What better time to tackle the issue of NPR's policy around on-air pronunciation of non-English words than when the devastating fire in France's Notre Dame Cathedral has been in the news?
Some accents have been better than others, but across the board on NPR I've heard only a French pronunciation: "No-treh Daahm," instead of the Anglicized "Noter Dame." Not that a single listener has objected when hearing it pronounced more or less as the locals in France would say it. And that's telling.
The public editor's office hears regularly from listeners who have questions or objections when it comes to how NPR's on-air staff pronounce non-English-origin names and places. Often these letters are about mispronunciation, an issue the newsroom takes seriously, in my experience. On occasion, multiple emails will fly before the newsroom lands on a pronunciation that everyone can agree on.
To a casual listener, NPR's pronunciations could seem arbitrary. In the same breath as they say "No-treh Daahm," NPR's on-air folks talk about where it's located — in "PAIR-iss" (not "Pah-REE"). That's the most obvious example, but there are many more. NPR refers to Moscow, not Mosk-vah; Rome, not Roma.
One of the guiding factors is clarity for listeners: Many listeners would be confused to suddenly hear those capital names rendered in their native language. Over the years, NPR has changed newsroom guidance on its pronunciation for some well-known places, including, in 2013, Kiev, and in 2014, Edinburgh. Both of those changes, however, were subtler (in the case of Kiev, it was a switch in which syllable to emphasize). So yes, the choices may seem arbitrary, but they are also carefully considered and understandable.
So far, so good. But then there's the flip side of this issue: the letters we get from listeners complaining precisely because NPR staffers are using the proper pronunciation for that language. In all cases I recall, these listeners expressed those concerns only about accurate Spanish pronunciations.
Here's a typical letter:
I am writing to inquire about NPR's editorial policy on the pronunciation of foreign names. Lately, NPR announcers ... have been pronouncing Latin American names using Spanish pronunciations. Yet when pronouncing Swedish, German, Chinese or Vietnamese names, NPR announcers pronounce the names using the American English pronunciation. I am perhaps a minority, but I find the sudden influx of a foreign pronunciation in Spanish, but not for any other language, to be irritating. ... I would be very pleased if NPR announcers pronounced Chinese and Swedish names in Chinese or Swedish, but this isn't the case.
The listener is not quite correct. NPR does pronounce many names and places with local language pronunciation; the guidance to the newsroom for names in particular is to "get as close as possible to the source." But authentic Spanish pronunciations are indeed more prevalent.
Three weeks ago on Twitter, Weekend Edition Sunday's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the first Latina to host an NPR newsmagazine, posted a snippet of a voicemail from another listener. He was a bit more direct than the letter cited above. For those who don't want to listen, here's a transcript (pronunciation rendering is mine):
But when are we going to start saying, for instance, "Vlad-ee-meer Poot-een" when we refer to the president of Russia? And every time someone mentions the prime minister of England, should we go into a cockney accent and refer to "Theresa May?" I mean, would it only be equal? So kudos to speaking the Spanish names in a Spanish manner. But to not be exclusive to one ethnicity, which is racism, I think it should be done for all ethnicities.
It seems a stretch to argue that using authentic pronunciation for Spanish but not for other languages represents a form of racism. And actually one could argue that the racism in at least some of the complaints runs the other way. As Eric Deggans, NPR's TV critic, put it to me, some of these concerns seem "rooted in a paranoia about cultural dominance – some version of ‛Spanish is taking over everywhere' – that is ultimately racist and unfair."
Garcia-Navarro's ensuing Twitter thread and the comments from others who jumped in help explain why listeners hear a difference.
As she wrote:
My thoughts are these. A) I'm bilingual. I'm not affecting an accent or trying to be pretentious. I speak the language. I think people aren't used to hearing things pronounced correctly because we are not used to hosts from different backgrounds on the air.
B) Actually everyone tries to pronounce the words correctly. At NPR we ask native speakers to give us the best pronunciation of their city or name and then we give it a try. It is anglicized only because we frequently fail at getting it right. The anglo version is imperfect.
C) I know sometimes it's hard to listen to if you have a stream of words in what seems like a foreign language. So I do mix it up if that happens. Soften it or slow it down. But I'm not going to mispronounce it.
