Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Qatar, Rhymes With Butter .. or Susan

UPDATE: Fivethirtyeight recently (12.02.2010) tweeted about ESPN broadcasters pronouncing Qatar and linked to this site with variations, neither of which rhyme with butter, hehe: howjsay.com.

I've noticed a lot of Americans pronouncing the country name Qatar as something like kutter* ([kʌɾɚ]). This is particularly true of US military personnel serving in Iraq who are regularly traveling through there, but I also just heard it on teevee by ESPN's Chris Fowler referencing a tennis tournament in Doha, Qatar. As a native speaker of American English, I don't think my default pronunciation assignment of the alphabetic string Q-a-t-a-r would be [kʌɾɚ]. If I were presented with the string of Romanized letters Q-a-t-a-r for the first time, I think my first attempt at a pronunciation would be somewhat closer to American English guitar, something like [kʌt'ɑːʳ]**. So why do so many Americans use this non-standard, may I say, deviant, pronunciation? First, I suspect that the soldiers and sports announcers flowing through the region have little confidence in their own default reading of the Romanized letters, so they willingly mimic whomesoever says the name first, and then, heck, that's how you say it. It's a nice example of follow-the-leader linguistics.

But why is the dominant American pronunciation of Qatar → [kʌɾɚ] to begin with? It's a nice "proximate cause" question. And my answer is???

My disappointing answer is this: I'm not sure. But my more intriguing answer is that it may have something to do with the fact that most Americans going through Qatar are military personnel. And most military personnel are wont to use highly Americanized pronunciations of foreign names. Almost pathologically so. It's akin to trash talking, imho. Let's face facts. Throughout history, when people from one powerful region enter another, less powerful region, it is common for the dominant culture to emasculate the locals and trivialize the foreign culture. And this emasculation is often linguistic. Like a cultural domination machine, taking local words and names and running them through a linguistic meat grinder is a way to gain some control over a group.

I'm reminded of The Tick's use of intentional mispronunciations of the Thrakkorzog's name (thank gawd for YouTube and IMDB, right?).

Tick: It's your turn now, Thorace-bog.
Thrakkorzog: It's Thrakkorzog. Thrakkorzog. With a K.
Tick: We're only serving humble pie, Whatchamazog.
Thrakkorzog: For the last time, it's...
Tick: Thorax-and-a-bog. Four-yacks-and-a-dog.
Thrakkorzog: No.
Tick: Ah, laxative-log.
Thrakkorzog: No, no, no.
Tick: Sapsucker-frog.
Thrakkorzog: Thrakkorzog.
Tick: Susan?
Thrakkorzog: Now you're doing it on purpose. How juvenile.

*Rhymes with American English butter ... I'm not in love with [ɚ] as a representation, but I guess we need SOMETHING for that seriously weird thing that ends such words, so okay, [ɚ] it is. I'll leave the intriguing issues of how best to represent rhotics to real phoneticists, far better skilled than I to tease apart the deep problems of intervocalic apical stops and rhotacized schwas.

**For the record, Wikipedia gives [ˈɋɑtˤɑɼ] as the pronunciation of Qatar, but ultimately this has little impact, if any, on my point. Local and "official" pronunciations are simply ignored. That's my point.

Note for HTML geeks: The amount of effort it would have taken me to fix the font disparity in this post was, simply put, not worth it. Let it stand.


Gary said...

I'd've used Am. Eng. /katar/ barring having heard something else sensible. [kʌɾɚ] seems more than a bit lazy.

Chris said...

Gary, I'm curious, would you have put the stress on the first or second syllable?

KATar or kaTAR ??

elizabeth said...

i was just arguing with zack about this very question. i said the "cutter" pronunciation because a friend of mine (american) lived there for 6 months and that's she said. really i have no idea though.

Chris said...

Glottal stops are typical ignored by Americans. But it also worth noting that Americans in the region mostly don't speak Arabic, so they're ignoring the native pronunciation completely.