Tuesday, January 29, 2019

How do you pronounce Huawei?

I noticed today on NPR Morning Edition that in one story, Senator Mark Warner, the host Steve Inskeep and White House correspondent Ayesha Roscoe all pronounced Huawei as "Wah-wei." I was about to email NPR to tell them that their pronunciation guide is wrong, but first googled "How to pronounce Huawei" and found this video, which is produced by Huawei itself (on Gizmodo Australia), but they pronounce it wrong! They say it should be "wah-wei", but in Chinese it should have an "h" before the "wah". It is not a common sound in English, but if you can say the Spanish name Juan ("hu-ahn"), then you can say Huawei ("huah-wei", two syllables).

Interestingly, the Gizmodo video/commercial was produced by Huawei to teach foreigners how to pronounce the company name. From my point of view, it makes the common Chinese assumption that foreigners cannot pronounce Chinese, and gives up. They butcher the name, but it's "close enough" and they assume at least foreigners will remember the name. But there is no reason why Americans, at least, should not be able to say Huawei correctly (I can't be sure about the Brits, and Italians can never pronounce an initial "H" so for them it is hopeless.)

Some on the web (e.g. this Quora reply) speculate that some Chinese are mispronouncing it because the Cantonese pronunciation of the character 华 is "wah", but the name of the company is romanized in Mandarin, so "wah" is definitely wrong. But the company is based in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, so it does make me wonder whether their marketing person was a Cantonese speaker who could not hear the difference between "wah" and "hua." Unlikely, but possible.

Part of the reason it is important to pronounce it correctly is so Americans do not sound stupid to the Chinese. It is often a sign of disrespect, I think, to not pronounce names correctly. And the first part of the name, Hua, happens to be a character or word that means "China" in Chinese, so it is pretty important to get that right.

I am not the kind of person who, when speaking in English, pronounces "Mexico" and "Guatemala" in Spanish. Doing that was a marker of being a true "lefty" and "in the know" in the 1980s, e.g. to say "nee-kah-rrah-guah" (with a rolled R for best effect). I don't think my insistence on pronouncing Huawei correctly is in the same category. I think of it as just pronouncing it correctly within the limits of what one's native language allows. And I'm not going to insist on getting the tones right; the vowels and consonants should be enough.

This is why I also complain about the way Americans mispronounce Beijing; the "jing" should be pronounced like "jingle bells", but may pronounce the "j" like "je" in French, which only serves to make Beijing sound French and exotic. There is no reason why Americans can't pronounce "Beijing" correctly, and pronouncing "Beijing" in French is wrong.

We're going to hear a lot of news about Huawei; we may as well pronounce it correctly, as close to the Chinese as is easily possible.

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