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Naming of Foreign Parts

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" commentary, March 28, 2002

To a lot of its critics, the Administration's miscalculations in its Mid-East policy are summed up in a single pronunciation: "Eye-rack." In The New York Times a couple of days ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote that "Arabs flinch each time American officials torture pronunciations of the names of Iraqi cities and, worse, the country itself.. . The Bush administration might at least remind officials that we are not invading Eye-rack, but Ee-rack. "

But if people in Amman, Cairo, and Riyadh are flinching as they watch the TV news nowadays, I doubt if it has much to do with the way American politicians and journalists are struggling with the intricasies of Arabic phonology -- no more than the current wave of anti-French feeling owes anything to Jacques Chirac's pronunciation of our president's first name as "zhorrrzh."

Anyway, however hard Americans try to approximate the pronunciations of Arabic names, what comes out of our mouths is going to be pretty remote from the real thing to Arab ears. If you were really going to get the name of the country right, you'd say something like "EE-rawq," with that gutteral 'q' that doesn't have any English equivalent. And you'd start it with an "ayn," an h-like sound that's pronounced even farther back in the throat. I've had two Arabic linguists try to give me tutelage in that sound, but I'm not to the point of being able to reproduce it on the radio.

"BAGGH-ded," "KurbeLEH," "BASS-rah." That's what Arabic speakers tell me, but it's a fool's errand for Americans to try to do those names justice. The prudent course is to make a yeoman effort at approximating foreign names with the limited phonetic resources that English makes available.

Going further than that is almost always a sign of dubious ulterior motives. There are those Spanish pronunciations that are supposed to demonstrate solidarity with the locals, like "NeecaRAWWa" and "CoLOHMMbia." Or there are the sprezzatura pronunciations of the classical music announcers, who linger on the double t of Pavarotti and the th-sound of PlaTHido Domingo.

And then there are the trench-coat pronunciations that you hear from journalists who want to intimate that they've been on the ground for a long time. I think of the way Daniel Schorr used to talk about MikhILE GorbaTCHOFF, with the easy familiarity of an old Kremlin hand. There's a hint of this in the way journalists have taken up saying "gutter" for the country that the uninitiated refer to as "katt-AR." Actually it isn't at all clear that the locals would recognize the journalists' "gutter" as a version of what they pronounce as something like "QAW-tar." But then these attempts at phonetic correctness are really intended for domestic consumption.

There's a domestic note in those criticisms of the pronunication "eye-rack," too. A lot of people see the pronunciation as an symptom of redneck ignorance -- columnists have suggested that it's somehow tied to Americans' general fuzziness about geographical detail and our insensitivity to the complexities of world politics. As a columnist for the Baltimore Sun wrote not long ago, "If you can't pronounce it, don't try to invade it."

But the idea that "eye-rack" is incorrect is mostly a sign of our own linguistic prejudices. The pronunciation has two things working against it. The first syllable fits in with that pattern of saying certain foreign words with a long vowel -- not just "eye-rack" and "eye-ran," but words like "ay-rab" and "eye-talian," pronunciations that educated people tend to associate with red-state yahoos. And then there's the flat fronted vowel of the second syllable -- "rack" instead of "rock." That runs afoul of the principle that the letter "a" in foreign names should always be pronounced as "ah." That has become article of faith among well-traveled Americans, to the point where the time-honored English name "milann" has been replaced by the pretentious parvenus "milahn" and "milano."

Hearing people ridicule ordinary Americans who say "eye-rack" can be like listening to American expatriates sneering at the tourists in line at the Louvre or the Coliseum. But it's something else again when you hear that pronunciation coming from Administration officials who don't come by it natively. In their mouths, it sounds a faux-bubba note, as if to tweak all those fastidious internationalists -- we can go it alone phonetically, too. It has gotten to the point where you can tell people's position on the role the UN should play in the reconstruction of Iraq just by listening to way they say the name.

For the time being, "ee-rock" would seem to be the more judicious pronunciation, at least until we're certain that when the dust clears, we won't need any assistance in writing the gazetteers for this part of the world.

But I'm not really bothered hearing journalists and politicians make a hash out of those other exotic Arabic placenames. I've been listening occasionally to French news broadcasts over the Internet, and their announcers do a much better job with Arabic names, no doubt because they have a couple of hundred years of embedding in the Arabic-speaking world. It's an impressive phonetic accomplishment, but not one we should envy.

Copyright 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.