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Articulation, Pronunciation and Dialect

I often get inquiries from well-intended journalists- “I’d love to work with you”. Sure- I love helping everyone.. and have I mentioned that writing and reporting are my passions?  But with this said- we’ve chosen a profession that usually requires talking  (with a bow here to some wonderful video journalism I’ve seen that has only nat sound, SOT’s and text).  When someone says ‘I’d like to work on my ‘articulation’’ my first questions are “Why?  Has anyone told you that you’re not speaking clearly?’.  The answer is usually along the lines of ‘no- but I thought I’d work on everything I can to move my career ahead’.
If you’ve been speaking ‘normally’ all your life.. and if nobody at work has given you any constructive criticism re. ‘the way you speak’ -then I wouldn’t worry about it.  Bear in mind that I’m distinguishing ‘voice’ from ‘speaking/articulation’.  Blog 2 addressed voice: if it’s too high.. too weak.. too raspy.. that’s something different.  But speech sounds and words hinge on the precision of neurology and kinesthesia (how the jaw/tongue/lips do the fine dance together to create words).. and most of us are perfectly fine in this category.   If you’re not distorting any consonants or vowel sounds and the ‘articulation’ seems fine.. then you’re home free.
There are, however, a few situations that merit clarification:
Hyper-enunciating- There’s no need to pronounce every sound in every word to match the way it’s spelled.  We are talking to people.. and therefore should speak as we would in a personal conversation.  Eg. the word ‘percent’ .  When we say it ‘normally’ our tongue tip hits our gum ridge to make the /t/ sound.. but we don’t release it- as we would at the beginning of a word.. such as ‘tick’.  (sorry, they’re on my mind- tall grass and tick season for dogs…).  There’s no need to make a specialized fuss over the /t/ sound at the end of most words.
Names based on different languages- this gets trickier and has a grey area.  Here in the New York City area we proudly named the Kosciuszko Bridge after Tadeusz Kosciuszko, a Polish-Lithuanian volunteer in our American Revolutionary War.  When I first moved here,  I woke up one morning and was warned to avoid the “kaZHOOSHko” Bridge and I remember thinking-‘ wow, where’s that’? The anchor’s pronunciation gave homage to the integrity of the language- but most New Yorkers affectionately know it by its mutilated name: Kos-see-OSko.  If you’re a reporter new to a town or city and you want to get your information out correctly (and not completely blow your credibility)- your best bet is to immediately do your homework-  and learn how every street, bridge, river, person’s name, building, highway (etc.) is pronounced locally.  Many pronunciations- like Woburn in Massachusetts or Houston Street here in NYC- can ambush you.  When it comes to names based on a different language- if you speak or choose to respect the language represented by the name-  saying it with some authenticity is also a valid option.  But your most important goal is to clearly share information with your listeners- so you need to know that the pronunciation you choose will be recognizable.  It‘s a name by name, station by station decision- and not one to be made on your own. 
Regional and international dialects- When I was in college my roommate called and asked me to look for something she’d left in her packet.  I rummaged through her desk.. no luck.  She was really saying ‘pocket’.. but she was from Rochester, NY.  Similarly- I worked with a client from Tennessee- and asked management if they wanted me to tweak some of his ‘southern vowels’ because I was confused by some words he said.  Eg. dill/deal.. Tom/time.  Interestingly- I was told that he had a following- largely southern- and that everyone else didn’t mind chuckling through some regional variations.    
The idea that everyone is supposed to sound completely ‘regionless’ is unrealistic.. but when dialects have us thinking ‘huh’ ? it may be time to consider making some tweaks. On the local new front: local-sounding news reporters and anchors have great credibility. If they choose to move on- it’s another story.  It will probably hold them back. 
As for journalists for whom English is not their native language- or perhaps they were raised bilingually-  as long as their perceived dialect doesn’t interfere with my comprehension I don’t have a problem with it.  (Aren’t we the ‘melting pot’ nation?) Mind you- others do..  I worked with a terrific reporter from Argentina.. she asked to eradicate her dialect (a pretty impossible goal.  English is so irregular that you invariably get caught up with inflection or ‘inappropriate’ adjective/noun emphasis).. she got as far as being hired by a local news station- but the ND told her he wouldn’t be comfortable letting her report live since she couldn’t benefit from a ‘pre-talking checkup’.  She returned to Argentina.. then moved to Miami.   
Proper pronunciation of words: Now here the standards become more clear cut. I may sound haughty telling you that a demonstration was “short laived’ (long /i/) but in this case I’m giving my listeners the proper pronunciation of the word.  It is not ‘short lived’ (short /i/ as in big).  Same thing with harass and harassment.  The accents should be on the first syllables.  
When in doubt- as with status (long /a/) or status (short /a/ as in back)- I’d settle the decision with the pronunciation recommended by a specific dictionary.  This way you’ll have attribution to reference when the complaints come in.   

Previously featured on the Radio Television Digital News Association as the News Coach blog series.


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