Routledge and ION

Yesterday, I attended a focus group discussion organized by an editorial director from Routledge. There is nothing unusual about the meeting itself which is worth mentioning here. But towards the end of it, a small amusing (well, at least amusing to me) thing happened. One of the participants, a native speaker of English, asked the representative from Routledge: “How do you say the name of your company?”

I found it amusing because he was interested in the pronunciation, and he dared to ask. (These are all academics with PhDs.)

I recently had a similar experience. I was attending a conference in Singapore, and one evening while loitering on Orchard Road, I saw a new huge shopping mall, the name of which is ION. I began to figure out how to say it. Should the first syllable be AI or EE?

The next thing I did I went up to the enquiries counter and asked the receptionist: “How do you say the name of this shopping mall? Do you say AI-en or EE-en?”

I bet nobody had ever asked her a question like that, and all she could do was burst out laughing. When she managed to compose herself, she told me that both my pronunciations were wrong; they said AI-ON.

So, I learnt another pronunciation. And another pronunciation I learnt while in Singapore is that most people there actually say the first two syllables in ‘Singapore’ as ‘singer’ (i.e., without the /g/). There is so much fun in pronunciation.

One of my dream jobs

BBC has just issued the following recruitment advertisement:


We are pleased to announce a vacancy for a Pronunciation Linguist in

the BBC Pronunciation Unit. The vacancy is for a full-time fixed term

one-year contract to cover maternity leave.

The closing date for applications is Wednesday 28th July 2010. We

expect to conduct interviews on Monday 16th August, and would want the

successful candidate to begin work no later than w/c 13th September.

The BBC can only accept applications from candidates who are eligible

to work in the UK.

For full details of the job, including the specification, competencies

and application form, please visit:

job ref. no. 385939).

Please do circulate these details and encourage any suitable

candidates to apply.

Many thanks

Jo Kim

Pronunciation Linguist and Unit Co-ordinator

Pronunciation Unit, Information & Archives


I think I’ve written before that this is a job that I would be excited about: researching pronunciations and making recommendations to BBC announcers. With so many international channels to run, many of which are news-related , BBC announcers often have to pronounce personal names, place names, brand names, and special terms, from foreign countries. The Pronunciation Unit is responsible for that, and for finding out the pronunciation of new proper names. However, the Pronunciation Unit doesn’t prescribe ‘correct’ pronunciations. Instead, it investigates the pronunciation employed by (native) users or speakers of the term in question, and passes on the result of their investigation to their in-house announcers.

Obviously, they keep a record of the results of their investigations. A few years ago, they published a dictionary containing such results. The dictionary is called the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation. It’s a very interesting guide to, not every foreign term or proper name in existence, but those that have appeared in its radio and TV programmes. You will even find “Donald Tsang” in this dictionary! If you’re interested in how the Brits say words like “Ikea”, “kung fu”, “Nokia”, “Shenzhen”, etc., this is the reference book to turn to.

For me, researching pronunciations used by people is interesting enough. Imagine a paid job which does exactly that!

Of course, I’m only daydreaming. I may not be eligible to work in the UK. I don’t have the actual experience. But if I volunteered to work for them as an apprentice for one month per year, totally for free, would they consider my proposal?

How do you say the word 人?

A man called the RTHK phone-in talk show yesterday morning. He got through, and the first thing he did was to correct the pronunciation of Leung Ka Wing, a co-host of the programme: “The word 人should be pronounced like 仁; but you mispronounced it as 忍.” Leung didn’t argue with him. Later, while expressing his opinion, the man said “嗰D忍”(those people). Leung ‘corrected’ him: “You said 忍just now; it should be仁.”

I teach a course titled “Teaching the pronunciation of English” to groups of preservice teachers, and a course titled “Introduction to English phonetics and phonology” to groups of inservice teachers. A reminder I keep issuing to the participants when I am teaching these courses is: “If you wish to correct someone’s pronunciation, check, and check, and check again.” I myself have made this gaffe on more than one occasion: I corrected someone’s ‘mispronunciation’, only to hear it used by some native speakers later. (Of course it doesn’t mean native speakers are always correct with their pronunciation.) The problem has to do with the existence of varieties of English, and the nature of English.

A pronunciation which is not used in one variety may be commonly employed in another. Also, English is a ‘phonic’ language, but its phonics patterns are not always regular. Even if there is a conventional pronunciation to a word, its spelling may lead to alternative pronunciations later.

