How Do You Pronounce “Qatar?” (or any other country, for that matter)
Of all the controversies about this year’s World Cup, perhaps none is so conversationally ubiquitous as how we in the English-speaking world are supposed to pronounce the name of the country where it is being played. Traditionally, it has been something like “ka-TAHR.” This version has been mainstream in European languages since Pliny the Elder first mentioned the peninsula in the 1st Century. But there is a modern trend, particularly among Gulf expats (including my cousins, with whom I had this argument recently) to say something like “cutter.”
The latter is indeed more Arabic. It is worth noting, however, that “cutter” is the Modern Standard Arabic version — in the local dialect, it sounds more like “gi-tuhr.” So, who is right?
The unsatisfactory answer is that everyone is. Qataris may object to our garbling of their homeland, but things would get comical if we applied the rule universally. After all, the “Cutter” World Cup features teams like “Arhenteena,” “Brazhiu,” “Fraahnce,” and even Anglophone “Austraya.” And the Arabs are no less gracious hosts for calling us Amrika (America) and Iinkiltira (England).
Qatar’s is not the only country name that is controversial this time of year. In a bid to differentiate themselves from the popular bird, the Turkish government recently started insisting that everyone call their country “Türkiye.” (The birds are actually named for the country, based on the mistaken belief that they came from there.) Thus far, this has been a losing battle. “Türkiye” looks weird to English speakers, and no one knows how to pronounce it. It is more “authentic,” but by that logic we should also refer to the country’s neighbours as Hellas, Hayastan, and Sakartvelo (Greece, Armenia, and Georgia).
Some new names do get off the ground. No one talks about Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Upper Volta (Burkina Faso), or Siam (Thailand) anymore. But in spite of the Czechs’ best efforts, “Czechia” has yet to catch on in English. The Kazakhs gave up their bid to rebrand themselves “Kazakh Yeli,” even as they successfully renamed their capital three times in as many years. (Yeli is the native Kazakh word for “land,” a direct translation of the popular Persian suffix -stan.)
New names often have political portent. When the British Gold Coast became independent Ghana, it was a symbolic moment for Africa. (Though, it is worth mentioning that Côte d’Ivoire, Argentina, Brazil, etc. are still perfectly happy to be known for ivory, silver, and brazil nuts.) The more recent effort by Swaziland to become eSwatini, however, has been less successful, in large part for the same reason as Türkiye — it just sounds weird in English.
Some post-colonial names, however, are less virtuous than we assume. Burma and Myanmar are actually the same word in Burmese, with the former being the common spoken version (thus what was picked up by British sailors and ultimately imperial administrators), while the latter is the literary register. But today, “Myanmar” is identified with ethnonationalism of the Burmese majority — by using the “modern” version, well-meaning Westerners are parroting the propaganda of the military regime there.
More Westerners are familiar with the fact that Iran used to be Persia. This is, objectively, a step forward. Persia comes from the Roman name for the Parthian dynasty, which has not ruled the country since A.D. 224, while Iran is the name by which Iranians have always known themselves. But the history of how Europeans switched is a bit dicier. Iran means “Aryan,” an homage to the warrior people who conquered both South Asia and Europe thousands of years ago. The shah insisted that foreigners make the switch in the 1930s, in large part to ingratiate himself to Adolf Hitler.
Other names are impressively arbitrary. “Pakistan” is an acronym, referring to the British Indian provinces of Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Baluchistan. “Canada” was chosen at a convention in London, narrowly edging out Borealia (from the Latin for “North,” which would have made a nice mirror to Australia in the south), Victorialand, and Walter Bagehot’s favourite, Northland.
Malaya inserted -si- into its name to welcome Singapore into the federation, only to have the city secede two years later. The Philippines is still named for King Philip II of Spain (r. 1556–1598). Honduras’ name commemorates the fact that Christopher Columbus was once impressed by the depths (Spanish honduras) of the water off its coast. Ukraine comes from a Slavic root meaning “borderland,” reflecting the country’s troubled history. Niger and Sudan mean “Land of the Blacks” in Latin and Arabic, respectively. France, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Lombardy are all named for barbarian tribes who conquered those countries in the Dark Ages. For centuries, the Chinese referred to Japan as Wa, meaning “Dwarf Barbarian.” After generations of lobbying, they finally came around to the Japan’s preferred name, which roughly means “Sunrise Land.”
Other names are just backwards. Originally, Puerto Rico was the capital city (“rich port”) of the island of San Juan, but at some point sailors got confused, so the two names flipped. Greenland is covered in ice, but got its name because a Viking fugitive wanted to trick his Icelandic friends into moving there. The people we call the Aztecs called themselves Mexica, but for some reason, we call them Aztecs and give their true name to the people who replaced them.
The linguistic legacy of colonial pejoratives goes very deep, indeed. Britons and Germans named many of the nations of the global south, but they themselves derive their national identities from Roman slurs meaning “Tattooed Barbarians” and “Noisy Barbarians.” On the opposite corner of their Empire, the Romans, after throwing out the Jews, renamed their homeland after its Philistine population. Long before any Muslims lived there, “Palestine” stuck in the craw of Jewish nationalists.
The most absurd name of all, however, comes from southern Mexico. When Spanish explorers landed on an unknown beach on the edge of a forbidding jungle, they asked a passing local where on earth they were. He answered yucatan, which in Yucatec Mayan means “What did you say?” Thus, his homeland became the Yucatan Peninsula — which, of course, according to the men who discovered it, is part of India. If we stick with that, surely we can be forgiven for mispronouncing Qatar.