May 7, 2019

Bay-zhing or bay-jing: Let's go to Beijing

This impromptu post was brought to you by my setting up an RSS feed with my favorite language blogs and deciding to look at Language Log's recent posts. One of them was called "Why we say "Beizhing" and not "Beijing"" by Victor Mair. He immediately clarifies that he does not use the pronunciation:

Well, I don't say "Beizhing", and I think it sounds ghastly, so much so that I cringe when I hear it and my flesh creeps. I never could figure out why English speakers would use this hideous pronunciation when it would be so much easier, transparent, and direct just to pronounce the name the way it looks: "bei-", like "bay", as in "Beirut" (we don't have any trouble with that, do we?), and "-jing" as in "jingle". BEI- -JING! Voilà! We don't have to say "bei- -zhing". I realize, though, that almost everybody, including many China specialists who surely know better, say "Beizhing", not "Beijing".

Victor Mair is an American sinologist, and I know people who study or specialize in a particular language often have a fondness for pronouncing words from that language in a way that resembles the origin. I can say myself as a minor in Russian language that I get a twinge when I hear people say "baBUshka" instead of "BAbushka", which is how it would be said in Russian. Of course, "baBUshka" is the common pronunciation in English, at least in American English, and so though I continue stubbornly saying "BAbushka," I can't fault anyone for using the average pronunciation. Similarly, I understand Dr. Mair's feelings at hearing pronouncing "bay-zhing" when he knows that "bay-jing" is closer to the Mandarin pronunciation.

However, there is always a certain amount of elitism and posturing that occurs with regards to pronouncing words from foreign languages in another language. The "curmudgeonly correspondent" that writes in to propose an origin for the "bay-zhing" pronunciation refers to it as "egregious mainstream pronunciation." Another commenter refers to "English speakers getting it wrong (as per usual)." An earlier Language Log post by Bill Poser has an identical complaint: "This word [Beijing] is routinely mispronounced by newscasters and other people who are supposed to know better." And another commenter: "the only reason to use "Beijing" at all is the desire to match the official Chinese pronunciation, so going on to mispronounce it seems like fair game for some criticism."

I am not sure why "fidelity to names of places in foreign languages" is something to strive for in the first place. What does it matter if "bei-jing" is closer to how it is pronounced in Mandarin than "bei-zhing"? It reminds me of all the monolingual US American newscasters who really want everyone to know that they took a Spanish class by pronouncing Latin American country and place names with an approximation of the Spanish pronunciation, as if Spanish speakers were incapable of understanding that the same place has a different pronunciation in different languages. As a native bilingual speaker of Spanish and English, I occasionally struggle with words that aren't fully incorporated into English and alter between a Spanish-y and English-y pronunciation (do I go with "croqueta" in Spanish, "croqueta" mangled into English, or the deceptively French "croquette"?). But a place that has an established English pronunciation, distant from the original as it may be, is perfectly fine. I would never demand anyone say "ar-hentina" (Argentina) or "cooba" (Cuba) or "abana" (Havana) despite these being much closer to the originals. I wouldn't even ask Russian speakers to stop pronouncing "Habana" as "Gavana," and that one also makes my "flesh creep" (the spelling pronunciation [h] turned into a [g]...).

The origins of the "zh" pronunciation may be nonsensical or hyperforeignisms or a mistake or just plain lost, but the notion that people continue to pronounce it with "zh" as a hyperforeignism is misguided. For as far as I can remember, the capital of China was "Beijing" with the middle consonant pronounced as a "zh" [ʒ]. As such, I have pronounced "Beijing" as "bay-zhing" for almost my entire life, with the exception of the brief period of time when I pronounced it as "Bay-jing" (and also pronounced "Moscow" as "Moss-ko" instead of the common American "moss-cow" because it also "made more sense"). I made that brief change because I wanted my pronunciation of everything to be "correct". (Not coincidentally, this also coincided with the time in my life when I was an enormous pedant about "correct language use.") I dropped both pronunciations because they never sounded right and likely sounded affected to my peers. Am I mispronouncing "Beijing"? If I were speaking Mandarin, yes, I would be mispronouncing it. But the pronouncing with 'zh' [ʒ] is common enough that it seems odd to refer to it as a "mispronunciation" from a descriptivist point of view.

Indeed, Ben Zimmer pointed out a research paper from 1994 (Joseph, B. Systematic Hyperforeignisms As Maximally External Evidence for Linguistic Rules) describing this pronunciation as an example of 'hyper-French/pseudo-Mandarin'. It is compared to the similarly hyperforeign American pronunciation of "parmesan" as "parma-zhan," when it is pronounced as "parmezan" in French and "parmejano" in Italian - no 'zh' anywhere. "Bay-zhing" has apparently been a common pronunciation for nigh-on a quarter of a century. At which point does it cease being a mispronunciation worthy of goosebumps?

