How to get your mouth around Beijing

A few years ago, while enjoying an after-dinner drink at a hotel high up in the Arctic Circle, a really nice Swedish lady politely taught me how to pronounce Beijing with a hard J (as in Jack) rather than the softer J (as in Jacques).

I naturally began to notice how many of us also mispronounce the name – including most major news networks. The BBC uses a hard J, but Channel 4 News and Sky offer a more confusing message. This got me wondering: why is there this dichotomy in the West? So I looked into it and, seeing that it was time for the Olympics, I wrote a small article in today’s Media Guardian on the politics behind the pronounciation.

Here’s the blockquote:

In the old days it was much easier, as the capital of China was Peking (K as in king), but since 1949 the Chinese authorities have been asking us to use Beijing. This was routinely ignored until the 1980s when the request became more insistent and the Chinese began enforcing the new name on all flights, sea routes and official documents.

The first indication of this change for many was on the news – and the newsreaders began to shift the J into something that sounds vaguely French. According to Zhao Shangsen at the Chinese embassy in London, there is no softer phonetic J in Mandarin. This makes the use of the French-sounding J sound a bit like an affectation; an attempt to sound grand.

Even so, pronouncing Beijing with a hard J is still only an approximation. To say the name like a local you need to be able to handle the tonal shifts of Mandarin.

With the Olympics now in full swing, isn’t it time that our news presenters tried their best? After all, the old excuse for mispronouncing the names of foreign places – that they arrived here through a system of, well, Chinese whispers – is no longer valid in the age of instant communication.

There’s a helpful explanatory video here, if you want to learn how to pronounce the name of the capital correctly.

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