Is It Walter Cronkite's Fault? Why Olympic Announcers Keep Saying 'Beizhing'

As I mentioned when the Olympics opened, it should be easy rather than hard for English speakers to pronounce the name of China's capital, setting aside the whole nightmare of tones in Chinese. The second syllable of "Beijing" is pronounced like the jing in "Jingle Bells." Yet for some reason American newscasters usually end up pronouncing that syllable zhing, with a Frenchified, fricative zh- sound like that in azure or camouflage. You hear this in practically every mention of the 2008 Olympic Games during NBC's telecasts.

walter-cronkite-01.jpgWhat's going on? Readers weigh in, including with an explanation for the Uncle Walter picture at right.

'It's all French to me'. A Western reader who lives in Beijing and works as a translator writes:

My working theory about "Beijing/bay-zhing" is that at some deep, unconscious level, English speakers secretly believe that all foreign languages are French and should be pronounced as such in the absence of instructions to the contrary.

Coonhounds in Denmark. From another expat:

I'm an American, recently returned from a few years' living in Denmark. I find that Copenhagen provides an excellent example of the 'foreign names require foreign pronunciation' phenomenon. My American friends tend to refer to "CopenHAAAHHHgen", which sort of makes sense for a German or English name but sounds nothing like the Danish pronunciation.

Danes 'swallow' many of their consonants, so their capital becomes something like "koonhown" - picture a redneck talking about his coonhound, subtract the final d, and you're about as close as an American tongue can get. That image always makes me chuckle when I explain it to my American friends, who have very carefully Euro-cized the natural American pronunciation of "CopenHAYgen" for better authenticity.

It's called 'hyperforeignism.' From another reader:

Regarding your article today about the frequent mispronunciation of Beijing, there's actually a term to describe to describe this: a hyperforeignism. The wikipedia entry even has an interesting theory about the pronunciation of Beijing, but the citation attributed to it doesn't seem to reference that specific fact, so it's tough to know if it is accurate.

But maybe there's a good reason. A reader with experience in China writes, forgivingly:

I think I might have a different idea on why English speakers pronounce Beijing the way we do.

The lighter, allegedly more natural j sound from Chinese is actually a little bit more work for our English-speaking mouths to do.  The change from Bei to ing is elided more easily by a zh sound than j.  Try it out for yourself, keeping in mind where your tongue articulates (touches something, teeth, palate, etc) as you say both versions.  Unless my mouth turns out to be abnormally shaped, you should find zh is a little bit easier.

I'll check this one with my in-house linguistics/phonetics expert when she gets back. In the meantime, It's all Walter Cronkite's fault. A reader hypothesizes:

I have a theory that many mispronounced (by Americans) place names in Asia can be traced back to Walter Cronkite.  If Walter said way instead of hway when reporting about Hue during the Tet Offensive, then all us Americans also said way. Same with Laos over Lao. So I'm guessing that if you dig out CBS's coverage of Nixon's 1972 trip to Beijing that Walter was saying Beizhing.  One then wonders where Cronkite got his pronunciation?

The Spanish angle. A reader agrees about Beizhing and adds:

Now, please use your bully pulpit to advocate (not advocate for, just advocate, but that's another battle) the proper pronunciation of junta. Announcers seem to believe, without any reason to, that the word is Spanish in origin and must be pronounced hoon-ta. In fact,. it's an Anglo-Saxon word, and should be pronounced jun (as in junk) ta.

If you can accomplish that, then you and I shall not have lived in vain.

I explicitly leave the junta battles to my correspondent; I don't know enough about this one to take it on. But on my ever-hopeful general approach to life, I'll listen to hear how "Beijing" is rendered in tonight's Olympic telecast.*
* And on Olympic-viewing strategy, please read this nice post by the Atlantic's Rebecca Rosen on how news outlets could make it easier for viewers who are trying to avoid Olympic-spoiler news to do so. For instance, I genuinely enjoyed seeing the results of the men's 4x100 freestyle race much, much more not knowing how it turned out than I would have if I had known. Same with a number of other big showdowns. I learned the hard way that the NYT home page (like NPR's) puts the latest breaking-news sports results at the top of the screen, where you take in the (spoiler) results in the briefest glance at the site. So I'm not going there for the next two weeks -- and of course nowhere near Twitter. Rosen's piece does a very good job of explaining the etiquette of this whole situation from all sides.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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