Who said that?

The standards for writing SI are very clear, those for speaking perhaps not. So this contribution to the topic from the BBC may be of interest to our readers.

A reader of MetricViews from Hampshire recently wrote to the BBC as follows:

“What is your view on the pronunciation of ‘kilometre’ in English? I hold that it should be ‘kilOMeter’ with the stress on the second syllable, as in thermometer, barometer, odometer and speedometer. Words of four syllables are usually stressed on the second syllable, right?”

He received the following reply from Martha Figueroa-Clark, a pronunciation linguist at the Pronunciation Unit, BBC Information and Archives:

“Thank you for your e-mail concerning the pronunciation of ‘kilometre’ in English.

The role of the Pronunciation Unit is to research and advise on correct pronunciations in all languages, and much of our work is focused on proper names, place names and phrases in languages other than English, although we do also advise on English words.

On our internal online database (via which we advise BBC broadcasters) we recommend the traditional pronunciation of kilometre, with the stress on the first syllable (by analogy with other units of measurement, e.g. ‘centimetre, ‘millimetre); this is also the pronunciation listed first in most recent published sources in Britain (including the Oxford English Dictionary). However, it cannot be denied that the pronunciation ki’lometre, with stress on the second syllable (most likely because of the influence of the stress pattern in instruments of measurement, such as ther’mometer, spee’dometer or pe’dometer) is also common and becoming more widespread and, for this reason, we include a note about this variant pronunciation on our database entry for kilometre. One recently-published pronunciation dictionary (by the phonetician Professor J.C. Wells) acknowledges that there is a growing preference among speakers of British English to pronounce kilometre with stress on the second syllable (although it also states that the pronunciation of kilometre with primary stress on the first syllable is logical and, on the analogy of other units of measurement, might be expected to predominate).

In years to come, we may find that there is a marked shift in the pronunciation preference of speakers of British English in favour of ki’lometre, with stress on the second syllable. When two or more pronunciations for an English word exist and are listed in dictionaries, we generally make a single recommendation for the sake of consistency but it is not appropriate for us to prohibit the use of the other pronunciations. We give broadcasters as much information as possible about each pronunciation variant (which is more traditional, which might be interpreted as an Americanism, any relevant arguments from etymology etc.) and explain our recommendation, but, where more than one pronunciation is established, as with kilometre, the choice is ultimately an editorial one.

I hope this helps to explain the Pronunciation Unit’s role in advising broadcasters on pronunciation matters where English words are concerned.”

Metric Views accepts that some may question the role of the BBC in setting standards for British English pronunciation. But we are most grateful to our reader for raising this interesting question and to Martha for taking the time to prepare a thoughtful and informative reply.

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