Listeners respond to a changing American landscape on the radio

Public radio listeners, appropriately so, are sticklers for accuracy. So it’s at least a little amusing to read this week’s NPR public editor (formerly ombudsman) column which tackles the complaints of listeners who object to reporters and hosts pronouncing things correctly — specifically, non-English names.

The complaints typically involve the pronunciation of Spanish names, Elizabeth Jensen writes.

One listener left a voicemail for Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the first Latina to host an NPR newsmagazine, Jensen pointed out.

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.

On Twitter, Garcia-Navarro defended her accuracy.

“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,” NPR reporter Eyder Peralta added.

There’s a lot of that going around these days, and God bless NPR’s Eric Deggans, who doesn’t hold back the honesty in giving his view to Jensen.

[The complaints are] “rooted in a paranoia about cultural dominance – some version of ‛Spanish is taking over everywhere’ – that is ultimately racist and unfair,” he said.

Not everyone at NPR agrees. Former MPR reporter Martin Kaste, a longtime NPR correspondent who speaks fluent German and Portuguese, is one.

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 the reality: the country is changing, Jensen acknowledges and “NPR needs to change with it.”

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.”

She’s right. Eventually the listening audience will catch up to the changing American landscape.

Eventually.

  • MrE85

    I wish I had enough free time on my hand to worry about how a Latina newsperson pronounces a Spanish word or name on the air. I have noted it, but I can’t see getting my undies in a bunch about it. I’m grateful to hear someone pronounce it correctly. Like when I heard a hotel clerk in Lyon, France pronounce my name “Row-bear Mo-feet.”

    • Deggans is right. It’s all a reaction to white America’s feeling that it’s losing its grasp on dominance. Every other objection is just smokescreen for that fact.

      • Guest

        Same feeling to hear Press 1 for English…..

      • Sonny T

        I respectfully disagree. If by respectful I can say Deggans is completely, utterly wrong. There is no racial component to this.

        • Jerry

          You’re right, it’s more ethnic than racial.

        • Jim in RF

          Only weeks to go before this blog disappears, and I might (finally) agree (partially) w/you, Sonny. There is some racism, but a lot of it is silly pedantry and arrogance. Its worthy of discussion and not just going straight to the “100% racism” position.

        • He’s a black guy saying there is. You’re a white guy saying there isn’t.

          See how this works?

          • Sonny T

            Do not bring my (assumed) race into this. Or anyone else’s, for that matter. This is disrespectful. Grossly.

          • So, you’re white and you have a white perspective. Deggans is black and he has a black perspective. Those what are we call facts. Sometimes facts annoy people because they often force people to examine why they accept as fact that which they only believe to be true. Uncomfortable stuff for them.

          • Sonny T

            I cannot seem to convince you how offensive this is. It’s basic. Your mother could tell you, or anyone’s.

            Call Deggans up. Tell him you know why he thinks the way he thinks. When he asks how you know, tell him, “Because you’re black.”

            Make sure it’s a phone call. This is not something you want to say to someone’s face.

          • I don’t think he necessarily thinks whites are worried about losing their dominance because he’s black. But I think he has a perspective and knowledge as a result of living life as a black person in America that allows him to recognize that there is a white dominance.. You have a perspective too, but it’s only as a white person. You believe he’s wrong because you don’t have his perspective; you have your perspective. It’s why white people have such a hard time understanding what white privilege is. It seems normal to you.

            This is also why white people are so quick to declare that there’s no racism. For them, there isn’t. It’s also why they’re so quick to express a concern about racism. Because they use it to stop any discussion about its existence, and, hence, derail any discussion that might lead to a change in the order of things.

            It’s all so phony and transparent.

          • Sonny T

            “You believe he’s wrong because you don’t have his perspective…”

            No. I believe he’s wrong because of the facts of the case and the logic of the argument.

  • chlost

    It is somewhat comparable to being introduced to someone as “Richard” and then calling that person “Dick”. Respect for others’ names should not be hard.

