How do you pronounce Qatar? Probably wrong.



Sooner or later the moment will come for everyone, or at least anyone who doesn’t speak Arabic, but hopes to discuss this year’s World Cup without sounding like a complete idiot.

What happens if the conversational circumstance forces us to utter the word “Qatar” in public?

Is it Kuh-TAR, like guitar? Or Kuh-TAH, like the British pronunciation of catarrh, a slimy sore throat? What about the corporate executives who keep harping on about the fact that you’re 100 percent wrong and should say KUH-ter, like kotter (or gutter), or something closer to KAT-ar?

Why does everyone on TV seem to have a different answer? Can we trust random how-to videos on YouTube? Is there a way to say it without adding “or however you pronounce it”? Why has FIFA not issued a formal directive? After all, it’s been 12 years since the football board started it all by awarding the sport’s biggest championship to a tiny Gulf state.

Sepp Blatter, the former FIFA president, announced in 2010 that “Ka-TAR” would host the 2022 World Cup.

Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But while a four-page phonetic guide created for journalists traveling to Qatar offers some linguistic relief – with step-by-step pronunciations of handy phrases like “Help!” and “I was robbed” – it’s silent about the name of the place where you might have to say them.

Let’s say here that the problem is not willful ignorance or cultural arrogance, but that the Arabic pronunciation of “Qatar” – قطر in Arabic script – is very different from the English one:

Taoufik Ben-Amor, associate professor of Arabic studies at Columbia University


If you speak English, you’re probably saying it wrong, but only in the sense that your pronunciation of “Paris” or “Chile” would be considered wrong from the point of view of a Parisian or a Chilean.

Which means the real question is, what kind of wrong is right?

“There’s no real guidance,” said Neil Buethe, communications chief for the United States Soccer Federation, whose team has been slowly trickling into the country with the name the players would like to pronounce. “It’s definitely been a debate.”

Yes it has. Online, a Qatari known as Mr. Q posted a series of videos for visitors, including one that begins, “I’ve gone through and noticed a lot of foreigners teaching foreigners how to pronounce Qatar.” He then shows a few clips of people saying “Qatar” in various embarrassing ways on US TV and adds, “I respect you, you respect me, we all respect each other now – but no.”

Hassan Al Thawadi heads the Qatar Organizing Committee.

Ramon Van Flymen/EPA, via Shutterstock

Hassan Al Thawadi, the head of the Supreme Committee leading preparations for the World Cup, said in an interview that “Qatar” statements vary even within the host nation.

Hassan Al Thawadi, Secretary General of the Qatar World Cup Organisation


This has not helped reduce the general confusion among visitors.

“People said ‘KUH-ter’ when we first got there last December,” Buethe said of his travels to the country ahead of the World Cup. “But we had a lot of conversations with individuals and with people in the federation, and they told us it wasn’t correct: don’t say ‘KUH-ter’.”

Jenny Taft, an associate reporter for Fox Sports, which will broadcast the World Cup in the United States, said the network had made a decision.

Jenny Taft reporting for Fox Sports from Qatar.

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

“I don’t know who called, but we’re going with Ka-TAR,” she said in an interview. “I’m not sure why, but that was the decision that was made. And it’s unique, right? Like, I probably said KUH-ter leading up to this. But Ka-TAR is, I think, probably the most recognizable way the country is pronounced.”

Jenny Taft, Fox Sports sideline reporter


Walker Zimmerman, a defenseman for the US team, said he intended to do the same. “I say Ka-TAR,” Zimmerman said in a fall interview. “I know it’s probably not the right way – KUH-ter is for those who probably know a little bit more what they’re talking about – but I’m going for Ka-TAR.”

Walker Zimmerman of the United States national team knows he is not saying Qatar correctly.

Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

The German television network ZDF has taken a different approach: employees were informed by e-mail that they would go for KAT-ar. Martin Tyler, the legendary Sky Sports broadcaster who is building its 12th World Cup this year, said he would do the same.

Martin Tyler, announcer for Sky Sports and SBS Australia


However, none of these idiosyncratic decisions resolves the key questions: what is the actual pronunciation of the word? And what is our problem?

This sign in Doha does not give advice on pronunciation.

Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock

For starters, said Sarab Al Ani, who teaches Arabic at Yale University, the first consonant in the word Qatar doesn’t really translate into a K or Q sound. It’s actually a glottal sound, meaning it comes from the glottis, at the back of the throat – a muscle that English speakers don’t get to move much.

“What happens is the back of your tongue touches the palate lightly and quickly, creating the first sound,” Al Ani said.

She suggested flattening your tongue and tilting your head slightly forward to reduce the distance between tongue and throat. “It makes the distance as small as possible,” she explained. “You have to push your tongue back just a little bit to make contact with your palate — just a gentle touch, for a second — and then make the sound.”

The word Qatar has the stress on the first syllable, she said. After that, the T is fast and explosive – “a dark T,” she called it, a little hollow. To make the right sound, it helps to loosen your tongue by bending it slightly downwards. The A is pronounced quickly and the R, Al Ani said, is “closer to the pronunciation of a Spanish R.”

Sarab Al Ani, Lecturer in Arabic at Yale University


She then demonstrated a few times and then said encouragingly that English speakers, even World Cup reporters, may need a lot of practice before they get it right.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, what are we supposed to do with our newly engaged glottis and our new acquaintance?

Author Mary Norris, an expert in proper usage and a former editor at The New Yorker, said foreign place names can be little pronunciation minefields. Use the American pronunciation and you may seem willfully ignorant; use the native and you risk sounding aggressively pretentious.

She called it Kabul riddle – Ka-BOOL? Or COB ble? – and admitted that she has no independent information on the ruling of ‘Qatar’. “I’m sure we don’t have to come up with an Arabic pronunciation in American English,” Norris said.

She did say she once heard her doctor refer to a country he called “cotter” on the phone. “I think he said ‘cutter,'” she said, “but with a Brooklyn accent.”

If all this only adds to your anxious confusion, please take heart from the reassuring message from an official at the Qatar State Consulate General in New York. The official, who asked that her name not be used because she is not allowed to speak to the news media, said she has to listen every day to English speakers mangling the country’s name in all sorts of baroque, imprecise ways.

But if you go with Ka-TAR, you’ll be fine, she said. (“Cutter” is less pleasant.) “It’s not your fault,” she continued. “Some letters in Arabic you don’t have in English, so you can’t pronounce it the same way we do. We know you’re doing your best.”

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