Considering that Language Log normally uses a descriptivist approach to language - and with some nuance, I may add - I am surprised to see that both major contributors and commenters find it comfortable to refer to a mainstream pronunciation of a city as "incorrect," "egregious," and "fair game for some criticism." Contrast this with this article on the stigmatized pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular" (emphasis mine):

What about Pinker's second point, that Palin's pronunciation of the word is "not a sign of ignorance"? Well, not of her ignorance, anyway. It's fair to assume that "nucular" was the dominant pronunciation in the ambience she grew up in, as it was for Bill Clinton, and that she acquired it "naturally." But at its inception, the "nucular" pronunciation was the result of ignorance, or at least of unfamiliarity with the item, which is why it tends to be more frequent in the varieties used by less-well-educated speakers (or maybe I should say it's less frequent in the varieties used by literate ones).

That doesn't mean that speakers who pick up the "nucular" pronunciation from family, friends, or teachers can be accused of ignorance themselves — they weren't the ones who came up with the reanalysis that motivated the pronunciation. But it does explain why such speakers might want to correct their pronunciation once they're made aware of it — not just because the "nuclear" variant happens to be used by better educated speakers, but because it conforms more closely to the word's orthography, and because this is, in its nature, a word that belongs to literate discourse.

Palin has to be aware that many people consider her pronunciation nonstandard, and she (or her handlers) seems to have made some effort at correction, which is presumably why she pronounced the word as "new clear" when reading off the teleprompter in her convention speech. Since then, though, it's been "nucular" all the way, which may be part of the "let Palin be Palin" strategy.

The pronunciation of "nuclear" as "nucular", much like the pronunciation of "Beijing" as "Bay-zhing," is one that deviates from the etymology of the word. The difference is that "nucular" is strongly stigmatized as an "uneducated" pronunciation while "Bay-zhing" is used even by Dr. Mair's colleagues in sinology, meaning it is clearly present in multiple class strata. Both pronunciations can be said to be the result of not knowing the standard pronunciation (nuclear) or the intended pronunciation (Bay-jing). However, both forms are common enough now that it is clear they are no longer one-off errors - they are distinct variants. Being that all these variants are recognized and understood, there is no risk of miscommunication occurring. I therefore see no reason other than aesthetic preference or class signaling to choose a certain pronunciation. What do we have to gain by stigmatizing or mocking perfectly common and understandable variants? Well, we create an additional linguistic shibboleth by which to recognize and exclude people who have not had access to education. It creates additional class anxiety (which in turn leads to the creation of hypercorrective forms which in turn creates even more shibboleths). You get people feeling like the commenter Chris Johnson:

I consistently pronounce 'nucleus' as [nukliəs], and I imagine most, if not all, other 'nucular' speakers do too. I don't think I've ever heard "nuculus".

I use the two pronunciations for 'nuclear' in more or less free variation. I never notice which form a speaker uses unless I'm specifically listening for it. I think I am more likely to use 'nucular' when saying the word 'thermonuclear' than when saying 'nuclear' itself. I have no idea whether my usage varies by domain or not. It doesn't seem like I had any trouble treating 'nucular' as an adjectival form of 'nucleus'.

I think the 'nucular' pronunciation has hopped over social and class boundaries more than people realize. It's not a very common word. I think it may be spread more by mass media than by the family dinner table. I had an upper middle class upbringing that valued education, and I even wanted to be a physicist in 5th grade. Nevertheless, I think 'nucular' was my usual form growing up. (I've shifted towards [nukliɚ] over the years, but my girlfriend still catches me sometimes.) Bush could very well be 'slumming' linguistically, but I'm sure there are more than a few kids from elite families that picked up 'nucular' from the culture at large.

(I've known for a long time that 'nucular' was a less prestigious pronunciation, but in the past few weeks I've been shocked at just how stigmatized this feature of my speech is – especially by people 'on my side' politically. As a speaker of a pretty standard variety of American English, this is a new and unpleasant position for me.)

I understand the sentiment of wanting people to treat foreign languages as worthy of respect. For example, many US Americans (and likely people in other English speaking nations) do not try to learn how to pronounce names from other languages and instead shorten them or even give people "English nicknames" instead. It makes sense to want to counter this Anglo-centric sentiment by saying that we ought to consider the native pronunciations of loanwords and other places. But cities are not people, and no cultural harm will come to Beijing if English speakers use the form 'Bay-zhing.' This is of course assuming that the name is not offensive or otherwise troublesome to the people it is applied to. Sometimes the standard name is offensive and in such a case, it is worth making an effort to switch to a preferred name. But I have seen no reason so far to believe that there is any harm to the people of Beijing by using the 'zh' pronunciation.

If you hang out with a lot of sinologists, maybe you will want to start using the "j" pronunciation to fit in. And if you feel compelled to start saying "Bei-jing" after reading this, that is fine. Indeed, it is fine to even tell people "did you know that if you say 'Beijing' with a 'j' sound, it's actually closer to the Mandarin pronunciation? Nobody knows where that 'zh' sound came from!" But I question what there is to gain from calling this now entrenched pronunciation a 'mispronunciation' and judging those who use the 'zh' variant as (sarcasm on) ignorant class-climbers foolishly betraying their station by applying French pronunciations when the English pronunciation would be closer to the Mandarin! (sarcasm off) Considering the amount of insecurity, angst, and division this sort of language policing causes, I question any perceived multicultural benefit that could come of it - and I am not confident that cultural understanding is gauged by hewing to the 'original' pronunciation, anyway.