    • Rob

      No Dicks, only Ree-shards’.

      • I always wondered why “Lulu Garcia-Navarro” changed from “Lourdes”…until my boss, also named “Lourdes” told me that “Lulu” is a common nickname for “Lourdes.”

        /Plus LGN is just plain badass and can call herself whatever she wants.

    • Kassie

      It is so simple. Names, nicknames, pronouns, all of it. Respect what people want to be called and do your best to pronounce their names the best you can.

  • Guest

    My ear “awakens” to hear a non-English name pronounced correctly and fluently in Spanish, French ……

    It helps me to know what the folks in that place hear when that name is spoken.

    THE BEAUTY OF RADIO.= 🙂

    We all need to give each other some slack. I am sure many Minnesota towns would be mis-pronounced on radio in the US or elsewhere.

  • Jerry

    I don’t understand the needless anglicization of foreign names that goes back centuries. Why is it Rome, not Roma. Milan, not Milano. Moscow, not Moskva. Spain and not España. Traveling internationally would be a lot easier if the English had not decided to make up their own names for everything.

    • Jack

      Exactly!

    • Rob

      But it just wouldn’t sound as country if George Strait sang, “Ahmahreeyo by morning… ”
      : )

      • Jerry

        It would sound better.

    • And does anyone still call it Peking?

      • Jerry

        Probably the same ones who use the term “oriental” to describe people.

        What is especially annoying is that under the Wade-Giles system, which Peking is, a “P” is supposed to be pronounced like “B” and “K” is supposed to have a “J” sound. If you are going to romanize a language, why wouldn’t you do it phonetically?

      • Rob

        Only in restaurants, where ducks are involved. : )

      • QuietBlue

        Not in English, but it’s still in use in other languages.

    • QuietBlue

      It doesn’t just happen in English; it occurs in other languages too. In German, Spain is Spanien, Italy is Italien, etc. I know there are other languages that do this as well, but I’m not sure about every language.

    • boB from WA

      Lima Ohio; Lima Peru

      • king harvest

        Versailles, Kentucky. Pronounced ver-sales.

    • D.Robot

      At the same time, it’s worth noting that we write Paris and Berlin the same way, but pronounce them differently in English.
      When you go farther afield it starts getting weirder. Why “Munich” instead of “Muenchen?” Why Japan instead of Nippon? Weirder still: why the heck did someone decide to spell Kiribati the way it it is, if it’s pronounced differently? Supposedly it was easier for missionaries to teach the locals to pronounce a “T-I” as an S sound, rather than just teach them S.

  • Al

    I listen to public radio to learn. I assume, when someone is pronouncing something in a way I hadn’t, that it’s another thing I get to learn for the day.

    If I ever declare that I’m done learning, take me out back Old Yeller-style.

  • Jack

    Think of all the folks worked up with the news coverage of the fire at Notre Dame. Personally I loved hearing it pronounced the way that the locals do.

    I recommend a dose of the BBC World Service to all (especially Americans).

    • Jeff

      Yes, I was annoyed hearing a number of the local and national news people referring to it using the college name pronunciation (“noter dame”). Makes us sound like ignorant hicks. At least Frank and Amelia got it right.

    • D.Robot

      Agreed regarding the pronounciation of Notre Dame, but at the same time, English language reporters will probably never pronounce “Paris” the way the locals do…. at that point, you’re basically speaking a foreign language and your audience will be thrown for a loop…. And as English is my first language, I’d feel weird suddenly pronouncing it the way the French do when I’m speaking English. I speak French too, and when I do I pronounce it the French way. The same applies to “Eiffel” and other French names and words. The same applies to how I’d say “Berlin” if speaking English vs. German also.

  • Rob

    Kaste thinks it’s arrogant and virtue-sigmallling for news staff to pronounce things accurately? Sounds like he needs to head for a network whose name starts with an F.

