Politics & Policy

‘Gutter’ Politics

Playing the name game.

I’m not going to say “gutter.” That’s what we’re supposed to say now, instead of Qatar — instead of “Qa-TAHR.” It’s the latest thing. From time immemorial — defined as the moment of my birth on — we’ve said “Qa-TAHR.” All red-blooded Amurricans say “Qa-TAHR.” But the other day, I even heard Rice — the otherwise unimpeachable Condi Rice — say “gutter.” I almost busted a gut.

I’m not going to say “cobble” either. That’s the new Kabul, as you know — the new “Ka-BUHL.” In the highest administration councils, there was a contretemps — a reported contretemps, I should say — on this very subject. Donald Rumsfeld complained, “I think the top diplomat of this country ought to know how to pronounce the name of the Afghan capital.” He was talking about Colin Powell. Rumsfeld, apparently, is a “cobble” man, and Powell is a “Ka-BUHL” man. Powell responded — again, reportedly — “Well, where I come from, it’s Ka-BUHL.”

I’m a shameless Rummy booster, but I’m strongly with Powell on this one.

If you start to go native on the pronunciation of foreign capitals and other places, there’s no end to it. None. I called up the Qatari embassy in Washington. The receptionist answered, “Good morning, Embassy of Qa-TAHR.” I smiled. I then asked — this was a native — how Qataris (“gutterees”?) pronounced the name of their country. She said “gutter,” or something close. But one gets the feeling that she wouldn’t say “gutter” when speaking in English. Neither would an American say “United States” instead of “Etats-Unis” when speaking French.

And then there’s the matter of the sheer ugliness — aural ugliness — of both “gutter” and “cobble.” (Is that ethnocentric — sound-o-centric?) When I discussed this issue on the Web, a reader wrote in, “Afghanistan’s capital city certainly appears to be a hellhole, but at least the name Kabul — Ka-BUHL — lent it a certain Eastern allure. ‘Cobble,’ on the other hand, fails entirely to inspire the right vision. Where’s the romance in ‘cobble’? And ‘gutter’! Ugh!”

Yes, ugh. For a while — when the bombs started falling over there — some news dorks were saying “Afghanis” instead of the proper “Afghans,” in an effort, it seems, to sound in-the-know. Fortunately, they have stopped now, for the most part.

But the general problem persists. Last winter, I was thinking of starting a “Torino Watch.” Why? Katie Couric was broadcasting from the Salt Lake City Olympics, and she was looking forward to the next Winter Olympics, to be held in . . . “Torino,” she said. Why she said “Torino,” instead of good ol’ Turin, is shrouded in mystery. Would-be sophisticates are always saying “Torino” instead of Turin and “Milano” instead of Milan. But, oddly, they don’t say Roma — except “when in Rome,” presumably — and they don’t say “Venezia” (Venice), “Firenze” (Florence), or “Napoli” (Naples).

Even I, though, draw the line at “Leghorn”: I say Livorno. But this puts me at odds with Winston Churchill, who wrote to his foreign secretary in 1941, “If you approve I should like Livorno to be called in the English — Leghorn.” Though “if at any time you are conversing agreeably with Mussolini in Italian, Livorno would be correct.” This is the same Churchill who would write, four years later, “I do not consider that names that have been familiar for generations in England should be altered to study the whims of foreigners living in those parts.” Without a firm stand, “the B.B.C. will be pronouncing Paris ‘Paree.’ Foreign names were made for Englishmen, not Englishmen for foreign names.”

Harrumph. But there is a point — or several — and one of them is consistency. Katie Couric may swing with “Torino,” but she’d never say “Köln” instead of Cologne, and she probably wouldn’t refer back to the (horrendous) “München” Olympics. Nor would she pretend that the 2004 Summer Games will be held in “Athena.”

In some cases, you just can’t take the politics out of the pronunciation. You recall the great controversy over “Nicaragua,” in the 1980s: When Peter Jennings rolled that “r,” you just knew he hated the Contras. Same with the broadcasters of NPR (nicknamed by right-wingers and other realists “Radio Managua”). Charles Krauthammer wrote a semi-famous column on this topic, admonishing, “Give foreign words their most mundane English rendering”: no umlauts or other curlicues.

And yet the sandal-friendly Left just can’t give up their Spanish (or faux-Spanish) pronunciations, thinking it makes them extra-cool and sympathetic. One Hispanic gentleman wrote me, “I’ve even heard ‘Cooba’ when a liberal really wants to feel my pain.” Another man wrote of a college friend whose parents are Spanish, though she herself grew up in Virginia. “Freshman year, she always said ‘Barcelona,’ normally. Over the summer, she must have discovered her ‘roots,’ because by sophomore year she was dressing in all black and saying ‘Bar-thay-lona.’” Sure.

