Desperately seeking “Qatar”

Last year I was talking about Forvo, a nifty pronunciation site. Via Steve Crandall’s blog (can you pronounce açaí?), I just learned about a related site called inogolo. But inogolo, which derives its name from a Latinate construction meaning “not butchered”, is specifically targeted at English pronunciations. As site owner Stuart Yoder puts it: “The goal is not to mimic Spanish, German, Chinese, and Polish accents, but to provide a tool so that names are not completely butchered.”

When presented with a new dictionary, I always look up the word haruspex. Similarly, when presented with a new pronunciation site, of all the difficult words I could choose, my mind immediately turns to Qatar. Inogolo has it (KAH-tur), but then again, this is intended to be an American English version of the country name. Can we find a native version of the same name? Here’s Slate dedicating a page to the problem: How Do You Pronounce “Qatar”? It’s got some lovely linguistic jargon… The middle “t” is perhaps the trickiest part. It is known as a velarized consonant, which means the back of the tongue must be pressed against the mouth’s roof to achieve the requisite effect. The page even features a recording by an Arabic professor. But the prof’s name is Terri DeYoung. Nothing against the good Doctor, but I’m guessing she didn’t grow up on the Persian Gulf.

I was despairing of finding an instructive native when I came across this segment from the Daily Show. It’s both painful and funny to watch John Oliver correct the Qatari ambassador to the UN on HIS pronunciation of Qatar. And sure enough, when you hear the ambassador say the name, it is an ear-opening experience.

Oliver is a brutal straight man, and when his subject doesn’t want to play funny, things get tense.