D) A frequent question is why don't we say PAREE for Paris. Well, there are longstanding English words for some [capital] cities. Of course we use them if we are speaking in English. But I will say the President of France's name correctly (I also speak French).
I could go on (and obviously the caller mixes up an accent from East London with a language like Spanish). But this is the way I do it. It is still the subject of debate. There are no rules, necessarily. But I feel good about where I've landed. Appreciate your thoughts too! LMK
And the reason I'm writing about this is that I do feel we should be more transparent about why we do things in the media and get feedback.
Eyder Peralta, NPR's reporter based in Kenya, also jumped into the conversation:
Lots of assumptions in this thread. I grew up in Miami, where we added English to Spanish. And of course, easily, naturally interjected Spanish into English. One of the reasons, I like hearing @lourdesgnavarro on the air is because she validates my experience as a Brown American.
So many times in our lives, we are forced to "assimilate." To accept white and English as default. But @npr especially has a responsibility to represent the vast experiences of Americans.
That means that someone from Miami will pronounce Caracas in Spanish, but a 5th generation Mexican-American will anglicize San Antonio.
The thing is all of these are American experiences. The problem I have is when we try to make white the default in a country as diverse as the United States. And as I've said before Spanish deserves a special place in the US.
We can't forget that it's a language that predates the Union and is at least somewhat spoken by a bunch of us Latinos in the US. To demand anglicization feels personal and, honestly, feels designed to deny the Americanness of our experience.
As Garcia-Navarro said, this issue is far from decided in the newsroom. Many I heard from internally told me they support any effort to pronounce non-English words as they are pronounced in their original language. One suggested that it depended on whether the reporter or host was a native speaker. A few, however, said NPR should stick with Anglicized place names in particular.
He wrote (and told me, as well):
My priority as a radio journalist is clear communication in an aural medium. Pronouncing a place name with a foreign pronunciation distracts the listener, and [they're] liable to miss what I'm trying to communicate. Anglicized place names evolved because they're easier for an English-speaker to understand. I think @NPR sometimes tries to use "authentic" pronunciation to virtue-signal (or education-signal) ... which listeners pick up on. It can be interpreted as arrogant. (Not saying it's meant that way, but it can sound that way.)
(Here's a 2017 Reddit thread on the topic, where some of those "arrogant" interpretations surfaced: Why do the NPR hosts over pronounce Latino names/places and not others like Asian or African?)
To get back to the first listener's query: The policy boils down to editors and on-air staff who make judgment calls about whether or not the audience will be confused; the decisions are not always consistent, and some of the decisions depend on who is doing the speaking, a native speaker or not. Garcia-Navarro called it "an art, not a science."
Mark Memmott, NPR's standards and practices editor, told me, "We want our correspondents and hosts to speak naturally." For some who are dual- or multi-language proficient, their natural pronunciation might be different than that of an English-only speaker, he said, and all are welcome "as long as it's understandable to the bulk of the audience."
He made the same point as Peralta did to me: NPR has made a commitment to sound like America, "and America has many accents."
As the country changes, NPR needs to change with it (or rather, catch up to changes that have been happening for some time now). Even though more than 40 million U.S. residents spoke Spanish at home (just over 13 percent of the population over the age of five) according to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data, NPR is unlikely to start broadcasting much content in Spanish any time soon (although there's also an argument to be made for allowing more extended Spanish-language clips). But authentic pronunciation of names and places seems logical to me.
In fact, Garcia-Navarro said NPR has already been changing. She joined NPR in 2005 as the Mexico City-based correspondent and had many more conversations with editors then about acceptable on-air pronunciation, she said. (Here's what NPR's first ombudsman, Jeffrey Dvorkin, had to say on the topic that year.) "I think times have changed. I hope we have a better understanding now of how multicultural the country is," she said.
So should there be a carve-out, an exception for Spanish, as Peralta suggested? In my opinion, yes. Language mirrors society. But why not go further and gradually expand the number of names and places that are pronounced authentically, to the extent that it's possible for the journalist? Eventually, I'd expect that the audience would catch up. Garcia-Navarro put it well: "I fundamentally believe it's a matter of respect."
As Peralta reminded me, founding program director Bill Siemering's original vision for NPR talked about regarding individual differences "with respect and joy" and celebrating the human experience as "infinitely varied."
Update: Here's the NPR Training team's guidance on pronunciation.