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Ee-mew Or Ee-moo? NPR's Pronunciation Sparks International Debate

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Emu or emu - that was the debate that began to rage across continents after we aired Stu Rushfield's story last week about Winston, an emu who went on the lam. Now - who writes this stuff? Now Stu's back with an update about the international controversy he set off.

STU RUSHFIELD, BYLINE: I knew it was an issue that would raise eyebrows, but I had no idea that days after my first NPR piece aired, I would be explaining myself to millions of Australians. It all started so innocently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUSHFIELD: My wife was scrolling through Facebook last week when she saw that a friend needed help finding her lost emu.

I had done this little story about an unusual family pet that was lost and then found. But there was a problem with the pronunciation of one word.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CASSANDRA REDDING: Emu.

RUSHFIELD: Emu.

REDDING: Emu.

RUSHFIELD: Emu.

REDDING: Emu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: What? What is an emu?

RUSHFIELD: On the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, also known as the ABC, the reactions came fast, and they were personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: A bloke called Stu started all of this.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Nemesis of Australia.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: What's wrong with Americans?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: What were you thinking?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Did you really think you were going to get away with this all this time, this flagrant mispronunciation of our national animal?

RUSHFIELD: I grew up hearing the word for the giant flightless bird as emu. So did lots of my NPR colleagues. The decision to say emu came after hours of discussions and endless debates with editors and managers and researchers.

Jane Gilvin is a research specialist at NPR.

JANE GILVIN: We don't use a standard broadcast English, so some words get said in different ways on our air, like emu and emu. And we hope that they'll understand that it's part of our mission to reflect America.

RUSHFIELD: We had tried to get it right, but we had clearly touched a nerve.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: The American pronunciation has sent feathers flying because NPR decided...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: That sent shivers down the spine of so many Australians yesterday. It became a national story and then an international story. We know how to pronounce...

RUSHFIELD: I needed to find out why people were so upset, so I got in touch with Tiger Webb. He's an editorial adviser for the ABC.

TIGER WEBB: My focus is language, so English usage, pronunciation, that kind of thing.

RUSHFIELD: He told me it would be unthinkable to say emu in Australia. But, he said, it's understandable that Americans may use the traditional emu or the Americanized emu and that Australians should not be offended because Webb says the word didn't even originate in the land down under.

WEBB: It's probably Portuguese, maybe Arabic. It's not spelled the way it was originally spelled in the 17th century when it first came to English. So yeah, people being very stupid at speed about a pretty ordinary case of regional variation, I think.

RUSHFIELD: That didn't stop the Australian media from demanding answers. In radio interviews across the country and in a nationwide TV interview, I did my best to explain why their emu was my emu. It seemed I convinced no one. In the end, in the interest of international peace, I was contrite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSHFIELD: I'm so sorry. I hope you can forgive me at some point.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I do 'cause you sound really nice, and I feel like we're mates now.

RUSHFIELD: And I feel like we've restored peace between our countries. And really, does it matter how we pronounce emu or emu? It really only matters what Winston says.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMU VOCALIZING)

RUSHFIELD: For NPR News, I'm Stu Rushfield.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OLD MAN EMU")

JOHN WILLIAMSON: (Singing) Let me tell you of an interview with an old man emu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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