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December 8, 2004 - Pronunciation, Part 1 - 2004-12-07

Broadcast: December 8, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: VOA's prince of pronunciation.

RS: Jim Tedder has been with VOA for 25 years. He works in the English production branch, and is one of the news readers in Special English. But he's also the creator -- and voice -- of the online VOA Pronunciation Guide.

AA: The guide is used not only in-house, but also by competing international broadcasters and by American radio and TV networks. In fact, just about anyone in the world who needs to know how to say a name in the news might find it just a click or two away.

RS: Stay tuned for the address. But first, some background from Jim Tedder. Since our schedules are different, we called him at home to talk about the pronunciation guide.

JIM TEDDER: "It's been online about five years. It now has about 5,000 names in it, spelled phonetically and then pronounced with an audio file with it. And it's been a tremendous success. It's been a great deal of satisfaction."

RS: "Let me ask you something, Jim. How do you know what's right? How do you know how to pronounce a name or a word?"

JIM TEDDER: "It's a strange situation, in that people will ask me that question a lot. They ask it as if they know or think or suspect that somewhere, written in stone by the hand of God, there is a correct and a non-correct, a right and a wrong way, to say things.

"When you're dealing with a person's name, we have a methodology that we have set up, and the methodology is pretty simple. When dealing with a person's name, we try to go to that person himself or herself and say 'how do you say it?' Most of the time this isn't possible when you're dealing with international leaders. So we go down one notch on the priority list and we contact their office. If that doesn't work, the next line down is that I go to the various language services at VOA and talk to people there.

AA: But when it comes to geography, there's a different methodology.

JIM TEDDER: "Again, let me refer to what I said earlier: For person's names, we want to say the name as that person says it. Place names are an entirely different matter. We chose many years ago at VOA to use the Merriam-Webster Geographic Dictionary as our main guide.

"When we talk about a place name, I get amused a lot of times because people will say 'well, what's correct? Webster gives two different pronunciations.' Well, if you read the fine print in the front of Merriam-Webster's dictionaries, essentially what they say is, they are not the pronunciation police. They're not in the business of saying 'this is correct and that is wrong.' What they are in the business of doing is have their lexicographers do research and say 'we have tried to find out how to pronounce this place name, and we have found that most people in that area of the world, in that area of the country, pronounce it this way."

"Or they may have a comma after that pronunciation and have another pronunciation. Most people in the United States, I think, who have not read the methodology would say 'oh, OK, Webster's prefers the first pronunciation because they listed it first.' Big mistake. What Webster say is, 'we have to put something first. We aren't saying this is preferred over that. What we're saying is that educated, informed individuals -- some of them say this, some of them say that.'

RS: So what do international broadcasters do when they try to find how to pronounce a place name -- and there are variations?

JIM TEDDER: "And here's an example. There's a prominent city that shows up in the news every day almost in Iraq, M-O-S-U-L. That's one spelling of it. It can be pronounced a number of different ways. But one way is mo-SOOL, the other is MO-sill."

RS: "Very different."

JIM TEDDER: "Very different, to the point where I think an international broadcaster, editors, should say we're going to standardize this. We're not going to say that one is right and one is wrong. But for the sake of our listeners' understanding what it is we have to say, we're going to settle on this and make that our standard and hold people to that. At VOA over the years sometimes that has been enforced to a greater degree than others. Right now it's not being enforced for place names. For persons' names, again, a different item."

AA: We'll hear more from VOA's Jim Tedder next week. So how do you find the VOA Pronunciation Guide? You can go to and click on the link at the bottom of the page. You'll also find a link at our site,

RS: One technical note: Jim says he would have preferred to use the International Phonetic Alphabet for the entries. But it's pretty complex for most people who aren't professional announcers. So you'll find a system of phonetic pronunciation that's easier to use.

AA: And here is one more address. It's our e-mail address: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.