And I’m not even touching the increasingly popular notion of World Englishes!

Native speakers of English thus have a much more accommodating attitude towards English pronunciation than we have towards Chinese pronunciation. If you ask a native speaker whether a certain pronunciation is wrong or not, they will most likely say: “Well, I would say it as ….”, instead of dismissing it as unacceptable.

To go back to the pronunciation of人, I am not an expert in Chinese (Cantonese) pronunciation, but I do know that tone shifts are very common in Cantonese. We say

黃and陳 in one tone when we say黃先生and陳先生, but in a different tone when we say ’黃sir’ and ’陳sir’. The message: how to say a word in isolation is one thing; how it is actually said in connected speech is another. This applies to both English and Cantonese.

Incidentally, last Sunday I had lunch with a few friends, one of whom is Dr Benjamin Au Yeung. Because Ben is an expert in Cantonese pronunciation, we had a lot of fun ‘correcting’ each other’s Cantonese pronunciation over the lunch. I happened to mention劉嘉玲, whose Cantonese pronunciation, in my view, was superb for someone from Soochow. To my surprise, they all rated her pronunciation poor! Maybe this is because two of them came to Hong Kong from Beijing many years ago, but today they don’t show any traces of a non-native Cantonese accent, and our friends at the lunch last Sunday have been impressed with that for years. But when I compare 劉嘉玲’s Cantonese with my Putonghua …….


明報專訊】Paul.22 April at 2:12pm 上次我說過香港現時習用的粵語拼音法不太準確,但有時候猜測其原意又頗有趣,例如我見過一張私家車車尾的貼紙寫覑chui chang meh,推敲一輪後原來是頗粗俗的「吹脹咩」;以前中文報章將「搖頭丸」寫作「fing頭丸」,facebook上有舊學生寫「今晚去邊度hea」,要從上文下理才明白hea的意思;招聘廣告雜誌《招職》以jiu jik標示,但與「招職」一詞聲母相同的「張」字卻以cheung來表示。 可見,我們始終需要一套可靠和易用的粵語拼音方法。就我所知,現時有耶魯羅馬字母方案(Yale Romanization),香港出版的字典部分採用國際音標,而內地出版的廣州話字典又有另一套「廣東話拼音方案」,這跟大家都依從漢語拼音(Pinyin)讀普通話的情不同。你覺得學校應否教授粵語拼音?如果答案是肯定的話,應該教授哪套拼音法呢?

Ben.22 April at 2:39pm reply 如果學校只容許教授一套拼音法,我認為香港語言學學會的「粵語拼音方案」(簡稱「粵拼」)較為易學易用。這套粵語音標系統可在《粵語審音配詞字庫》裏找到(。 首先,粵拼裏一個符號標注一個音,譬如「張」、「祥」的聲母分別以z-、c-來表示,避免港式拼音般以一個符號ch-代表兩個不同的讀音。南昌站的「昌」、上環站的「上」,兩個字的韻母都一樣,粵拼給予的韻母是-oeng,但港式的拼音卻把它們當成兩個音,以-eong標注「昌」,以-eung標注「上」。 粵拼的一致性也體現於如何標示粵語的聲調,傳統一直視粵語有9個聲調,但粵拼只給6個,理由是第七、八、九聲的調值分別來自第一、三、六聲的調值,沒有產生新的調值,只是以短促的收音辦法把字音讀出,所以粵拼就有6個聲調。粵拼只有十數年的歷史,香港特區政府的中文界面就是採用粵拼(可參考﹕。 另外,《商務新詞典》(2008年版)及微軟Windows Vista版本也選用粵拼為它們的拼音系統。傳媒方面,例如《明報》教育版及無铫電視的文教節目使用粵拼的頻次也愈來愈多了。 其實,粵語也可由國際音標來標示,我注意到粵語採用的國際音標符號,和英語的國際音標符號不盡相同,尤其在韻母方面,例如粵語「乞」和英文hut的讀音很接近,但前者的注音是(圖列1),後者是(圖列2);「花」和far的讀音很接近,但前者是(圖列3),後者是(圖列4),為何有這些分別?

