Copyeds, auxiliary forces and other interested parties ought to take a look at NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin's take on NPR grammar and pronunciation
-- not because they'll learn anything useful about grammar or pronunciation, but because there's a lot in there about how NPR and its listeners see themselves and each other. And, not coincidentally, a lot of indications that how people -- even journalists -- talk about language says a lot about how they view the world.
Elephant-sitting-in-the-avocado-dip-wise, of course, it raises a favorite question: Why do journalists insist on going on and on about a subject when it's clear they don't know anything about it? But that's a research topic for later. Onward through the fog.
It's probably true, as Dvorkin says, that "language and pronunciation are important to many public radio listeners" and that "listeners are quick to point out examples of any perceived lowering of standards" (though anyone who's taken the Irate Schoolteacher call at a small daily knows that public radio does not bear the pedants' wrath alone). But it's hard to see his answers as doing anything but actively subtracting from the sum of human knowledge:Should we say "Pah-REE" instead of Paris? The former is linguistically correct, but that sounds très pretentious to American ears.
Uh, no. As Language Hat rather patiently points out, those pronuciations are French and English, not right and wrong. And if "linguistically correct" has any meaning at all, it doesn't have it here. That's sort of like asking whether a cat is "zoologically correct"; of course it is, as long as you weren't trying for a dog or a newt or something.Mr. Everest also raised a question about when to use the plural possessive on the radio.For example: should we say "John Roberts' confirmation" or "John Roberts's confirmation?" Mr. Everest is advocating the latter.In print this is a constant issue. My esteemed colleague Ian Mayes is the readers' editor (aka, the Ombudsman) at the Guardian in London. He has referred to this inappropriate use of the apostrophe as a dropping by that mythic creature, the *"Apostrofly."
One's ears are tempted to steam.
* First off, the apostrofly Ian describes is a cousin of the "greengrocer's apostrophe": random use of the apostrophe to create plurals, for example, as in "The Smith's are coming." It is not used to mark possession.
* Second, you don't pronounce punctuation
. "Roberts' confirmation" is not an "inappropriate use" of the apostrophe. It isn't any righter or wronger than "Rehnquist's confirmation" because the apostrophe isn't a sound.
The complainant isn't "technically right," no matter what the NPR reference librarian thinks. Mr. Everest (along with Strunk & White and the NYT) favors one way of forming the possessive of singular proper nouns ending in "s"; the AP uses another.
* Which brings us to the most painfully obvious point: "Roberts'" is not a plural possessive because "Roberts" is not a forgodsake plural noun.
Obviously, there are exceptions -- "my 4400 class has two Roberts, three Staycees and a Lucifer" -- but this is not any of them. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH.
Use the plural possessive on the radio exactly as you do in real life, in other words: To make possessive nouns plural. Thank you.NPR is considered by many to be the standard bearer for Standard American English.
Sometimes you just want to pull out your "Elements of Style" and pound the radio into pieces
with it. Did ever a sentence cry louder to be in the active voice? Who exactly is it that considers NPR the bearer of that standard -- people whose power goes off whenever Carl Kasell is on?
I don't mean to single Kasell out as an exemplar of anything in particular, least of all bad speech (Frank DeFord, on the other hand, violates several of the Geneva conventions and probably the Law of the Sea Treaty as well). Just because I'd rather listen to Eleanor Beardsley doesn't mean I think she's closer to some mythical American Received Pronunciation. I would suggest, though, that casting oneself as the source of elite speech for elite listeners runs a fairly high risk of reinforcing impressions of ... well, brie-eating elitism.
NPR, after all, is just like any other news organization, only more so. It can go from hypercorrection ("overcharged the government and therefore we taxpayers") to worn-down slang ("46 bucks an hour") in less time -- and probably fewer words -- than it takes to type this. That's the sort of stuff journalism does.* More interesting are its fact-claims about language, as in this correction
broadcast during the refugee-evacuee flap. In line with Reagan's "I've been told the Russian language doesn't even have a word for freedom," it's a convenient way of putting the Other Guys in their place, whether it's true or not.
That makes this reader's normative plaint particularly interesting:Why do I hear NPR announcers pronouncing some foreign names (including their own) and place names with a foreign accent, but others without? It's jolting to hear a story that's mostly in broadcast English but peppered with foreign-accented words.
As well, there seems to be an implicit racism, or "lingualism," or "culturalism" in the odd, inconsistent practice. I can only assume that foreign-accented pronunciations are done in the spirit of respect. But if pronouncing foreign words with a foreign accent is respectful to that culture and its language, doesn't it then follow that there's an implied disrespect to cultures (that) are not given the same treatment?
Cheap shots at people's names aside, isn't that an interesting idea? A universal foreign accent you can apply to foreign words as a mark of respect? Which NPR does all the time with "Iraq" -- too bad it's a French accent rather than an Arabic one, but it's the thought that counts.**
I'm not sure what the cure for any of this is, because I'm not entirely sure what the disease is. But I think it has something to do with why American public broadcasting is never going to be a mass-audience medium. That's a shame; for all its faults, NPR is a remarkable resource (leaving aside how far it stands above the generally fetid state of American broadcast journalism). I wonder if there's something in the For Elites By Elites navelgazing that somebody might want to address.
* Doncha love it?
** One suspects NPR would cringe at the non-elite pronunciation "eye-RACK," but at least it gets one
of the vowels.