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The pronunciation nightmare. How to settle those newsroom debates.

Updated: May 25, 2021

One of my favourite recent stories was the croquet match that took place to decide which is the right way to pronounce the River Nene. A more English story you could not find anywhere. In Northamptonshire it is the "Nen" while for Cambridgeshire folk it is pronounced "Neen". So Northampton and Peterborough croquet clubs battled it out to decide which one would prevail, with Northampton getting the crucial 7-2 win.

This reminded me of my days at Fox FM (one of the great local radio stations that disappeared in the brand trampling by Global in 2009) when pronunciation issues were numerate. Like many local stations there was a guide for journalists and presenters who did not know the quirky ways of Oxfordshire place names. One of the most perplexing was Cherwell. Seems simple enough. But for people in Oxford, it was pronounced CHAR-well, while in north Oxfordshire it was the expected CHER-well.

This led to endless discussions in the team about what was right. Fox FM had studios in Oxford but broadcast to the whole county. My view was that we should pronounce it the way the people say it where Cherwell is geographically. And that’s north Oxfordshire (Cherwell District is the local government authority). But no, we had to say CHAR-well in our news bulletins. The reason for the conflict is because on a map of Oxford in 1605 the area was spelt Charwelle and that stuck.

At Fox FM there were many different things to remember. Students at the university did not jump into the River Thames. It is known as the Isis in Oxford – and that is what we had to say. Back in the late 1990’s that did not present the challenges it might do now, with its more recent link to terrorism. Among the other obvious ones were Magdelen College (which is Maud-lin of course) and Bicester, which most people born in England should know is BISS-TER.

During the years, the number of discussions I have had about the right and wrong way to say a place name is countless. Often the discussion ends with disagreement, especially when it comes to overseas place names. Take for example Barcelona. You have to decide whether you go with the S or TH sound in the middle. My view is that we should say place names as we would in English (or whatever region you are from). I cannot imagine that Spanish radio stations spend hours debating whether they should say LUN-DUN rather than Londres for the UK capital.

Take this debate to something more specific in Barcelona and you start to realise just how confusing pronunciations and naming is. The stadium for Barcelona is known locally as the Camp Nou, yet we have called it the Nou Camp in the UK for years. I have no idea why, because the translation from Catalan or Spanish is New Field. So why not call it that?

I could add paragraph after paragraph of examples without coming to any firm conclusion on many (if not all) of them. The fact is, you cannot win. While English place names should have a definitive pronunciation, it varies on your accent. The 'a' sound in places like Bath, Newcastle and Glasgow will be different, depending on where you are from. For foreign place names, we anglicize names like Cologne from Koln and Munich from Munchen, so that means putting great effort into how locals would say a place name in their language/accent is often pointless. And those place names will also be said differently across that country.

What editors must do, is to decide where they stand and what they think is right and make that the policy for the outlet. It is important to be consistent on a station or in a news team. But I can guarantee that even this blog will start some debate about what I have said. So the next time an argument erupts on our news desk, I am going to insist the debate is settled by a game of darts or pool!


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