How to pronounce Qunu and Mandela’s middle name

The BBC's Pumza Fihlani gives colleague Joseph Winter a lesson in Xhosa

On Sunday, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will be buried in his home town of Qunu. Two potential headaches for newsreaders.

Mandela was born in the Eastern Cape, the homeland of many Xhosa speakers. Xhosa, pronounced KAW-suh (-k as in king, -aw as in law, -uh as "a" in sofa, stressed syllables shown in upper case) in English, is one of South Africa's 11 official languages and one of 28 languages spoken in the country.

Like Mandarin and Zulu, Xhosa is a tone language and the pitch of a syllable (high or low in the case of Xhosa) is used to differentiate the meaning of words, just as the consonant sounds -k and -s are used to differentiate the words "king" and "sing" in English.

Xhosa is also a click language, and is documented as having 18 clicks, made in three positions - dental (where British English speakers usually make the sounds -th as in thin), post-alveolar (where British English speakers usually make the sounds -sh as in ship) and alveolar lateral (where British English speakers usually make the sound -l as in leg). In fact, the orthographic xh in Xhosa also represents a click sound.

Furthermore, Xhosa has a range of consonants that we do not have in English. Some of these sounds are familiar to people who live in the British Isles, like the sound in Welsh represented by "ll" in llan, or the sound in Scottish English represented by the "ch" in loch and there are also unfamiliar sounds like ejective consonants (made by closing the glottis - the area around the vocal folds - and pushing the air out from above it).

With such a mismatch in sound systems, what's a pronunciation linguist to do? In a perfect world, everyone would be able to correctly pronounce every sound in the world's languages - Xhosa clicks, Vietnamese tones, Arabic pharyngeal consonants and Danish stods, and so on.

In practice, they can't.

Here at the unit, our recommendations have been historically based on the sounds of British English and when a language has a sound that isn't in our sound system, we systematically and consistently anglicise the sound so it's as close as possible to the original.

For the South African village of Qunu, where Mandela will be buried on Sunday, we recommend the anglicised pronunciation: KOO-noo (-k as in king, -oo as in moon). In Xhosa, the q represents a click - but there are few broadcasters, excluding native Xhosa speakers, who could master 18 different clicks accurately.

And for Mandela's full name, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, we recommend: khol-ee-HLAA-hlaa man-DEL-uh (-kh as in Scottish loch, -hl as in Welsh llan, -aa as in father, -uh as a in sofa). This is based on his own pronunciation but without reflecting the tones. You can listen to his own pronunciation here, as said when he was sworn in as president of South Africa.

The Pronunciation Unit is part of the BBC's Information and Archives department. Its service is available exclusively to BBC broadcasters and programme-makers. The pronunciations discussed are represented using BBC text spelling.

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