Tag Archives: pakistan

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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