This is a more freeform discussion style article. I would love to hear any thoughts or comments you may have on the topic!


  1. I think the last vestige of my own prescriptivism that I have a tough time letting go of is in these cases where words (or phrases) are changed due to being misheard or because they're simply tricky to pronounce. "Nucular" seems like such a case to me. It clearly violates the spelling logic of the word, but yes, noo-cue-lar rolls off the tongue a little easier than new-clee-ar so it feels like people just gave up and quit trying to say it the "right" way, spelling be damned. If there were a centuries-old evolution of the spelling and pronunciation I'd be more sympathetic, but we're talking about a word that didn't come into common use by the non-scientist general public until probably the 1960s ("atomic" being more common before then, I'd assume — correct me if I'm wrong). Anyway, I put "nucular" in the same category as "I could care less": nonsensical and incorrect, but it's probably to late to fret over it at this point.

    I'm with you 100% on the foreign pronunciations of words. Anglicized pronunciations are pretty standardized and I'm sure other languages do the same thing, so I have no problem with it. If a newscaster in Colombia wants to pronounce our second-largest city "Los An-hell-ess" that seems entirely appropriate to me. And when a radio person switches to a foreign accent to pronounce a name (when they are themselves not a native speaker of that language), I find it cringey. Same thing when a US student returns from a semester in Spain and insists on calling it "Barthelona".

    Regarding Moscow, none of our pronunciations make any more or less sense because the Russian name is "Moskva". As far as I'm concerned we just have a different name for the city in our language: we call Deutschland Germany, we call Nihon Japan, we call Moskva Moscow, and so forth. :-)

    1. There are certain language changes that seem to arise, as Geoff Nunberg put it, from ignorance of the standard form - 'nucular' seems to be in that category. But the people who adopted it later were not necessarily themselves ignorant; they simply picked it up from someone who used it and didn't really stop to think about the pronunciation/spelling discrepancy or whether it 'makes sense' re: 'I could care less.' There are, after all, so many strange spellings and pronunciations in English ('lieutenant' -> 'leftenant') that what's one more? There are also so many phrases that are unintuitive to understand ('X is all but Y' doesn't mean 'X is everything except Y', which is what I expected as a child) that you become inured to stuff like 'I could care less.' Now I do have my pet peeve about 'I could care less', but as you say, it is probably too late to expect that that form will recede!

      Yes, I have rarely encountered anyone who speaks Spanish, French, Russian, or Swedish who brags about using the original place names pronunciation. The phenomenon of 'fidelity to endonyms' seems to be more common in English-speaking spaces, perhaps as a counter to Anglo-centrism? I cannot help but wonder if it is also related to the legacy of English colonialism. It seems to be a more recent phenomenon. But that's idle speculation on my part - I'd be very interested in seeing if there are examples to the contrary.

      It would certainly be interesting to switch entirely to endonyms. Farewell Finland, hello Suomi!

  2. I think what rubs people the wrong way about "Bei[ʒ]ing" is that it sounds neither fully anglicized, nor fully original. There used to be a fully-anglicized name, "Peking": using it wouldn't be worse than "Moscow" for "Москва" (not to mention exonyms such as "Germany" or "Finland").

    At some point, people decided to switch to "Beijing", because it's the endonym. The original pronunciation uses [dʒ], so if it's important to pronounce it as the local people do, it 'should' be [dʒ]. On the other hand, if the word was fully anglicized, then it would use regular English pronunciation rules, so 'j' would be pronounced [dʒ]... which gives the same result. How come the word ended up with [ʒ] if it fits neither the original, nor regular English rules?

    Hypercorrection seems to bother both descriptivists and prescriptivists. Prescriptivists, because they insist on the 'correct' form. Descriptivists, because they think it's a proof of the ravages of prescriptivism. Isn't it funny?

    1. Yes, "Bei[ʒ]ing" definitely does not get the same amount of defense from descriptivists or prescriptivists. It doesn't seem to be fashionable to defend it the way other stigmatized pronunciations are defended, perhaps because of the association with perceived class-climbing. It isn't "protecting the little guy" or defending an on-going sound change or a long-lost alternate pronunciation. It's the sort of language change that is easy to make fun of but finds few defenders, hence the analogy to "nucular." A true descriptivist approach will simply note that these are varieties that exist and that there is a negative attitude towards them among some circles. But most people, linguists included, do not adopt a true descriptivist approach to language outside of academic studies and have their own bugbears.

      That being said, this pronunciation is approximately 25 years old now, and the users of "Bei[ʒ]ing" today are likely unaware that it used to be called "Peking" or that there even exists the alternate pronunciation of "Bei[dʒ]ing." A quarter of a century after Joseph noted this pronunciation as pseudo-French, there are still articles being written about it! I wonder how long it will take before it is fully accepted as an alternate pronunciation, being that it shows no signs of slowing down and that its users are unaware that it is proscribed. Perhaps it will continue on like "between him and I" - disliked by prescriptivists and descriptivists, yet still common.