NBC's pronunciation conundrum
Bauder - Aug. 15, 2008 12:00 AM
NEW YORK - In the shadow of Olympic venues, Brian Williams has anchored NBC's "Nightly News" this week in a city he calls Bay-jing.
Yet Bob Costas, Meredith Vieira and many of NBC's sports announcers seem to be working in a different, more exotic place: Bay-zhing.
So which is it?
Williams is right, if you talk to experts in the Chinese language. He's even recorded something about the pronunciation puzzle for NBC's Web site, although it doesn't seem to be required viewing for everyone at the network.
"It's been annoying me for quite awhile, honestly," said S. Robert Ramsey, a college professor and author of "The Language of China."
He's not alone, and it isn't just NBC at fault. "For you mousse-coiffed, Mr. Gravitas TV anchor types and you sotto voce public radio types, please oh please stop saying "Bay-zheeng," wrote Kaiser Kuo, who works for a China-based ad agency and wrote an online guide for journalists covering the Olympics. "The pronunciation of the city's name couldn't be easier."
Carson Yee and John Weinstein, experts in the language who occasionally do theater work as Two Chinese Characters, recorded a YouTube video clip making the same point.
Does it really matter? Think how Tony Soprano would feel if you said he lived in New Zhersey (Joisey is another issue entirely). You'd get strange looks if you order zha-va at your local coffee shop.
And who's going to sing "Zhingle Bells" when they go caroling this winter?
"If we can't even pronounce Beijing correctly and consistently, how can we ever hope to address deeper cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts?" Yee told The Associated Press.
Beijing used to be known as Peking to English speakers. It officially changed in 1949, when the new Communist government adopted the pinyin transliteration method for proper names, according to Logoi.com, which sells software for learning languages. The change came into popular usage in the West when the Chinese began using Beijing on all official documents in the 1980s.
Ramsey said he believed Bay-zhing came into usage because it sounded more foreign, more mysterious. Some in the West may subconciously believe the harder-sounding "jing" sounds like a slur against the Chinese, he said.
What strikes him odd is that the "zh" sound isn't used in the English language.
"You have to work to get it wrong," he said.
Williams told the AP he asked around when he got to China - NBC News' Chinese-born Beijing staff, cab drivers, local broadcasters, interns. Everyone he spoke to used "jing." He said he's tried to honor that, while admitting to a few slips.
"It's all about being a good guest," he said.
The Toronto-based Yee said his haranguing of Canadian broadcasters about the issue seems to have made some headway. He's been less successful in the United States, he said.
"Television networks should be setting a higher standard of pronunciation and fulfilling their role of informing and educating the viewing public," he said. "Mispronunciations are misinformation. The casual attitude of the networks towards this matter is, at best, negligent and, at worst, bordering on disrespect for China and the Chinese."