    IMO, it’s hugely refreshing to hear broadcasters pronounce proper names and place names in their original language. Rock on, Lulu!

    • Martin’s a good guy and a great reporter. He had a different perspective. It’s allowed.

      • Rob

        I’m a several-decades MPR/NPR listener and member, so have more than a passing familiarity with Kaste’s bona fides. But it’s passing strange that a person with such bona-fides – especially his multi-fluency – has a perspective on this that is IMO so narrow.

        • I don’t know that it is. He makes a legitimate point that his job is to get information to the listener without distraction. I think his problem comes in the use of the phrase “virtue signalling” (which is the new “PC”) and not making a distinction who exactly he’s talking about.

          For example, I think Ari Shapiro giving a particular pronunciation in the native tongue of a country he’s talking about is different than Garcia-Navarro giving it in hers.

          And I think that’s what Martin is referring to.

          • Rob

            Lemme get this straight: you’re saying it’s cool on an English-language broadcast if a newsperson with a Spanish-speaking background pronounces Spanish names or titles with their original pronunciation, but that a newsperson who isn’t, should pronounce them in an anglicized way?

          • I’m saying what I said I said, which is basically what Navarro-Garcia said.

          • lusophone

            I think point of view is key here. It is so often the cause for misunderstanding. And maybe this is an obvious statement, but fluency in a foreign language and being a native speaker of that language are two very different things.

    • Jeff

      Ironically, if I hadn’t heard his name over and over I would butcher the pronunciation. Kaste said it could be interpreted that way not necessarily that he thinks that.

      While I generally agree, I don’t think it’s that black and white.For example, it would be annoying if “Mexico” was pronounced properly on broadcasts.

      • Rob

        May the hee-co be with you.

  • jon

    Germany or Deutschland?

    It bothers me when propernames are different between languages.
    Let the Deutschlanders choose their own term to identify themselves.

    • I never used to understand what Norge was.

      • Rob

        I believe it was a prominent refrigerator brand, back in the day.

    • Kassie

      I took Geography when I was studying in Nicaragua. Every language does this. We are Estados Unidos in Spanish speaking countries. German is Alemania.

  • J Allen

    As a former Iowan, there are place names that aren’t pronounced correctly and haven’t been since they were founded. One is Madrid (pronounced MAD-rid), another is Nevada (pronounced Nuh-VAY-duh). The running joke is that you can always tell when someone isn’t from around those towns.

    • ec99

      True. Same for Minnesota. How do natives pronounce Owatonna and New Prague, versus those on the Weather Channel?

      • and Montevideo.

        • X.A. Smith

          And in South Dakota, Pierre. (Pronounced Peer)

          • X.A. Smith

            And New Prague, MN. (Praig)

        • ec99

          I have lived in many places in the US, and have always been asked “What is your accent?” My response was always “I don’t have an accent, you do.” But, over time, I realized Minnesotans do have an accent. It’s how we pronounce our vowels, and where we put stress, and how we elongate syllables.”

          • yeah, but the midwest accent is still what the people trying to beat regional accents out of radio people are shooting for when trying to get people not to have accents.

          • ec99

            The General Midwest Accent was always taught to media people. It tried to eliminate Rather’s Texas accent. All the Canadian actors (Lorne Green, Shatner, Landon, et al) strove for it.

          • Jay T. Berken

            My brother and I in ’01 went on a European backpack trip. When in Italy, we started hanging out with with a guy from Washington state for a week to share hotel/hostel costs. On day two we told him we were from Wisconsin/Minnesota. He said, “Really! I thought you two were from Canada.”

          • “Really! I thought you two were from Canada.”

            Ope, sorry.

          • Jay T. Berken

            It was actually to our advantage because W. was doing his first tour behind us as President before 9/11. The Europeans didn’t really like him and thinking we were Canadian, they acted nicer to us.

          • The same thing happened me and my father when we visited Paris in 2004.

