In 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 have learned about scorching temperatures and the exploitation of migrant workers. They have learned how oil transformed a peninsular desert into a bustling international hub. They have learned that Qatari law criminalizes homosexuality and prohibits alcohol. They have learned how a small emirate the size of Connecticut plans to host the biggest sporting event on the planet.
They’ve learned almost all the basics except the most basic of all: How to pronounce “Qatar.”
They pronounced it “kuh-TAR” and “KA-tar” and “cutter”. The British occasionally go for “kuh-TAAH”. Some Americans have done their homework and still somehow settled on “the cut.” For a while now, some online dictionaries oddly say “coter”.
They are all wrong, but the mispronunciations got so out of control that the state of Qatar basically gave up on authenticity and accepted some of them.
“The English pronunciation is different because the word uses two letters that only exist in Arabic,” Ali Al-Ansari, a Qatari government media attache, 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 fine.
“Another way that also works is Kuh-Ter“, added Al-Ansari, “but sometimes it sounds like ‘gutter’ so we prefer Kuh-Tar.”
Other Arabic speakers have explained that the closest English word 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 correct pronunciation – the one that will roll from local languages throughout the World Cup – cannot be written in a Latin alphabet. If you want to learn, your best bet is YouTube:
Why is the pronunciation of ‘Qatar’ so difficult for English speakers?
The difficulty stems from “stressed sounds that English doesn’t have,” says Amal El Haimeur, a linguist and professor of Arabic at the University of Kansas. Qatar’s Arabic name, دولة قطر, is three letters, two of which are completely foreign to most Westerners, and therefore fiendish to pronounce without practice.
“It’s like having sleep muscles,” says Mohammed Aldawood, an Arabic professor at American University in Washington DC. “We have to wake them up to pronounce them correctly.”
The first letter requires either a deep “k” or a hard “g”, depending on the dialect, and then a stressed vowel similar to “ā”.“
The second is a guttural “t”. In linguistics, they are called “attested” or “uvular” consonants, meaning they require the speaker to press the back of their tongue against the roof of the mouth. “It is produced by obstructing the flow of air [through the] the mouth”, says El Maimeur.
And the final sound is an “ar” with a rolled “r”.
The accepted pronunciation in English fails to include 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 me [first language], I will replace it with the closest sound in my language”, says El Maimeur. When faced with an “accented” Arabic sound, non-native speakers, including her students, “will replace it with its unaccented counterpart.”
“Qatar”, in this sense, is not unique. Aldawood points out that other common names — including “Saudi” and his first name, “Mohammed” — have been adapted by and for English speakers, and are technically mispronounced.
“Every language, every word,” says Aldawood. “Over time, people start changing it to make it easier to say.”
So even as Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor, inaugurates the World Cup in Qatar, he and his FIFA colleagues, some of whom have been visiting the Gulf for more than a decade, will have mixed feelings for the name of the host country.
Infantino, a Swiss polyglot, has taken some steps towards authenticity. But his Scottish director of media relations still goes by “KA-tar”. And Irish World Cup chief operating officer Colin Smith will call it “kuh-TAR”.