Cultural pronunciation

This piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia in July 2018.

When I lived in Sweden, I would watch football with my Swedish mate Rob and struggle with some of the Swedish players’ names. Even now, I cannot roll an ‘r’, let alone roll one into the Swedish ‘g’, as in the common name ‘Berg’—which sounds more like our word ‘berry’ than something into which you might crash a ship. Once, Rob asked, perhaps redundantly, why English commentators never try to say Swedish names properly. I could only tell him that most people don’t know they are saying the names incorrectly, and even if they did know, they would likely pronounce them about as well as me. Being Swedish, Rob found this reasonable. Others, apparently, do not.

Last week, a minor controversy broke out over the way that SBS World Cup presenter Lucy Zelic pronounces players’ names. Following the example of the iconic Les Murray, Zelic often says the names as would native speakers. For this she has been subjected, shamefully, to abuse on social media. Zelic is an excellent professional, who clearly studies the players and the game very closely. Her decision to pronounce the players’ names as she does is not inherently objectionable. However, in response to the criticism, Zelic and her co-host, former Socceroo Craig Foster, moved from the reasonable view that a commentator should know the players’ names to implying the country as a whole needs a multicultural education and everyone should aspire to know all the names of the world. Foster said that Zelic’s pronunciation is ‘what SBS is about… respecting every culture’. He went on, ‘If you can’t get someone’s name right, you’ve got no regard [for him or her]’. Zelic added that the criticism means it is time for SBS to ‘re-educate a different audience’. But this suggestion that respect for others demands native, rather than anglicised, pronunciation is far too high a standard.

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