Over the 12 years since FIFA president Sepp Blatter dramatically opened a scandalous envelope and introduced the world to Qatar, millions of Westerners have learned a lot about the controversial host of the 2022 World Cup. They learned about scorching temperatures and exploitation of migrant workers. They learned how oil transformed a peninsula into a bustling international hub. They learned that Qatari law criminalizes homosexuality and prohibits alcohol. They learned how a tiny emirate the size of Connecticut plans to stage the planet’s largest sporting event.
They have learned almost all the basics, except the most basic of all: how to pronounce “Qatar.”
They pronounced it “cow-tar” and “ka-tar” and “kater.” The Brits sometimes go for “kuh-taah.” Some Americans have done their homework and still somehow settled on “cutting tar.” For a while, some online dictionaries spit out “cotter.”
All are wrong, but the mispronunciations are so out of hand that the Qatari state has basically given up on authenticity and accepted a few of them.
“The pronunciation in English is different because the word uses two letters that only exist in Arabic,” Ali Al-Ansari, a Qatari government media attaché, told Yahoo Sports via email. The accepted pronunciation “would sound like saying: Kuh-tar.”
In other words, what you hear when you search “how to pronounce Qatar” is good.
“Another way that also works is Kuh-ter“, Al-Ansari added, “But sometimes it sounds like ‘good’ so we prefer Kuh-Tor.”
Other Arabic speakers have explained that the English word closest to the native pronunciation may actually be “guitar.” In Gulf dialects, the first consonant in “Qatar” is more of a “g” than a hard “c.”
But the proper pronunciation – the one that will roll off local tongues throughout the World Cup – cannot be spelled with a Latin alphabet. If you want to learn, your best bet is YouTube:
Why pronouncing ‘Qatar’ is so difficult for English speakers
The difficulty stems from “emphatic sounds that English doesn’t have,” says Amal El-Khaimer, a linguist and professor of Arabic at the University of Kansas. Qatar’s Arabic name, State of Qatar, is three letters, two of which are totally foreign to most Westerners, and therefore devilish to distinguish without four.
“It’s like we have sleeping muscles,” says Mohammed Aldawood, an Arabic professor at American University in Washington DC, “We have to wake them up to pronounce the correct one.”
The first letter calls for either a deep-throated “k” or a hard-ish “g,” depending on the dialect, and then a dephased vowel similar to “ā.“
The second is a guttural “t.” In linguistics, they are referred to as “verbalized” or “vulvar” consonants, meaning they require the speaker to press the back of their tongue up against the roof of their mouth. “It is produced by obstructing the air flow [through the] mouth,” Al Maimer says.
And the final sound is an “ar” with a rolled “r.”
The accepted English pronunciation fails to incorporate all three of these nuances. But this, experts say, is a natural feature of language acquisition.
“In any language – as for me when I speak English – if I don’t have a sound in mine [first language]I will replace it with the closest sound in my language, “Al Maimer. When faced with an “emphatic” Arabic sound, non-native speakers, including her students, “will replace it with its non-emphatic counterpart.”
“Qatar,” in this sense, is not unique. Aldawood pointed out that other common names — including “Saudi,” and his own first name, “Mohammed” — have been adapted by and for English speakers, and are technically mispronounced.
“Any language, any word,” Aldawood says. “Over time, people start to change it to make it easier to tell.”
Even when Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor, inaugurates the Qatar World Cup, he and his FIFA colleagues, some of whom have visited the Gulf for over a decade, will have a variety of names on the name of the host country.
Infantino, a Swiss polyglot, has made several strides toward authenticity. But his director of Scottish media relations still goes by “ka-tar.” And Irish World Cup chief operating officer Colin Smith will call it “cow-tar.”