Paul.22 April at 3:17pm 首先,/(圖列5)/和/(圖列6)/只是接近而並非相同,而且符號運用的不同關乎何謂國際音標和它實際的用法。 國際音標(International Phonetic Alphabet)是國際語音學會(International Phonetic Association)頒布的拼音方案,它參考了很多語言的發音體系,然後歸納成一套利用最少符號去代表人類語言中,出現最多的輔音(consonant)和元音(vowel),即基本音素(phoneme)。 有了此方案,個別語言可從中找出最接近其本身包含的音素的符號,這過程有時需要對所選取的符號略為修正,例如英文有長短韻母之分,於是在選取的國際音標符號之後加上/(圖列7)/,例如 /(圖列8)/(eat)、 / (圖列9) /(pool)、/(圖列10)/(caught),以資識別。 所以嚴格來說,我們在字典找到的英語國際音標符號,只是整套國際音標的一部分,而且經過輕微修正;所謂粵語的國際音標亦然。所以使用個別語言的國際音標時,要先看看它的例字。

Ben.22 April at 3:46pm reply 你提到國際音標/(圖列11)/、/(圖列12)/,電腦要安裝這些特別符號才能顯示出來,但粵拼就完全沒有這些煩惱,現在考考你,「乞」/(圖列13) / 和「花」/(圖列14)/的粵拼寫法是怎樣?


How (not) to say “ciabatta” at a McCafe

This afternoon, I went to a McCafe to get a cup of cappuccino. I had noticed that they were selling small cappuccino’s at a reduced price.

When I arrived at the counter, I saw this sign saying that if you buy a medium or large cappuccino, you can get a ciabatta for 10 dollars, which is originally priced at 19 dollars.

I figured well this is a real bargain, and in any case, I like ciabatta.

But then I was faced with a dilemma: I will say cappuccino in Italian (that is, what I think is the Italian pronunciation), because if I said 意大利泡沫啡, the sales assistant would think that I was messing with her. But should I say “ciabatta” in Cantonese or Italian?

They have put down the Chinese translation next to the word “ciabatta”, so I don’t have to rack my brains for the Chinese word. But I don’t like the Chinese term, which literally means “Italian bread”.

Despite my limited knowledge of Italian food, I’m sure that in Italy they have more than one type of bread. I don’t like the Chinese term because it is not specific enough, and so I don’t want to use it.

I happen to know the Italian pronunciation of ‘ciabatta’ (that is, what I think is the Italian pronunciation). But if I do say ‘ciabatta’, will the sales assistant understand?

Perhaps I need not worry about that. McDonald’s must have trained their staff on the pronunciation of their food items, especially since their restaurants are often patronized by Gweilo’s.

OK, I’ll say ‘ciabatta’, but hang on, will the salesgirl think I’m showing off? You know, this is a McCafe, not the coffee house in Four Seasons. At a McCafe, we should be treating each other as equals.

But I still don’t like the Chinese term for ciabatta.

Having pondered the issue for 30 seconds, I said to the salesgirl, somewhat reluctantly: 唔該一杯cappucinno同一個意式飽。

Rex Harrison, Jude Law, and the Queen

Don’t scratch your head if you find that what I say in this entry seems to contradict what I said in the last.

When I was in Secondary Two, a film came out, which became an instant blockbuster among students in Hong Kong. It was called My Fair Lady.

Now phoneticians won’t accept that some languages by themselves sound more pleasant than others. According to phoneticians, all languages are equal. If we find a language more pleasant or refined to the ear, it is because we have been socialized into thinking so. Hence, if French sounds beautiful to us, it is because we have been taught that France is a highly cultured country. If an African dialect sounds ugly to us, it is because we have been led to think that Africans are uncivilized. Phoneticians maintain that no single language intrinsically sounds more beautiful than others.

Here is the message in My Fair Lady. Received Pronunciation belongs to the elite and the well educated; it is beautiful and exquisite. Cockney belongs to the working class; it is distasteful.

I was in Secondary Two, and I immediately and completely bought into the concept. I began to work painstakingly on my pronunciation, looking to Received Pronunciation as the only model. At the same time, it was the golden age of folk songs (e.g., Peter, Paul, and Mary), and pop music (e.g, the Beatles). Music became my pronunciation training ground, as I sang hour by hour, day by day.

After Rex Harrison, who was Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, I soon became a fan of other British actors who were trained in stage drama, such as Peter O’Toole, and Richard Burton. I continued to find ‘standard British English’ beautiful and elegant, and I began to take pride in my own pronunciation. Listening to Received Pronunciation, and speaking it, was a great source of enjoyment to me.