And I especially liked this: “I am a student in southern California, and am constantly angered by the insistence of so many that one use a Spanish accent when pronouncing Spanish names. I have on occasion asked professors who do this to pronounce my last name with a southern drawl (as I’m from the South). And I once asked a fellow student to pronounce my last name without an American accent, ‘as it was intended to be pronounced back in England.’” This sort of cheek is good for the soul.

And do you ever say Peking? Only when ordering duck, huh? There’s something vaguely right-wing about saying Peking instead of Beijing, isn’t there? I always feel a little frisson of rebellion when I do so. If you wanted to be a real weirdo, you could say Peiping.

I heard from a man who said, “I have six (mostly grown) children, and I’ve done my best with them, but I can’t fight the tyranny of PC pronunciation. Of particular annoyance is ‘Beijing’ for ‘Peking,’ which I believe to be a perfectly acceptable anglicization. Of course, my daughter named my granddaughter ‘Sionnain’ (read: ‘Shannon’).” You could hear his sighs over the Internet.

I know puffed-up people who say “Côte d’Ivoire” (which they always pronounce in poor French) instead of “Ivory Coast.” What’s wrong with “Ivory Coast,” if you got it? Besides which, are we to use the language of the colonizing oppressor? Surely there must be a suitable African name, maybe even with a click or two.

I suppose that countries — like people — should be called what they want to be called, but I have a hard time swallowing “Myanmar” instead of Burma, and I’m very cross about “Burkina Faso” instead of the Upper Volta. I’m especially attached to the Upper Volta, because its capital has the best name of any capital: Ouagadougou. Luckily, they have not yet changed that. India — or someone — changed Bombay to “Mumbai,” but I’m happy to report that that’s not yet catching on. Or is it? (Churchill wrote — back in 1945 — “Bad luck always pursues peoples who change the names of their cities.”) I don’t have any inclination to say “Siam” instead of “Thailand” or “Formosa” instead of “Taiwan.” I’m not that retrograde. It could be that we want pronunciations — and many other things — to stay just as they were when we ourselves came of age.

When it comes to enunciating things foreign, my view is, “In for a penny, in for a pound.” (Is that too English — I mean, British?) If you’re going to go part of the way, you should really go all of the way. I had a Dutch friend in college who was amused at his art-history teacher. The teacher tried to be all fancy, saying “Gogh” the Dutch way — with all that throat-scraping — instead of good ol’ “go.” But he left the “van” as it was, in English: like the vehicle you tote the family around in. That made his attempt at authenticity laughable, or at least incomplete.

We have our pretenders in music, too. For example, there’s a perfectly acceptable English way of saying Debussy — “DEB-you-see.” But when striving Americans try to say it the French way, they screw it all up, never getting the “u” correct, and usually — wrongly — accenting the second syllable. Also, you may enjoy knowing that the Wagner Society in New York City is run by a couple named: Wagner (pronounced as in Mayor Robert Wagner, not as in Richard — and the composer’s first name, in turn, is not pronounced as in “Little”).

One law I stick to is that everyone has the right to have his name — his personal name — pronounced however he wants. No ifs, ands, or buts. Midway through his career, Tony Dorsett switched his name from “DOR-sit” to “Dor-SETT.” According to the newspapers, his mother wasn’t too thrilled about this. I once knew a guy who refused to pronounce Leonard Bernstein’s name the way the conductor liked it: “Bernstine,” to rhyme with “vine.” (Lenny used to say, “You wouldn’t say ‘Gertrude Steen,’ would you?”) The guy I knew thought he was putting Bernstein down when he said “steen,” or not letting the old performer get away with anything.

And do you know the cherished story about Ira Gershwin? A woman walks in to audition for him. She starts to sing, “You say eether and I say eether, / You say neether and I say neether . . . ,” and Gershwin breaks in, “Thank you, Mrs. Leveen!” The woman, affronted, huffs, “It’s Le-vine!”

My model in these matters is the late general, diplomat, and linguist Vernon Walters. He spoke nine languages, and was renowned for his mastery. He anglicized absolutely everything. When referring to the head German SOB in World War I, for instance, he’d say “William the Second.” And if it was good enough for Walters . . .

I’ll leave you with one more foreign capital. The story’s complicated, but Bangkok, to Thais, is not merely “Bangkok.” In fact, it’s not “Bangkok” at all. The capital has a long, long formal name, and, to make matters even more interesting, the Thai language acknowledges no spaces between words (within a sentence or concept). So, I give you

Krungthepmahanakhonamonrattanakosinmahintharaayuthayamahadilokphopnoppharatratchathaniburiromudomratchan iwetmahasathanamonpimanawatansathitsakkathattiyawitsanukamprasit.”
Wrap your tongue around that, Katie. (You too, Condi.)


The Latest