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.

The purpose of language is to enable interaction, and this requires a shared understanding of signifiers and referents. People must recognise the words spoken and which objects they pick out. In Australia, this context of meaning is provided by the English language. Though we are blessed with a grammar that allows us to incorporate non-English words into our idiom, it is unavoidable that our communication is mostly governed by English-language norms. It is fair enough, then, for Australians not to know how some names are pronounced, and even to expect that their pronunciation will be, if not anglicised entirely, softened so as to be intelligible to non-native ears. Indeed, many immigrants anticipate English speakers will struggle with non-English names and choose to make their lives easier by choosing English names. Being too clever or dismissive about this choice can lead the pedant into error. For example, the great Australian footballer Mark Bresciano was often incorrectly assumed by commentators to be named ‘Marco’ because of his Italian heritage and success in that country’s top league.

It is not merely that the standard propounded by Zelic and Foster is impractical, but also that it imposes a moral duty that cannot readily be discharged. Just as I cannot roll an ‘r’, many Australians, including most immigrants, are unable to pronounce foreign names precisely. In the video of her response to the criticism, Zelic herself pronounces ‘Peru’ as an Australian would. In Spanish, there is an accent on the ‘u’ and the ‘r’ is rolled—a particular problem for me, as my wife is Peruvian. Or should that be peruana? Why not use other native words of identification? But as with Peru, we don’t even use most countries’ real names. The proper pronunciation of ‘Sverige’ never arises, since we call the country ‘Sweden’. And whether or not people can learn all this, we cannot expect that everyone invest the time and effort to do so. When even Zelic drops in and out of ‘proper’ pronunciation, the rest of us have little hope. Yet we are told that if we do not try, we are bigots, individually responsible for the broader sociological phenomenon of ‘exclusion’. Against this charge, we can say that familiarity with other languages and cultures might be praiseworthy, but is not obligatory. There are many reasons why someone might not be multiculturally literate. Moreover, issues like this are a low priority for many people from non-English-speaking backgrounds; they may even be actively trying to adapt. Affecting an accent with them might be considered rude. So despite what multiculturalists demand, people are permitted to rely on common sense in their practical reasoning, even where it is not entirely accurate. Around the world, this is the prevailing standard. Living in Peru, I gave up on using my name with all but my wife and friends as most people could not say it (though giving my name as Andrés also caused a puzzled face or two). On the other hand, I don’t think I have ever managed to say Rob’s name properly. This is the messy reality of communication between cultures. It is foolish to make of it a moral offence. In truth, relying on received wisdom and ingrained patterns of speech and behaviour is what it means to have a culture.

The irony of the SBS approach is that in paying respect to other cultures, it discounts the practical knowledge and institutions of our own culture. Rather than assisting immigrants to better understand the context within which they have chosen to live, SBS conceives its mission as revolutionising Australian culture. This little dispute over the pronunciation of footballers’ names is part of a broader campaign against the established norms of our society, which, being largely (though not exclusively) founded on our British inheritance, are deemed insufficiently democratic. The words and rules of our language are each institutions, and the logic that sees them as problematic is the same logic that is applied to our other institutions that are now so disfavoured by progressives, like equality before the law and freedom of speech. They too stand accused of encoding not wisdom but ignorance, not utility but harm. The question SBS-style multiculturalism poses, then, is not whether you should make an effort to say a few names properly, but what else you might be called upon to do to disestablish our traditional norms in the name of respect for other cultures.

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