It's Not Walter Cronkite's Fault! Nor Even Richard Nixon's. More on the Beijing/Beizhing Wars

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A few days ago I mentioned a linguistically interesting tic of NBC Olympic announcers. When they have to name where the Olympics were held four years ago, they say "Beizhing," with a Frenchified zh- sound in the middle of it, rather than "Beijing," with a plain old "Jingle Bells"-style j- sound. This is interesting because plain old j- would be more normal for English speakers as well as being closer to the Chinese sound.

Readers suggested various explanations, ranging from "deep down Americans think that all foreign languages are French" to the possible steering effect of Walter Cronkite's early mispronunciation of the term.

But non! Pas de tout! Another crop of messages convincingly clears Cronkite's name. Here we go.

A simple question. A reader asks:

Stupid question but would Cronkite have been saying Peking in 1972?  I realize the Chinese adopted pinyin in 1949 (or I think that's the case) but we Americans were slow to follow suit. I was born in 1971 and feel like it wasn't until some time in my early childhood that we fully switched.  Am I wrong?

No. Exactly right. Under today's pinyin system for rendering Chinese sounds in Roman script, the capital of China is presented as "Beijing." Before that, Americans saw it in print, and generally pronounced it, as "Peking." The "before that" period included Walter Cronkite's most influential era as a broadcaster. Here are a few small samples from numerous messages elaborating this point.

It's all Peking to me. A reader writes:

You quote a reader suggesting "So I'm guessing that if you dig out CBS's coverage of Nixon's 1972 trip to Beijing that Walter was saying Beizhing."

In 1972, wouldn't Walter Cronkite more likely have pronounced the word as 'pea - king', following the American english interpretation of the then-standard romanization ["Peking"], as in the video here.

"Peking" pronounced by anchor -- Roger Mudd? -- at ~ 0:37 and in voiceover at ~ 2:46.

The announcer doesn't really look or sound like Roger Mudd to me, but who knows -- and I agree on the other points.

Kissinger, Nixon, and Roger Mudd all agree
. My in-house linguistic consultant has more evidence on the Peking front. First she points out this clip of Nixon announcing Henry Kissinger's trip to China in 1972. It is most definitely Roger Mudd doing the announcing on this one. Early on you can hear Nixon saying the magic word at times 1:14 and 1:27.
 

In those first 90 seconds you can also hear Nixon refer to Kissinger's Chinese counterpart, whom we would now identify as Premier Zhou Enlai. In those days his name was usually rendered as Chou En-Lai, and Nixon (understandably) says it with an English ch- sound. The point is that the Chinese have changed the pronunciation neither of their capital, 北京, nor of their premier in that era, 周恩来. But we say the words differently because we see a different Western spelling. The final reader comment below* bears on this point.

Similarly, you can hear (if faintly) Henry Kissinger saying "Peking" in this fascinating bit from one of Nixon's recorded White House phone calls with him.
 

You have to turn up the volume to hear Kissinger, since his side of the conversation is so much fainter. And to be honest, the "Peking" angle is about the tenth most interesting part of this exchange. The most interesting is Nixon's comparison of himself to Abraham Lincoln. Also, the fact that Kissinger's Germanic accent in English sounded lighter 40 years ago than it does these days.

Now, all this clears Walter Cronkite of blame -- phew! -- but still doesn't explain Beijing / Beizhing. A few more hypotheses:

It's a pinyin problem. A Chinese-American reader writes:

A couple months ago our mutual friend [another Chinese-American person I know in Beijing] complained about my mispronouncing Beijing while we were catching up over Sazeracs (though he blamed Tom Brokaw, not Walter Cronkite). 

My explanation of the phenomenon is to blame pinyin & its often hamhanded polysyllabic representation of a monsyllabic language.

As a Chinese-American w/some vestigial knowledge of written Chinese, I would never mispronounce Beijing if I was reading the Chinese characters, but the latinate visual rendering in pinyin combined w/a dose of your 1st featured correspondent's theory (". . . [A]t 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.") is responsible for "Beizhing."  I'm fairly certain no one would mispronounce Beijing if it was rendered as Bei Jing.

Fifty shades of beige. A reader suggests:

May I add another theory on the pronunciation of Beijing?

I think we are unconsciously adding -ing to a common word, beige. Lazy, perhaps, but it's easier to elide the zh sound than to crisply separate the syllables and to pronounce them in a less familiar way.

There is hope for change. A reader with a Western name writes:

It's definitely hyperforeignism: the soft 'j' sounds more exotic. But for just this reason, you will never succeed in changing the mispronunciation by advising people to pronounce 'Beijing' like a normal English word. The foreignness of the city is too deeply ingrained. The solution is to get people to imagine the hard 'j' as even more alien and exotic than the soft. It worked for me!

There is no hope for change. A reader with a Chinese name writes:

This is the same as the frog/boiling water phenomenon.  It will propagate forever.

*Why do we keep changing spelling or pronunciation of foreign names at all? A reader asks:

This brings up a pet peeve of mine: when foreign governments decide that the names of their cities in English should be changed, often to something debatably closer to the native language pronunciations, and the American media go along with it. 

Major cities and countries have historically had different names in different languages, and these names serve a good purpose by being easy to pronounce and identify in the languages where they are used.  There is really no more reason to say "Beijing" in English than "München" or "Moskva."  The Chinese didn't change the name of the city; they told people to say it differently in English.  But last I checked, the Chinese government has no authority over how people speak English.  I see this as another aspect of their inability to, as you put it well, "...show the confidence that allows them to be something other than control freaks..."  I may be wrong, but I believe no country with mature, confident leadership has done this sort of thing in recent memory.

(It's especially galling in the case of Canton/Guangzhou where the "new" English name is based on a Mandarin pronunciation that isn't even used locally.  It's as if the Swiss government told the US media to stop using the English name of Geneva and replace it with the German name.)

There is a lot more on hand, but that is enough for now. Oh, OK, two other leads:

  • Language Log had a valuable discussion of just this question while the "Beizhing Olympics" were under way.
  • Many, many people have views on a preceding reader's claim that "junta" is a word of Anglo-Saxon origin and that its first three letters should be pronounced as in the work "junk." That's for next time. (Hint: no one agrees.)
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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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