The politics of pronunciation

Debate trivialities:  some people were concerned that Obama pronouncing the name of the second-biggest nuclear power on the subcontinent as “Pah-ki-stahn,” rather than “Pack-i-stan,” sent the wrong message.  Apparently this issue is not a new one for the President.

My first reaction is to say “Why not pronounce it Pah-ki-stahn if that’s how the Pah-ki-stanis pronounce it?”  And in some sense the world is moving in that direction.  It used to be customary to say “Eye-rack” and “Eye-ran” — my sense is that standard newcaster usage has shifted from Eye-rainians to Ee-rahnians.  (What does Romney say?  What do self-consciously Middle-American politicians say?)

But it’s clear that no pure principle of that kind is in effect.  We would roll our eyes at a politician who called Israel “Yisroel” or Germany “Deutschland.”

Those pronunciations don’t match the English spelling, though.  So maybe the principle is “Among those pronunciations which are licensed by the written name of the place in English, use the one that best approximates the name of the place as natives would say it.”  But on this account, Israel would come out something like “Ees-rah-el”, whereas in real life there’s a staunch bipartisan consensus around the utterly un-Hebrew “Izz-ree-yul.”  And any candidate who followed this theory and said “Frahnce” would be wiped off the electoral map.

Is the politically savvy protocol simply “pronounce things the way Americans are used to pronouncing them?”  But that doesn’t explain the shift on Iran and Iraq.  And it doesn’t explain why certain sensitive types bristle at hearing “Pah-ki-stahn” but would give a pass to “Chee-lay.”  And surely not even the crankiest political uptightniks still insist on saying “Peking” just to get up the nose of the ChiComs.

Stop the presses:  a quick Google for “Peking site:nationalreview.com” reveals that there are, indeed, cranky political uptightniks who say “Peking” just to get up the nose of the ChiComs.  I should have known.

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13 thoughts on “The politics of pronunciation

  1. Allen Knutson says:

    What was weird was hearing Pockiston and Afghannistann in the same sentence.

    Incidentally, what should we call Geneva, Switzerland?
    Geneve? Genf? Ginevra? Genevra?

  2. NDE says:

    No reason they should rhyme unless it’s in the same language.
    Compare Deutschland (-lant) and Long Island.

  3. farbod says:

    “It used to be customary to say “Eye-rack” and “Eye-ran” ”

    These wrong pronunciations became customary after Bush’s axis of evil speech. All previous presidents used the correct English pronunciations. There are speeches by Carter, Reagan, Daddy Bush, and Clinton on youtube.

  4. JSE says:

    I definitely said “Eye-ran” as a kid in the 1980s, and I don’t think I was aware there was another way to pronounce it.

  5. Frank says:

    I heard a lecture by Reza Aslan where he insisted with obvious annoyance that “Iran” is “Ee-rahn”.

  6. JSE says:

    I just watched a Romney clip from earlier this year, and he says “eh-rahn.” First syllable more of a schwa than an “ee”. But definitely not “Eye-ran.”

  7. farbod says:

    Carter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0Xe0gypvPU
    Reagan: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R67CH-qhXJs
    H.W. Bush (6:40): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqwQw3THRvU
    Bill Clinton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrsEhjm1DS0

    they match the official American English pronunciation:

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iran

    While different local pronunciations might have existed, the common usage of the wrong pronunciation in the media and political discourse definitely started with Bush and is fading away after him.

    Even Bush himself (at times when he was less careful in pretending that he is this regular guy from the farm which has never been in Harvard and Yale) used the correct pronunciation:
    (1:00) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRzpmA0PXr0

  8. Farris says:

    one pronunciation that seems to have faded away long ago is “eye-talian”. i think finding an excuse to use this pronunciation would be a good rejoinder to an interlocutor who says “eye-ran” or “eye-rack”.

    it would also be amusing to see an escalation to articulating the ق in iraq and the غ in afghanistan.

    in conclusion, one difference i’d note between the deutschland and israel/france cases are that israel/france pronounced in a more accurate/less american way are what i typically hear israelis/french say in english, whereas even germans wouldn’t tell you in english that they are from deutschland.

  9. I went to a conference in Beijing last month and all the French were still saying Pékin, even though they couldn’t be further from (right-wing) cranky political uptightniks.

  10. Bobito says:

    There is a difference betwee Pakistan and the other examples you mentioned. Pakistan is a country in which English is an official language, so the spelling used in the US should be identical to that used in English in Pakistan, and it is entirely reasonable to expect people in the US to pronounce the word the way Pakistanis do. The situation is not the same with respect to Iran, where the name itself is a transliteration from Farsi (I suppose).

  11. Bobito says:

    In my (limited) experience, in Europe a certain colonialist mentality persists among even the most committed ideological leftists. For example, one heas exactly the same thing among Spanish communists.

  12. farris says:

    most english words are not pronounced the same way in the us and pakistan; why should the word “pakistan” itself be any different?

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