NBC Olympic Announcers: Please Read This

By James Fallows

Interesting coverage so far! Thanks and keep it up.

BJ.jpg

Here's a minor tip. In your coverage, you must often refer to the site of the 2008 Olympics. For instance, in comparing how Michael Phelps is doing in London versus Beijing.

When you do that, please remember that the "jing" in Beijing is pronounced basically like the "jing" in Jingle Bells. It's essentially the normal English j- sound. What it's not like is the Frenchified zh- sound you hear in "azure" or "leisure," or at the end of "sabotage." (Jīng, meaning capital, is the right-hand character above. The other is Běi, meaning north.)

BeijingWelcomesYou.jpgYes, I know: place names and proper nouns never fare well when crossing language barriers. We don't say "Venice" or "Paris" the way their residents do; the Chinese pronounce the site of the 2000 Olympics as Xīní.

But often these changes occur because the "real" foreign pronunciation is rare or awkward in your own language. It's the opposite this time. The right sound is closer to the familiar "Jingle Bells" one than to zh- style exotica. You can read more on the linguistics of the matter here.

When I asked my in-house linguistics-and-Chinese-language expert why she thought American broadcasters liked saying Beizhing, she said that it was probably because people somehow felt that a foreign word should have a "foreign" pronunciation -- and because they've heard it that way so often. In fact, we heard it that way about 500 times on NBC today. Olympic announcers, you can make the difference! Just repeat to yourself, "Bei-jingle bells, Bei-jingle bells, Bei-jingle all the way," and it will come naturally.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/nbc-olympic-announcers-please-read-this/260473/