How this guide came to be

In the Spring of 1997 I was one of the Classical Music Directors at Harvard's student-run radio station, WHRB. Within the world of college radio, WHRB is refreshingly unusual in the amount of time and serious effort it devotes to classical programming, much of it more innovative and adventurous than what comes out of most professional classical stations. This comes at a cost however, in the form of a certain variability in the quality of announcing -- the inevitable result of having a radio station staffed almost entirely by relatively inexperienced students. This variability tends to manifest itself most obviously in the form of pronunciation errors.

If you're not a classical music fan, the first thing you need to understand is that it is not fundamentally an English-language art form: radio announcers routinely encounter names and titles that come from Germany, France, Italy, Scandinavia, Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a small minority from Britain or America -- though English spelling being what it is, the English names aren't always easier to pronounce than the foreign ones! Correct pronunciation is more important on the radio than it is in casual conversation: there are that many more people listening and able to recognize (and cringe) when a name gets muddled. Such errors, particularly in classical radio, have a way of reflecting badly on the announcer's knowledge of music and musicians, which is never a nice impression to convey to the listeners.

Philosophical issues aside, I had a particular experience at one point that made quite plain the necessity for a pronunciation guide. I had previously been aware that pronunciation was something to be careful about, but I complacently believed it was someone else's problem and contented myself with smugly criticizing other people's German, until one day I found myself having to announce an opera by Leos Jánacek on five minutes' notice. The entire cast, and the names of all the characters, were Czech. As it happens, the rules of Czech pronunciation are quite simple once you learn them, but without them you are doomed to stumble through one seemingly impenetrable consonant cluster after another, which I did, in what must have been one of the most painful introductions to "The Makropoulos Case" ever transmitted over the airwaves. Only after starting the CD and shutting off the microphone did I notice that the program's producer had left a nice one-page introduction to Czech pronunciation sitting in the studio, just for idiots like me.

Having learned a lesson, and being in any case interested in languages, I took considerable time away from my studies in the ensuing months to produce what became known as "The WHRB Pronunciation Guide", and has since been revised and transformed into this website. I did not produce it from scratch: in fact there was a previous WHRB Pronunciation Guide of sorts, produced in typewritten form by a previous member of the station back in the 70's or earlier. (I'd give credit to that person here, only I don't know who it was; feel free to e-mail me if you happen to know.) That guide was less comprehensive, but it formed the base material for many of the language reference pages on this site. There is also an exceptional book which served as a reference for much of what I had to learn in order to produce this guide: it's called The Well-Tempered Announcer: A Pronunciation Guide to Classical Music, by Robert A. Fradkin, and it's directed at precisely the same primary audience as this guide: amateur classical radio announcers.

The idea to convert the WHRB Pronunciation Guide into a website came about five years after my stint in radio ended. Oddly enough, the impetus came largely from listening to professional classical radio: having learned to listen much more critically than I ever did before I went on the radio myself, I've noticed that even professional announcers, while they usually manage well enough with German, often screw up Hungarian and Polish names, or demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how to say Gothenburg. So it occurred to me that this guide might be useful to more than just its intended audience of struggling student radio staffers.

table of contents