      • Rob

        As a native South Dakotan, it’s always been a head-scratcher to me as to why the state capitol, Pierre, is pronounced “Peer” rather than “Pee-air'”.

        • ec99

          Speakers of American English have always taken foreign language words and applied their pronunciation.

          • RBHolb

            I had a teacher in college from Britain who always pronounced the title of the great novel as “Don Quicks Oat.” He was fluent in Spanish; in fact, he taught for a time in Puerto Rico.

          • ec99

            “Puerto Rico.”

            Which there is pronounced Puelto Hico.

  • ec99

    Spanish regional pronunciations are as varied as English. You can pretty much narrow down where speakers are from by how they pronounce their consonants. Some eliminate the /s/ (¿Cómo etá Uté?). Others turn /r/ to /l/. (Hablal). Others turn the trilled /r/ into a glottal fricative.

    Which dialect are you going to use?

    I remember being at Miami International Airport, where announcements were made in Cuban dialect and General American Spanish.

    • king harvest

      A French Canadian, a Cajun, and a Frenchman walk into a bar
      And can’t understand each other

      • ec99

        I thought I understood French, until I spoke to a Quebecois. And there are dangers. In French “Combien de gosses avez-vous?” means “How many children do you have?” In Quebecois it means “How many testicles do you have?”

        • king harvest

          The joy of language.

          • ec99

            D’accord.

      • A French Canadian, a Cajun, and a Frenchman walk into a bar and can’t understand each other

        Cool story, Bro time:

        I was in Venice, Italy chatting with the young woman at the front desk. She spoke better English than I did.

        A gentleman from the deep south of the US came to the desk and asked her a question in English.

        She stopped, looked at me, then turned back and asked him to repeat the question, which he did.

        She again looked at me.

        I just shrugged and said, “He and I are from the same country and I have NO idea what he said,”

        /He slowed down and enunciated his question the third time.

        • Jay T. Berken

          “He slowed down and enunciated his question the third time.”

          Smart guy.

          When I was in Venice, we met up with couple guys from Chicago to share a hostel with. We got lunch and one of the guys wanted milk. The waitress didn’t understand, so to guy proceeded to say it louder and louder to almost shouting it. She still didn’t understand until my brother slowly explained it to her, and for the rest of the lunch she hide from us until we really needed something. It really showed me how arrogant we Americans can be.

    • Rob

      Glottal fricatives are awesome!

  • Angry Jonny

    I thoroughly enjoy hearing “This is Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, from Dakar”. It just sounds cool when she says it. I think plenty of people can lighten up about dialect and accents.

    • Jay T. Berken

      Her pronunciation of Da-kaaar always sounds bad ass. I make sure to listen to the end of her segment just to hear her say Dakar, and get a hint of disappointment when she is elsewhere.

  • lusophone

    This is a very interesting subject for me. When some people object to how journalists pronounce a foreign language, it’s just their inner issues surfacing. As a guest and Angry Jonny already noted, we all need to give everyone some slack and lighten up.

    I speak to people on the phone quite a bit and come across many surnames that I have never heard before. As I was about to say a man’s surname, guessing it was Polish or thereabouts, I started by apologizing for not knowing how to pronounce his name and I went ahead and gave it my best shot. His response was the best I have ever heard, “I don’t either, but that sounded pretty good to me.”

  • Mike Worcester

    I tried to see if anyone else mentioned this; when Nick Hayes used to appear on Almanac, he always said “poo – teen”. I would tell my h.s. kids to say it that way and they would get corrected. I figured, hey, he’s a Russian expert, so I’ll go with him. I still try to use that pronounciation, and still get corrected some days.

    • Jerry

      Mmm…French fries, cheese curds, and gravy, what’s not to love about poo-teen?

  • Andrew

    I actually thought it was cool when I heard them pronounce certain words or names in a Spanish manner. How certain hosts can switch back and forth from English to Spanish so quickly. I had no clue this was such an issue. It shouldn’t be.