Many years later, I found in the phonology literature that only 3% of British people spoke RP on a daily basis. I was shocked. Then phoneticians said that the ‘standardardness’ of RP is simply socially engineered; there is nothing intrinsically standard about RP. I was demoralized.

 But deep down, I knew the phoneticians were right.

Why don’t I find my mother tongue, Cantonese, particularly musical (despite its many tones)? Ask a French woman whether she finds French sexy. Ask an African whether he finds his dialect coarse.

Once your ear has become deeply tuned to a language, it becomes just speech sounds. When we learned our mother tongue, it was just a tool for communication. However, when we learned a second language later in life, it came with all the social judgments associated with that language.

Do I still find “standard British English” beautiful today? Well, I guess not as much as I used to. But to me, it represents a set of speech sounds that I still have a special fondness for, especially when compared with my mother tongue. I enjoy listening to English songs more than Cantonese ones. I derive more pleasure from reading aloud an English poem than from a Chinese one. Today, hearing British actors like Hugh Grant and Jude Law is still sheer enjoyment to me. (All my favourite British actors in terms of speech are men: interesting!) Picking up an English poem or article and reading it aloud is enough to cheer myself up for a couple of hours.

Of course, I now realize that it is also voice work and enunciation that are working behind the speech of my favourite British actors, not just their accent. But that’s another story. (Compare Chris Patten with Gordon Brown, both British politicians, and you’ll understand why Chris Patten’s speeches are so much more compelling, although they both speak Received Pronunciation. Then listen to the Queen, who would read out any speech equally mechanically, and you’ll understand why there’s nothing queenly about “Queen’s English”.)

The native speaker, and the standard accent

Dora (false name) opened the door of the small room in this small bed and breakfast that the agency had booked for her. It had been a long day getting the girls (and a couple of boys) settled with their host families at the four corners of Greater London. And this was after a sleepless flight of 13 hours from Hong Kong. Dora breathed a sigh of relief as she put down her heavy knapsack on the floor. Before she had time to sit down on the small bed, the telephone rang.

It was from an angry mother who was calling from Hong Kong.

Mother: Your agency’s prospectus said the host families were all native speakers. But I learnt from my daughter five minutes ago that she was sent to an Indian family. If you don’t reassign my daughter to a native-speaker family, I will pull out my daughter, and your agency has to give me a refund.
Dora: But I’ve met with your daughter’s host family, and they ARE native speakers.
Mother: But they’re Indian.
Dora: But they ARE native speakers.
Mother: But they are Indian!
Dora: Yes, but they were all born in the UK.
Mother: I don’t care whether they were born in the UK or not; just give my daughter a native-speaker family.

Dora spent the next thirty minutes explaining to the disgruntled mother the situation in London and affirming and reconfirming that her daughter’s host family was native-speaking.

One minute after Dora was able to hang up, the phone rang again. A similar conversation took place in the next two hours, with four irate parents.

“But they’re black!”
“But they ARE native speakers.”

“But they’re Chinese!”
“But they ARE native speakers.”

“But they’re Polish!”
“But they ARE native speakers.”

“But they’re Pakistani.”

“But they ARE native speakers.”



Dora would start at a new school after the summer, so she would have a relatively ‘free’ summer vacation, as she didn’t have any school duties in the next 6 weeks. So she signed up with an agency that organized summer immersion programmes in the UK for school students in Hong Kong. Her duty was to chaperone a group of students to the UK, and to ensure that they would get along fine with their host families. Finally, Dora was assigned a group of young adolescents for a two-week programme in London.


In the first class of the Pronunciation Teaching course last Monday, I explained to the student teachers how the concept of Standard Accent and native-speaker models is gradually replaced by notions of World Englishes and mutual intelligibility. Yet in Hong Kong, a lot of parents still prefer native-speaker teachers for their children. For some of them, even ethnic Chinese born in America or Britain who don’t speak Chinese any more do not count as native speakers. They can accept the existence of Black native speakers, but would want their children to stay away from them. For them, only a white person born in an English-speaking country qualifies as a native speaker.


This is not to say that native speakers don’t have any special contribution to English language teaching. For me, their biggest contribution is the generation of natural acts of communication in English with learners, at least in the Hong Kong context.

And this is not to say that non-native ESL teachers need not bother about their accent. But for the majority of people who learn English as a language for communication, obsessing over a native-speaker or a ‘standard’ accent is not going to help their learning or communicative effectiveness.


Are all whites ‘native speakers’?
Do all native speakers speak a ‘standard accent’?