also thinks we pronounce the surname differently, with BrE speakers more likely to reduce the first syllable /o/ to a schwa, and Americans more likely to retain a fuller [o].
Parsons: 'BA-r@ck'? That's a bad name for a candidate, isn't it? Imagine the scene: "Ladies and gentlemen, 'BA-r@ck' Obama!" "Whaat? Oh, OK - 'Oy! Obama! You're SHIT!'"
My excuse for leaving this topic for so long is that, as you know, pronunciation is not my strong point. So, I asked John Wells, author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, what he made of this. He reports:
In the current (3rd) edition of LPD I give the BrE pronunciation as ˈbæræk or -ək, the AmE as bəˈrɑːk or bəˈræk. I don't think it's a BBC decision. It's the usual BrE vs AmE treatment of foreign disyllables: cf cliché, café etc.We've talked about some of these differences in various places before, especially here. But we've also talked about the feeling that names should be pronounced as the named person pronounces them--or at least as closely as one can with the sounds at one's dialectal disposal. Since all the sounds here are available to BBC newsreaders, it's hard for me to feel like the usual treatment of foreign disyllables should apply, since names have a lot more allowance for variation from the standard dialectal rules than non-name words do. So, the difference is explained, but not justified in my book.
Of course, you'll be able to (indeed, I can too) point out lots of examples in which Americans pronounce British names incorrectly. But they typically do so from a position of ignorance, rather than intention. Since it'd be hard to miss Americans' pronunciation of their own president's name, it seems less likely that ignorance is to blame here, though it may well be inattention rather than intention. (And, as someone with a horrible memory for learned pronunciations, I cannot lead the switch-hunt.)
So, what do you think? Excusable or not? To what lengths should one go in order to accommodate the pronunciation of personal names that flout one's dialect's rules? Do (AmE) newscasters/(BrE) news readers have different responsibilities for this than the rest of us? Or, by attempting the 'correct' pronunciation, do they leave themselves open to mocking? (I was trying to find the Saturday Night Live clips in which Victoria Jackson tried to authentically pronounce 'Nicaragua', but apparently they are not on the web. Ho-hum.)