Beijing is not French!

With the 2008 Olympics under way, it is becoming increasingly irritating to hear presenters on TV and radio pronouncing the name of the Chinese capital with a French-sounding “j”. It is as if they think, “Beijing is a foreign word, so it must be pronounced in a foreign way”, and as French is the most widely-taught language in British schools, they use a pseudo-French pronunciation.

In fact, English speakers would do much better just to stick with an English “j”. Although this is not quite the same sound as in Mandarin, it is much closer than the French sound. It also means they wouldn’t appear to be trying to hard to sound foreign. The irony is, the French don’t normally even call the city Beijing, preferring Pékin.

I’m not the only person who is annoyed by this. Two Americans have even posted a YouTube video on how to pronounce Beijing correctly – this still doesn’t attempt to teach the correct Chinese pronunciation, and doesn’t address tones (i.e. whether the voice rises or falls) which are an integral part of Mandarin pronunciation. However, it’s a good guide for English speakers, and also explains how the name of the city is made up of two characters meaning “northern capital”. I’m actually surprised that Americans tend towards a French pronunciation like the British, as I had thought French was not as widely taught in the US, where Spanish is more popular.

Wikipedia has a more accurate example of the correct Mandarin pronunciation.

Beijing 2008 Olympic EmblemThe video linked above also makes an interesting point about the Beijing 2008 Olympic Emblem, suggesting that the running figure is actually a stylised version of the Chinese character jīng (京), as in Beijing. Others have suggested that it imitates the character wén (文), meaning culture or humanity. Whatever it means, it certainly looks much better than the logo for the 2012 London Olympics, which looks like nothing at all, except a nice earner for the designers who duped the games’ organisers into accepting it. Some people are already suggesting that the success of London Olympics themselves will follow the same trend as the logos.

2 responses to “Beijing is not French!”

  1. Jonathan Burton

    Thanks for your comment on my Prom blog.

    I had one comment (deleted) which called me a ‘buffoon’, presumably for saying that the concert had nothing to do with politics. I am far from being non-political, but I just thought (along with the rest of the audience) that the shout was an irrelevance and an insult to Chen Yi, her piece, the performers, and the occasion.

    I keep expecting the Politically Correct Police to ask me to change references to ‘Peking’ in my surtitles for Turandot. Puccini called it ‘Pekino’ (though the modern Italian is ‘Pechino’), which is good enough for me.

    Americans are always terrible at foreign names! Thanks for this fascinating post.

  2. Lena

    The first interesting point of Beijing 2008 Olympic emblem is to be shaped a seal which is a part of traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy art.

    I’d say that the logo for the 2012 London Olympics looks not bad. It is made of numbers 2 0 1 2, five continents, two people judoing and maybe letters O L Y … And I think it is modern Anglicism. The only defect is the color and the word “London”.

    About transliteration, it is a long story. I really have too much to talk.

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