International tournaments expose us to new players, teams and styles of football. Euro 2020 gave us the chance to watch North Macedonia and Finland on such a grand stage for the first time. Although, what can be exciting for football fans, can be challenging for commentators, who have to master new pronunciations. Derek Rae, the voice of the Fifa video games, believes broadcasters do not always pass the test.
As ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator and a speaker of five languages, Rae prides himself on his pronunciations of player names. “We’d all want our names to be pronounced correctly if we lived in a different culture,” he says. “If people make that effort for you, it’s a huge sign of respect. It’s respect for a language and a culture. I realise not everyone is a linguist and not everyone can do that, but we ought to be trying more than we are.”
Football is increasingly global and there is so much more of it on TV now, so it is understandable that some mispronunciations have crept into coverage, but the errors sometimes reveal our national attitude. England can be inward-facing, particularly in the wake of Brexit, and a lot of people think learning other languages is not worth our time and effort because “everyone else speaks English anyway”.
“As broadcast journalists, we should be better than that,” says Rae. “I always use the analogy that for a written journalist it would be a crime to just lazily misspell somebody’s name and just make it up because people will still know who you’re talking about. You wouldn’t do that. You’d write the name as it is spelt. It’s the same when it comes to pronunciations.”
Rae does not think the issue is specifically an English problem, but a scourge for all English-speaking countries. “This is an Anglo thing. I don’t mean an English thing. I mean an English language thing. If somebody’s first language is English – whether they’re in the UK, the US or Australia – there seems to be a God-given right to say a name in whatever way is easiest for a person to say.”
Portuguese names are often read as if they are Spanish, but there are key differences. Bruno Fernandes is a good example. Rae has received a lot of attention for the way he pronounces Fernandes with a hard “des” sound at the end, with some Fifa fans suggesting that, because the pronunciation is unfamiliar to their ears, it must be incorrect.
“I did his name long before he was at Manchester United,” says Rae. “What I do with every new name is try to talk to a native speaker and, if possible, the player himself and make sure to do my research on it. I know enough Portuguese to know that name in Portugal is ‘Fernandsh’. Nobody said anything to me until he joined Manchester United and then all of a sudden I’m being told I’m saying it wrong. My rule is always that I want the player and his family to listen to it and say: ‘Ah there is a commentator who has got it right.’”
A lot of Italian names are pronounced incorrectly. Gianluigi is often pronounced as “Jeeanluigi” when actually it’s a harsher “Jan” sound. The same rule applies to Napoli full-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo; it’s “Jov” rather than “Jeeov”. Other transgressions include a hard “ch” for Chiellini or Chiesa, when a simple “k” sound will suffice, and a hard “g” when discussing Lorenzo Insigne.
Eastern European countries present their own challenges as many letters can be completely misleading for an English reader. For instance, the second part of the team name ŁKS Łódź is pronounced “wuch”. Wojciech Szczesny has heard multiple variations of his name, but the correct pronunciation is Voy-chekh Sh-chen-sni.
Ukraine fans have a very specific gripe, which does not relate to pronunciation, but the way commentators often refer to their team as “the Ukraine”. The word Ukraine is thought to come from the Slavic term for borderland. So, by calling the country “the Ukraine”, commentators are unwittingly harkening back to a time before Ukraine became independent.
Barack Obama caused offence when he made the same mistake while in the presidency in 2014. “Ukraine is a country,” said William Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine at the time. “The Ukraine is the way the Russians referred to that part of the country during Soviet times. Now that it is a country, a nation and a recognised state, it is just Ukraine. It is incorrect to refer to ‘the Ukraine’, even though a lot of people do it.” As any linguists who watch football will be all too aware, just because something is common does not mean it is correct.