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 the tiny Connecticut-sized emirate plans to stage the planet’s biggest sporting event.
Apart from how to pronounce “Qatar” they have only learned the basics.
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 “Kattar”. For a while, several online dictionaries spat out the term “cotter.”
All were wrong, but the mispronunciations went so far that Qatar essentially abandoned authenticity and accepted some of them.
“The English pronunciation is different because the word uses two letters that exist only in Arabic,” Ali al-Ansari, Qatar’s government media attache, told Yahoo Sports by email. Accepted Pronunciation “says: Kuh-Thar.”
In other words, what you hear when you search for “how to pronounce Qatar” is good.
“That’s another method that works, too Kuh-ter,” Al-Ansari added, “but sometimes it looks like ‘gutter,’ so we prefer Kuh-Thar.”
Other Arabic speakers have explained that the closest English word to the native pronunciation might actually be “guitar”. In Gulf dialects, the first consonant of “Qatar” is a “g” rather than a hard “c”.
But the proper pronunciation – the one that will roll in the local language throughout the World Cup – cannot be spelled out with a Latin alphabet. If you want to learn, your best bet is YouTube:
Why is Qatar so difficult for English speakers to pronounce?
The difficulty stems from “the stress sounds that English doesn’t have,” says Amal El Haimour, a linguist and Arabic professor 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 a devil to pronounce without practice.
“It’s like we have sleeping muscles,” says Mohammed Aldaoud, an Arabic professor at American University in Washington, DC, “and we have to wake them up to pronounce them correctly.”
The first letter requires a deep guttural “k” or hard “g” depending on the dialect, followed by a deep vowel similar to “ā.“
The second is the guttural “T”. In linguistics, they are called “veralized” or “uvular” consonants, which require the speaker to press the back of their tongue to the roof of the mouth. “It is produced by obstructing the flow of air [through the] Mouth,” says El Maimur.
The final sound is “ar” with a rolled “r”.
Accepted English pronunciation fails to incorporate all three nuances. But experts say this is a natural feature of language acquisition.
“In any language – like me when I speak English – if I don’t have a sound [first language], I will replace it with the closest sound in my language,” says El Maimour. When faced with an “emphasized” Arabic sound, non-native speakers, including her students, “will replace it with its unstressed counterpart.”
“Qatar” is not unique in this sense. Aldawood points out that other common proper nouns—including “Saudi” and his own first name, “Mohammed”—have been adapted by and for English speakers and are technically mispronounced.
“Any language, any word,” says Aldawood. “Over time, people start changing it to make it easier to say.”
So even as Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, opens the World Cup in Qatar, he and his FIFA colleagues, who have been touring the Gulf region for more than a decade, will have mixed reactions to the name of the host nation.
Infantino, a Swiss polymath, has made some progress toward authenticity. But his Scottish media relations director still goes for “KA-tar”. Colin Smith, Ireland’s chief operating officer at the World Cup, would call it “kuh-tar”.