AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: more of our conversation with Jim Tedder, the creator of VOA's online Pronunciation Guide.
RS: It used to be that when announcers at VOA needed to know how to say the name of someone in the news, they would have to look it up in a file of index cards.
AA: Then, about five years ago, Jim Tedder got the idea for a system to make this information available -- complete with audio -- to any user of the Internet.
RS: Today Jim is still responsible for keeping the Pronunciation Guide stocked with the latest names in the news. But it's not always easy.
JIM TEDDER: "This is kind of a funny example. When I go to the Urdu Service at VOA and ask for pronunciations about words from Pakistan, it usually starts an argument. If I ask for a single pronunciation, I'll get 10 different variations because I'm talking to someone from northern Pakistan or eastern Pakistan or western, or one tribe or another. So you have to sometimes just make a -- take a consensus and say 'OK, I'm aware of the fact that it's said 10 different ways. For consistency's sake, I'm going to enter it this way."
AA: "Well, now, which brings us to a question from a listener of VOA News Now named Harry Wang in Shanghai who says -- and am I pronouncing that correctly, Shanghai?"
JIM TEDDER: "That's one way to say it, sure. [laughter]"
AA: "How should I say it?"
RS: "What's the standard VOA way?"
JIM TEDDER: "A little more 'shong' rather than 'shang,' but 'shang-hai' is fine."
AA: "Well, he has noticed that some of our announcers on News Now apparently have switched between saying the word 'either,' e-i-t-h-e-r, they're pronouncing it either 'ee-ther' or 'eye-ther,' and he wants to know which is more correct or considered more acceptable by most Americans. And [he] goes on to say, 'Should it be the rule set by your station or just simply a personal preference?'"
JIM TEDDER: "Well, this goes back to what we talked about earlier. It's a request that I think all human beings have, a desire, that somewhere there is an absolute that says 'this is right and this is wrong.' The truth is, having studied this for many years, no such standard exists.
"When Mister Wang wrote to us -- and I appreciate him getting in touch, it's a very good question and I understand how it could be confusing for an international listener. If you go as I did -- upon reading his letter, immediately I went to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
"In this case, the largest one we have, the most complete, is the Third International Unabridged -- a huge, thick, heavy-to-carry-around book. And it gave, as I suspected, 'ee-ther comma eye-ther.' In other words, they're saying with a common word like this, it is said by some educated people as ee-ther; other educated people say eye-ther. They make no distinction that one is a better way to say it than the other."
RS: "I think here, as a former foreign language teacher, I would prefer my students just to be consistent. I really wouldn't care which one they used. I just would prefer that they would be consistent the way they pronounce words."
AA: "It's like the word 'often' [aw-fen] -- or 'awf-ten,' right? -- where you've got half the people say it one way and I remember seeing someone point out that, for the ones who say it one way, the others think they're illiterate and uneducated, and the same way vice versa. So which do you say? Do you say 'aw-fen' or 'awf-ten'?"
JIM TEDDER: "I say 'aw-fen' and leave the t out, and the only reason I do is because that's what I was taught when I was in school. It's a habit that I have kept over the years. And I agree with you. When I was in school my teachers, my English teachers, would say 'don't say awf-ten; that's what uneducated, ignorant people say.' And I grew up believing that.
"But, indeed, if you look at what the lexicographers say, they say 'no, we're not saying one is better than the other. We're saying both are said by intelligent, informed, interested people.'
"So what happens for a foreign listener -- and it makes it more difficult in our language -- is, they have to be aware that one can say that word as aw-fen or awf-ten, and we hope that there's not confusion there, but I'm sure there is to some degree."
RS: VOA's Jim Tedder was on the phone with us from his home, since he works evenings and we don't get to see him much.
AA: Besides being one of the voices of Special English, Jim Tedder is the keeper of VOA's online Pronunciation Guide. That's where you'll find phonetic spellings and audio files to go with about five thousand names in the news. It's all free, and you can find it at voanews.com.
RS: And if you go to voanews.com/wordmaster, you'll find our weekly segments going back to 1998. If you ever have a question, just as Harry Wang in SHONG-hai did -- write to firstname.lastname@example.org. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.