Get me a pronouncer!

On WOI Radio at Iowa State University, they’ve developed a Pronouncing Dictionary of Music and Musicians for use by personnel as a computerized database for printing “pronouncers” to be pasted alongside the words to be pronounced on the printed material accompanying sound recordings.” You have to learn the spelling conventions used, as this introduction shows:

“The objective has been to supply an approximate pronunciation of words that might cause some difficulty for Americans. Most of the “pronouncers” are for words in foreign languages. For some well-known foreign words or names whose common American pronunciation differs from that in the original language, two pronunciations are given—an Americanized version first in braces, followed by the original language. Johann Sebastian Bach appears as {suh-BASS-tihunn} zay-BAH-stihahn, and the pronouncer for Tchaikovsky appears as {chahee-KAWF-skee} chay-KAWF-skee. For persons with foreign names who lived for a long time or now live in English-speaking countries or whose names have become so thoroughly Americanized that the foreign pronunciation would sound incorrect to many people, only an Americanized version is given. For Georges Bizet, for example, the pronouncer is shown as the Americanized zhorzh bee-zay [i.e. long final vowel] instead of the French zhorzh bee-zeh.

The interesting thing is that Americans in all their own enormous linguistic variety probably already pronounce such foreign words differently in different parts of the U.S.. And anyway, why give two versions? Do we say “Paree in springtime?”

Famous for its attention to ‘correct’ pronunciation, the BBC has its own system to train announcers to handle such names as:

“Gennadiy ROZHDESTVENSKIY (gÄ•náadi rozh-dyáy –stvÄ•nski) with g as in “get”; zh as ‘s’ in “measure”; -ay as in “day”).”

Anyone would be forgiven for making the odd mistake trying to decipher this hang-over from a pre-Edisonian world.

In a interesting twist on this radio ‘pronouncer’ agenda, The NYT ran a story today on Paul Topping, the man who establishes pronunciations of anything from acronyms such as LED (the diode) to the vocabulary of Frank Herbert’s Dune language Chakobsa for the (professional) readers of audiobooks. Like everyone else, Topping has invented his own phonetic system with “only 30 characters” to help his voices get it right.

Presumably someone will eventually put an end to this transcriptional madness, and program a text to speech engine that delivers a vast range of foreign or unusual word pronunciations as sound for announcers preparing their spiel (shPiil) in all kinds of different languages, and make it available as a customizable database service through an earphone via a standard mobile phone platform. I’m sure professional readers or announcers are better at imitating speech sounds than reading out cue cards in sub-IPA.

Andrew Joscelyne
European, a language technology industry watcher since Electric Word was first published, sometime journalist, consultant, market analyst and animateur of projects. Interested in technologies for augmenting human intellectual endeavour, multilingual méssage, the history of language machines, the future of translation, and the life of the digital mindset.

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