Whadja say? Online Word Pronunciation Guides

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When you talk for a living, it’s usually a good idea to know the proper pronunciation of the words you’re using. As a radio newscaster, I come across the occasional word that baffles me, either because I’ve never seen it before, or because I’ve seen it written, but have never heard it pronounced.

Case in point, recently a Canadian tourist fell off a building and died in the resort city of Cebu, Philippines. I’d never heard of Cebu before. Often a quick Google search for something like “pronounce Cebu” will provide a link or two with a written pronunciation guide, but there’s nothing like actually hearing someone who knows, pronounce the word.

I’m going to take a look at two websites, that let you do just that: HowJSay and Forvo.

Howjsay – English Pronuncing Dictionary

Howjsay Home Page Screenshot

I came across HowJSay a few months ago, and have used it a few times, notably to get the proper pronunciation for Barack Obama (BA-rick or ba-RACK?) Turns out I had been pronouncing it wrong and quickly changed my ways.

HowJSay is a one-way pronunciation tool. You ask it to pronounce something for you and its voice guy pronounces it. His accent isn’t for everybody, but he is very clear and easy to understand. There do not appear to be different pronunciations for, say, American English and British English.

Advantages

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  • Presumed higher rate of accurate pronunciations
  • Consistent sound quality
  • Large number of words in the dictionary (97 000+)
  • Easy to use
  • Integration with many Windows and Mac programs (Word, Excel etc.)
  • Toolbars for IE7 and Firefox

Disadvantages

  • No word request mechanism
  • Pronunciation for only one region
  • Only contains English pronunciations

Now let’s look at Forvo

Forvo – Social Pronunciation Guide

Forvo - User-powered Pronunciation Guide

Forvo, while also a pronunciation site is quite different. Forvo is more of a Wikipedia for pronunciation. HowJSay has many more words in its dictionary, tens of thousands more, but Forvo has the advantage of being a social site. Anyone can request a word be pronounced and anyone can go ahead and pronounce it. Registered users of the site can then go ahead and vote on the best pronunciations for each word.

When you do a Forvo search and then click onto a word page, all the pronunciations are displayed, but there is only one “standard pronunciation,” the one with the most votes. You can vote down a pronunciation if you think it’s wrong, the sound quality is bad or the pronouncer is not a native English speaker (they ask that you only pronounce words in your native tongue, but that doesn’t seem to stop people.)

The downside, of course, is that for a word that’s new to the dictionary, you won’t be able to tell by votes, whether the pronunciation is accurate. With HowJSay, you kind of assume they did a little research and that the voice guy got it right. Here are some of the advantages and disadvantages of each:

Advantages

  • Anyone can request a word be pronounced
  • People with different accents can record a pronunciation (greater diversity)
  • Contains many languages
  • Voting mechanism
  • Tagging. Can search or browse by tag.
  • Interestingness. Browsable categories. Listen to how other people say things. Contribute
  • Easy web-based recording. All you need is a microphone.

Disadvantages

  • Inconsistent sound quality
  • Accuracy of some words (particularly ones new to the dictionary or with few votes) in doubt
  • Small number of words in the dictionary (<7000 at time of writing)
  • Potential for abuse

Both sites are valuable and I will keep using the two of them when needed, but, if Forvo starts to gain in popularity, it will only become more reliable, and therefore more useful, than HowJSay.

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