22 February 2011

How do you pronounce "Protestors in Tahrir Square" ?

The pronunciation of "protestor" was discussed this week at both Language Log and The Economist:
Some noun-verb pairs have different stress patterns: you recórd a récord, and a pérmit permíts you to do something. So it is with protest: the verb, the original word, is protést, "to object to something". The origin in the OED is given as "orig. and chiefly Scottish law", by the way, with the earliest citation in 1429. The noun, meaning "objection", appears about half a century later.

The OED gives only one stress pattern for the British pronunciation of the verb: protést. But the American pronunciations are given as protést and prótest both.
More at the links (and their comment threads). "Tahrir Square" presents additional problems:
"... one rule of English phonology—virtually every English speaker knows this, but very few know they know it—is that an [h] can't come at the end of a syllable. We have words like ah and oh, of course, but they're pronounced [a:] and [o:]...

But Arabs can end a syllable in one of two different h-like sounds, one pronounced far back in the throat (a pharyngeal, in the lingo), sounding raspy to an English-speaker... This is distinct from another h-sound much like English's, and also distinct from a third, more truly fricative sound, usually translated kh, like the last sound in Bach. Got it?

That first h-sound is the one in names like Ahmed. Since we don't have that sound, English-speakers often approximate it with the Bach sound, and people who can't do that will then fill in a k-sound, which is a neighbor to [kh]. This is why you can hear some English-speakers refer to an Ahmed as "Akhmed" or even "Akmed".

The other option is to leave the h-sound out entirely, and that's what some people do with "Aamed". It's also what Mr Kirkpatrick did by saying "Tarir" for "Tahrir"—it's just too weird for most English-speakers to say the [h] at the end of a syllable. If you're unafraid of looking a bit like those journalists who try too hard to sound authentic, try it, and free yourself from your phonetic constraints in the name of Tahrir—"liberation".


  1. which of course brings to mind "Achmed the dead terrorist"


  2. I disagree with the advice to not even try. Try it in front of the mirror, and respect foreign languages by at least giving it your best rather than completely skipping sounds just because you're too lazy to try and say them correctly. Especially in the newsmedia with frequently occurring items, stop being lazy and do your homework.


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