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Eye-Rack, Ee-Rack or Ur-Ahk?

During one of many late night discussions about the coming invasion of Iraq in the winter of 2003, a fellow anti-war activist and college friend turned to me (Eric C) and said, “It’s ‘ee-rack’, not ‘eye-rack’. If you pronounce it ‘eye-rack’, you’ll sound ignorant.”

This was a common technique used--mostly by liberals, I’ll admit--in the run up to Iraq war to discount those who disagreed with you: make your pro-Iraq war opponent sound ignorant. Dismissively shake your head and say, “These people can’t even pronounce the name of the country we’re about to invade.” Or, “The President can’t even pronounce ‘nuclear’ correctly, how would he know if they had nuclear weapons?”

(To be fair, the last point is disturbing. Either Bush affected an intentionally ignorant pronunciation--what does that say about voters?--or he didn’t know any better. Which is worse? I thought this might be a “Fact Behaving Badly”. It isn’t. Here’s a good Daily Show clip from back in the day on it.)

So is it “eye-rack” or “ee-rack”? Or is it “ih-rahk”? Or is it “Ur-ahk” as they originally called the region thousands of years ago? Wikipedia has two pronunciations (“ee-rack” and “ur-ahk” ). Which is it? Personally, I prefer to pronounce Iraq “Ur-ahk” (and Iran “Ur-ahn”), with a nod to their ancient histories. When Michael C went to Afghanistan, he heard debates over “Konar” or “Kunar”, and “Koo-ren-gal” or “Kor-en-gal” Another friend and I debated “Beijing” or “Peking” in a bar sometime back.

None of these technicalities actually matter, because we butcher most country’s names. If I learned anything from Spanish class in high school, (and I’ll be honest: fluency in Spanish wasn’t one of them) it was that every country pronounces most every other country’s name differently. (In other words, we refer to countries by using exonyms.) Germany, to Spanish speakers, is Alemania. To Germans, it is Deutschland. America, to Spanish speakers, becomes Los Estados Unidos, and Mehico, to English, becomes Mexico.

Then I moved to Europe. What was an academic understanding became an everyday nuisance. Munich or Munchen? Firenze or Florence? Rome or Roma? Vienna or Wien? Who changed these city’s names? Why the hell did they do it? Just to confuse me on the train? Some of the changes are particularly senseless: why did Padova, Mantova and Genova have to become Padua, Mantua and Genoa? Americans barely visit these cities; who even took the time to change their names? (Michael C’s answer: the British.)

(Personally, the Firenze to Florence change pisses me off the most. I love the sound of “Firenze”; Florence is the name of a grandmother or a hipster band leader.)

More disturbingly, the linguistic game of geographical one-ups-manship is racist (or orientalist in the Edward Said-sense). “Whoa,” you may be saying. “Racist?” Yes, racist. No one has ever corrected my pronunciation of “Rome”--a white, European city--but I’ve been chastised for my pronunciation of middle Eastern countries and Chinese cities. White countries, sure we’ll goof your names. Non-white Asian, Middle Eastern or African countries, your names must remain odd and unpronounceable.

In other words, we can anglicize European city and country names to sound familiar, but we keep Asian, African and Middle Eastern country names different, foreign, furthering their otherness. Non-white countries “get” to keep their strange sounding names; Iraq has to be ee-rack, but Deutschland can be whatever. All of this enforces the separation, the non-whiteness of those regions.

In the end, the whole debate is pointless; we change country names for a very obvious reason: pronunciation. Every language emphasizes different syllables. As linguist Geoffrey Nunberg explains, no American, unless they grew up speaking Arabic, will successfully pronounce most Arabic city and country names. (The vice-versa is true as well.)

Why we keep the mis-pronunciations? That’s the real issue. Tomorrow, I offer a solution.

six comments

The “racist” explanation always gets my attention. Let me offer some counter-examples:

  • Indian cities have been renamed by the Indians themselves. (e.g. Bombay becomes Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata, etc) The old English names are probably more familiar to your random Anglo-sphere yokel. There’s probably more restaurants called Bombay Garden than Mumbai Garden.
  • Anglicizations of Chinese cities were most likely based on Cantonese pronunciations because the British had more interaction with South China than the rest of it. Hence, we called it Peking Duck not Beijing Duck, Canton not Guangdong, Sinkiang not Xinjiang, Hong Kong not Xianggang. The Taiwan style of Romanization uses strange letter combinations like ‘ts’ and ‘hs’ while the communist romanization relied even more on x, z, and q (which makes a ‘ch’ sound). Sadly, the West and the UN have largely accepted these worse anglicization.
  • Burma became Myanmar, Rangoon became Yangoon, all at the behest of the ruling junta.

My theory is that people used to Anglicize names in a period of time where things used to be further away than they are now. They did it to Ireland but they won’t do it to Shenzhen (which didn’t exist until 1980). You can get from London to Guangzhou faster today than the time it would take you to get to Brighton.

Speaking for southern Chinese, the Anglicizations of the past were actually more accurate and easier for foreigners to pronounce because they were based on what the locals called them.

Also, when the whole Libya thing went down, the media seemed to really try to figure out a consistent spelling for Qaddafi, Ghaddafi, that Guy.

My larger issue is that people seem to care that Beijing is Beijing, but no one really cares about the European examples.

I’m not sure I’d say racist, as much as orientalist.

Jeff thanks for the information. I don’t think we disagree, and racist is a loaded term, but it kind of applies.

The Myanmar/Burma situation is interesting because that country has so many different ethnicities that the whole country actually has several endonyms.

In general, I think countries should advocate changing towards their endonym. In the mean time, wait for our post tomorrow.

Thanks for posting this one. I actually think the pronunciation is important for us to get right. I used to call it “eye-rak” and was chided by my Middle East Studies and Arabic professors for it. I think it is easy to brush this thing off as insignificant, but since we are supposed to value these things as it relates to war and COIN, an effort should be made to get it right.

Well, it all relates to COIN, and to the future of our globalized world.

I think its one of those things that if you think about it, it just makes sense.