Correct Pronunciation

Posted on | March 23, 2007 | No Comments

Imagine someone threatens to sue you for pronouncing some words differently.

This actually happened last month in Toronto. A group of Cantonese language enthusiasts held a press conference, complaining the news anchors of some Cantonese channels for adopting a pronunciation standard known as the ‘Correct Pronunciation’ (正音). They also started a petition letter:

“As native speakers of Cantonese, we find the news broadcast harsh to the ear. These awkward-sounding pronunciations are either unheard of or simply not employed in daily Cantonese language use, in settings formal or informal, cultural or otherwise.”

Last week, I had a chance to talk about this issue with a friend who happened to work in the news department of one of the stations. He said the incident was actually more serious that it might seem. He said the group even threatened to take legal action against them! He believed the group was trying to make a big deal out of it so that people would take notice of the issue. In fact, they successfully made it into the many Chinese newspapers, and even the national Global and Mail:

“A dispute over the form of Cantonese spoken by announcers on Toronto-based television news broadcasts that has been quietly simmering the Chinese community in breaking out publicly just in time for the Chinese New Year.”

The so-called ‘Correct Pronunciation’ movement (粵語正音運動) started in Hong Kong in the 1970s by a university professor Richard Ho. The purpose of his language rectification movement was to correct the mispronunciations of many Cantonese words by the general public. This movement was backed by the Hong Kong government and its broadcast station at that time. Unfortunately, Dr. Ho based some of his rules on his interpretation of a 1000-year-old dictionary of Chinese rhymes (廣韻). Some of his suggested pronunciations just sound weird to modern Cantonese speakers.

My friend said even if the group takes legal action, they wouldn’t have chance to win. First of all, their news anchors have not adopted all the ‘weird’ pronunciations from Ho. Secondly, who can make the call of which pronunciation is correct? My friend’s station is a multicultural station, and his colleagues told him that they often have these kinds of complaints from audience of their own languages.

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