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11/22/2013

You say eye-RAN. I say ee-RAHN. Let's consult the Internet.

Mahmoud

Remember Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? We were just learning how to pronunce his name when he ceased to be president of Iran. Now we have to start all over with Hassan Rouhani. (AFP/Getty.)

 

True, we don’t have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to kick around anymore.

(All together now: that’s mah-MOOD ah-mah-DIH-nee-zhahd.)

Alas, the former president of Iran (ee-RAHN) completed his second term in office earlier this year, to be replaced by Hassan Rouhani (hah-SAHN roh-hah-NEE).

Give up yet?

It might be tempting simply to admit defeat when faced by all these multitudes of foreign names whose rendering in English seems to offer little guidance to their proper pronunciation. Even worse are words – and they are legion – whose spelling in English seems to be directing us in the exact wrong direction.

For example: Iraq.

Even many of the U.S. and other troops who invaded the country and then occupied it for many long and bloody years remain stubbornly convinced that the place is called eye-RACK. (No doubt this belief has something to do with the way its name is spelled in English).

Common though it is, that pronunciation is wrong.

The name of Iraq is pronounced ee-RAHK.

Yes, it’s confusing, but it is nonetheless important. After all, people do like to hear the names of their countries – not to mention the names they go by themselves – pronounced more or less correctly. The difference between successful and failed diplomacy hangs on details such as these.

Fortunately, there is help.

One useful guide to the pronunciation of foreign names can be found at inogolo.com, which helpfully provides audio links as well as printed phonetic renderings of everything from Azerbaijan (a-zur-by-JAHN) to Zimbabwe (zim-BAHB-way).

Unfortunately, the site is not exhaustive. Type in Al-Quds (the Arab name for Jerusalem), and the site will helpfully inform you that “Al” is pronounced – drum roll, please – “al.” That’s it.

True devotees of accurate pronunciation may wish to consult the Oxford BBC Guide to Pronunciation, available from amazon.co.uk for £11.89 with free delivery – but only in the U.K.

Another very good on-line resource is called pro-nounce. It’s the Voice of America pronunciation guide. This site provides a guide to pronunciation in audio form as well as in printed phonetic text. It is both comprehensive and up-to-date. Just remember to type in the names of people with the last name first.

The VOA site will inform you, for example, that Giorgi Margvelashvili, is pronounced ghee-OHR-ghee mahrg-veh-lash-VEE-lee.

Don’t know who Giorgi Margvelashvili is? Well, you’ll have to look that up elsewhere.

(For the record, he’s the president of Georgia.)

The VOA site even includes the proper pronunciation of Al-Quds.

All together now: ahl-KOOTS.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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