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1:00pm on Tuesday, 19th August, 2008:

Jingling Treasure


Take the word jingle It's two syllables in length, with the g splitting into two sounds across them. The first syllable rhymes with "sing" and the second, depending on your accent, is something approximatied by "gull". It's the first syllable I'm mainly interested in, though, jing.

Now take the word treasure. Unless you have a particularly fussy way of speaking, the s in the middle there is pronounced like the French word "je". This sound is usually rendered in English as zh, because it bears a similar relationship to z as sh does to s.

In English, j and zh are quite different sounds. Think of a word with j in it and it's almost always going to be pronounced the same way: like it is in jingle. Jacket, jaunt, adjust, join, reject, Jupiter, jelly, injure, projection, jaw — that's the way a j is sounded.

J isn't the only letter that can give a j sound, of course: so can g. The g in rage is pronounced like the j in Raj. However, if you were going to transcribe that sound using the English alphabet, you'd go for j rather than g; this is because g also makes the sound it does in gull (as well as turning in into ing).

This is why the Chinese word Romanisation system, pinyin, converts the Mandarin j sound into the letter j: that's the sound it makes. Unlike the case with g, this is pretty well the only sound a j makes. If you see jingle, you know it's not zhingle. If you see jing, you know it's not zhing.

So why is it, then, that most commentators at the Olympics seem to want to pronounce Beijing as "Bay zhing"? It's "Bay jing"! This is Mandarin, not French!

The BBC Pronunciation Unit is generally excellent, but why have it when apparently no-one pays attention to its very clear instructions?

I wonder if it's just the UK that has this problem? At least thedatabase of the Voice of America pronunciation unit is online — and also gets it right.

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).