Eye-rate About Eye-ran

Three years ago, I wrote a short essay for NPR’s Web site about the pronunciation of Iraq. Each of the two syllables offers choices. The second can rhyme with track or flock. The first can have a long i (to rhyme with eye); a short one, as in mirror; or it can rhyme with see. (In my piece, for the sake of simplicity, I put the second and third first-syllable options in a single category; I’m pleased to see that a subsequent academic study of the issue has followed suit. I will also note, while in parenthesis, that in this post I render pronunciation in layman’s, rather than linguist’s, terms so that the Lingua Franca readers, largely generalists, will comprehend.)

That yields four ways to pronounce Iraq. My 2009 observations? First of all, no one says Eye-rahk. Of the other possibilities, I wrote that Eye-rack is “the pronunciation of choice for members of U.S. military below the rank of, say, captain, their families, and red-state Republicans” and that “President Obama, as well as diplomats, antiwar activists, professors and news anchors (except on Fox)” say Ih-rahk or Ee-rahk (which is the pronunciation closest to the original Arabic). The final option, Ih-rack, appeared to be the choice of the wishy-washy.

Just a couple of weeks after my essay appeared (coincidence on the timing? I think not), CNN ran a funny ad in which Christiane Amanpour expressed mock outrage at people who couldn’t pronounce the country’s name right:

More significant developments was the publication of two studies of the issue in the journal American Speech. The first looked at Congresspeople’s use of the word and concluded that pronouncing second-syllable rack “appears to index political conservatism.” The second article (linked to in the first paragraph above) came out last year and examined pronunciation of both Iraq and Iran—a sensible decision, with the latter country having displaced the former from the headlines. The authors found that military service (correlating with Eye-ran) and knowledge of a foreign language (Ih-rahn–closest to the original Persian), in that order, were the most important factors for pronunciation,  trumping political affiliation.

I find that credible, but my eyebrows climbed at their reporting that first-syllable eye was used by 62 percent of their respondents for Iraq and 57 percent for Iran. I ascribe those very high numbers to regional influence, which I imagine is an extremely important factor in this pronunciation, as in many others. The authors say they surveyed “members of the local community,” and since they are all affiliated with the University of Texas at Arlington, the local community presumably was smack in between Dallas and Fort Worth. What would they have found in Brooklyn Heights?

Probably something more in line with the pronunciation of this year’s presidential candidates: Both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama say Ee-rahn. (In fairness to the authors, both men know foreign languages and neither has served in the military.)

But there’s no doubt that the Eye-ran pronunciation is widespread, including among ESPN announcers, proselytizing Christian ministry, and the executive director of Christians United for Israel. Inevitably, there is a Facebook group called “Iran is not pronounced EYE ran.” The fact that it has accumulated only 42 “likes” does not augur well for its mission, and, indeed, no matter what candidates or announcers say or do, this pronunciation is unlikely to go away anytime soon.

I don’t blame all the people who say Eye-rack and Eye-ran, first, because it is usually a fool’s mission to blame people for how they pronounce words. In this case as in others, the “wrong” way is the only way many of them have ever heard. The military aspect is itself a fascinating and potent phenomenon. As the authors of the more recent American Speech article observe, this pronunciation has somehow become “the military’s linguistic norm…. A current or former member of the U.S. military would adopt these variants not as a matter of signaling political attitude, but as a reflection of his experience as a member of this particular speech community.”

But none of that negates the fact that those pronunciations show, as I wrote in my 2009 essay, a fundamental “lack of knowledge and respect.” One can be an optimist and hope that the conflicts in the region will one day be resolved, and that, when they are, Americans will learn to say these countries’ names more accurately. After all, no one says Eye-talian or Ay-rab anymore. Do they?





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