Prairie Lights: Special dispatch from Moan-tana


By mostroneddo, Flickr

Place de l’Independance, Dakar, Senegal, all of which you may pronounce however you wish.

If you are a regular listener to Yellowstone Public Radio or any other NPR station, you have surely heard newscaster Lakshmi Singh pronounce the word “Washington” in a way it has never been pronounced before.

It sounds something like “Woe-shing-tun,” though with emphases and accents beyond my ability to replicate in type. And since she normally pairs that word with her own mellifluous name, I rarely resist the temptation to repeat, after her, “In Washington, I’m Lakshmi Singh.”

I said I rarely resist. In the case of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR’s Africa correspondent, I am never able to resist. When she signs off by saying, “Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Dakarrrrrrr!”, I am helpless, and must repeat the whole phrase.

Dakar is the capital of Senegal, where Quist-Arcton is based, and from what I have been able to glean from the internet, her pronunciation is based on the Wolof pronunciation of the word, Wolof being the lingua franca of Senegal.

But it is worth noting that Quist-Arcton is a native of Ghana, so perhaps her pronunciation of the word is not perfectly accurate, as any red-blooded American who has tried to render a French place name in perfect accordance with Gallic accents will understand.

My internet search also showed that I am not alone in my fascination with Quist-Arcton’s rendering of “Dakar” — which is reproduced here (followed by music whose relation to Quist-Arcton’s phrasing escapes me). Any mention of Quist-Arcton on the Web is followed by commenters expressing their love of her name or her pronunciation of Dakar, or both.

I got to thinking of Singh and Quist-Arcton because of a related phenomenon, which I first noticed when Obama was still president and which I now encounter more and more frequently — the new pronunciation of “Pakistan.” Until a couple of years ago, I never heard anyone in the United States pronounce the first syllable of that word any way but “Pack,” and the third syllable was pronounced exactly like the first name of Oliver’s partner, Stan.

Then Obama and others, I guess trying to sound culturally savvy, started pronouncing it “Pock-i-stahn,” which gave rise to the new pronunciation of “Bangladesh” as “Bahngladesh.” The funny thing is, the new pronunciation is hardly universal, with the result that I sometimes hear, again on NPR, an anchor and a correspondent, speaking back to back, using different pronunciations of those South Asian countries. The same holds true for Iraq, sometimes given as I-rack and also as Ear-ock, and Iran, with the variants I-ran and E-rahn.

I can’t bring myself to use the new pronunciations. I’d feel like a fraud, or worse, a dandy. I’m an admirer of the British soldiers of World War I, who when confronted with the unpronounceable place names across the channel quickly converted them to English-sounding names.

Ploegsteert, Belgium, quickly became Plugstreet, or Plug Street, and Ypres, France, became Wipers. There was even a famous newspaper produced in the trenches outside of Ypres that was called The Wipers Times. That’s the spirit, boys. That puckish spirit prompted those same soldiers to speak of sleep as “falling into the arms of Murphy,” a reference to Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Is that where we got the Murphy bed?

It’s funny, too, how the inclination to pronounce a place name “correctly” usually increases in accordance with how exotic the place is. No one I know, and no one even on NPR would dream of saying “Pahr-ee” for Paris, “Roma” for Rome or  “Barthelona” for Barcelona. But when NPR’s Sylvia Poggioli — where does NPR find people with such spectacular names? — reports from any obscure European city, she pronounces the name with all the local pizzazz. She is also meticulously careful in pronouncing the names of foreign leaders like Emmanuel Macron, whose name I could not render correctly without surgery to my palate.

All this is pleasant enough to contemplate on a peaceful morning in Montana. But in wars throughout history, place names have served as shibboleths, and those who mispronounced them were immediately killed.

Even now, in places as peaceful as Montana, we love to mock “outsiders” who mention “Joe-liet,” or who, thinking of the city in Arkansas, inquire about our capital, “Hel-eena.” Ditto with those who talk of going to “Ora-gahn.”

Can’t we all just get along? Does it really matter how we pronounce these names? Can’t we just enjoy all the varieties of stress, accent and pronunciation without feeling superior, or, in trying our hand at foreign names, inferior?

Anyway, this has been Ed from Billings. Let the foreigners chew on that one.

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