Pronouncing Foreign Names
Jonathan Kolieb is upset that Americans don’t pronounce foreign names in the other country’s mother tongue.
I was flipping through the cable news channels the other night, and there were several segments on developments in Iraq. I found myself getting irritated, then angry: Why, five years after occupying a country, do we still not know how to pronounce its name?
Language and how we use it illustrates much about the speaker’s perspectives on a situation or issue. And it demonstrates a profound disrespect or ignorance (I’m not sure which is worse) to incessantly mispronounce a country’s name. For political leaders or so-called experts to do so with a country like Iraq — whose state of affairs is so intimately tied to America’s own politics and future — is troubling. To continue to do so five years since invading the country is inexcusable.
So before we complain about the need for more Arabic linguists in the State Department, or expanding America’s civilian reconstruction capabilities, let’s start with starting far simpler: Getting the name right.
“ee-Raq.” Not “I-rak.” Or to put it in terms the modern American can relate to: Think “e-Bay,” not “i-Tunes.”
Blake Hounshell takes a more nuanced approach.
He’s got a point. It’s pronounced roughly like ee-Rahk, not eye-Rack. You’d think that by now, most folks would have gotten that right. Ditto for the president of Russia, whose name still seems to confuse the entire political class in Washington.
I’ve noticed, too, that Barack Obama gets himself into trouble when he correctly says “Pah-ki-stan,” but puts too long an “ee” sound on “Taliban” and then says “Afghanistan” in the normal American way.
Still, one can go too far with the whole proper pronunciation thing. “Al Qaeda,” for instance, can come across as incredibly pretentious when pronounced properly, with the infamous “ayn” sound that trips up even the most diligent students of Arabic (ayn is also the first letter in the word “Iraq”). It’s just not practical when speaking English to bust out with what sounds to the untrained ear like a camel with indigestion. Plus, any American who walks around saying “Pah-Ree” is liable to get punched in the face.
And he’d deserve it, too. People–and not just American people–pronounce things using the consonant and vowel sounds they’re used to. I don’t affect a British accent when referring to UK prime ministers or a German one when talking about places and figures in that country. For that matter, I don’t adopt local regional accents when referring to, say, governors of other states or cities in other parts of the country. It would be, at best, unnatural even though I’ve got the ability to do so. Doing it with languages I don’t speak is simply silly.
It was an article of much amusement in the 1980s that one could immediately distinguish conservatives from liberals by how they pronounced Nicaragua. The former would invariably refer to “nicker OG wuh” and the latter would say “knee kaaah RAAAAAAAH goooooooo waaaaa.” Even the left-leaning writers of Saturday Night Live thought that was funny.
In the late 1970s, when Iran and Iraq came on my radar screen, they were commonly pronounced as “Ear-RON” and “Ear-ROCK” by network news anchors and, thus, by the rest of us. Somewhere in the 1990s, perhaps because of the successive presidencies of Texan George H.W. Bush and Arkansan Bill Clinton, they became “Eye-RAN” and “Eye-RACK.” I find myself alternating between them with no rhyme or reason, much as I do with “root” and “rout” as pronunciation of route.
Oh, and “Ear Awk” and “Pak E STAWN”? Those pronunciations have nothing to do native dialects. Rather, it’s the way the British, who colonized the countries and drew their borders, pronounced them. It is, therefore, merely Oxbridge British English.
Graphic by Prof. Lera Boroditsky