Broken Qatar string
December 3, 2010

It will not have escaped your notice that the host nations of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were announced yesterday, with Russia and Qatar the respective beneficiaries of the two FIFA voting sessions.

These results have been described all over the media as surprising, but those more in tune with the way the process works are unlikely to have batted that much of an eyelid. Sepp Blatter, doing his best impersonation of Star Wars’ Emperor Palpatine, tried hard not to giggle when he opened the offending envelopes, which probably tells you all you need to know. He did, however, mention Scotland in glowing terms in his opening salvo (‘great organiser of the game’ or some such waffle), which softened Spanish Cow’s stance towards the artful administrator. For about 5 seconds.

Anyway, as today’s young guns like Jack Wilshire, Barry Bannan, Coutinho and Juan Agudelo look forward to strutting their stuff as near-veterans in air-conditioned stadiums, one man looking forward to not very much at all in 12 years’ time is Sunil Gulati, President of U.S. Soccer and Chairman of his country’s unsuccessful 2022 bid, who is now highly unlikely to see the biggest sporting event on the planet return to North America during his tenure.

Now, mainly because the United States were the biggest losers in the battle with tiny Qatar, the decision received a lot of airtime on this side of the ocean. ESPN’s afternoon sporting trifecta of ‘Jim Rome is Burning’, ‘Around the Horn’ and ‘PTI’ all covered it extensively. And finally getting to the point, what was surprising to me was the way they all – to a man – pronounced the name of the Middle Eastern nation.

Spanish Cow should point out that at this juncture I watch these three programmes religiously with one sole purpose: to be able to bluff my way through grid iron, basketball and, yawn, baseball discussions with my American brothers-in-law. I don’t expect their presenters to throw up fascinating linguistic idiosyncrasies. When I first heard Jim Rome, a constantly enraged individual renowned for his hatred of all things soccer, spit out something along the lines of ‘Cutter’ or ‘Cuhtr’, I thought he was having a laugh. Then his guest repeated it back, and when the protagonists of the two aforementioned shows that followed – including the slick-as-shit Tony Reali – continued to pronounce it in the same fashion, a new blog post was born.

It’s amazing that you can live somewhere for over a year – especially the States, many of whose vocab and pronunciation differences are already known in the UK via Hollywood, imported TV series and the Internet – and not be aware that many people here rhyme Qatar with ‘mutter’ and ‘nutter’. Of course, with their systematic replacement of ‘t’ by ‘d’, these words become ‘mudder’ and nudder’, but you get the idea.

Up until yesterday, I was aware of two ways of pronouncing the name in the UK: ‘KA-tar’ and ‘KAT-ar’. It would appear that speakers of British English tend to juggle both, as proven by the BBC, which included both Ka-tar and Kat-ar within the same 3-minute report last night. I’ve always opted for the latter, probably because my Dad used to tell a characteristically terrible joke which involved a pun on ‘Qatar’ and ‘catarrh’. However, not for the first time, it seems I may have backed the wrong horse, as the English-language media within the oil-rich state apparently tend to use the former, and this is backed up by the O.E.D.

But what I was most interested in was this ‘cutter’ malarkey. Is this the standard American pronunciation, or simply yet another case of the U.S. broadcast media indulging in linguistic follow-my-leader, as they did with ‘I-rack’? An Arabic professor suggests in that the Arabic pronunciation of Qatar is actually not all that far away from how English speakers might say ‘cutter’, but that doesn’t necessarily get us any further forward – it’s not like we pronounce France ‘Frrrawnse’ or Brazil ‘Braahzeel’ now, do we?

The online version of the Merriam-Webster American English dictionary goes with ‘KA-tar’, while Brian Strauss, an American journalist who spent the day with Qatar-based Al Jazeera as part of the channel’s build-up to the announcement, makes a point of stressing in a recent (very readable) article that ‘Cutter’ is not the correct pronunciation. But the American Heritage Dictionary lists both ‘Ka-tar’ and ‘Kuh-tar’ as acceptable, muddying the waters –or maybe just my brain – even more.

To take a leaf from the Scottish justice system, I think we’ll file this one under ‘not proven’ for now, and hope that the English-speaking world can settle on one of these pesky variants. They have 12 years to get it right, after all.

Before Spanish Cow goes for a lie-down in a darkened pasture, there is another side to the Qatar brouhaha that has been provoking much comment and ire over the past 24 hours on Twitter and Facebook. Or ‘the Facebook’, as George Bush would say. It’s all related to the spelling of the bloody word.

Now, let’s face it, it’s kind of understandable that the misspelled ‘Quater’, with a ‘u’, was one of the most searched-for terms on Google and most tweeted trends on Twitter yesterday. The list of words that begin with ‘Q’ and that don’t include a trusty ‘u’ is not long, after all. But this and other apparently erroneous attempts such as ‘Katar’ and ‘Catar’ had wannabe prooftweeters up in arms and sweating more heavily than WikiLeaks fugitive Julien Assange. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post suggested in an amusing piece that the death of spelling was upon us.

The facile assumption being made here is that everyday Twitter-users don’t take 3 seconds to double-check and do some quickie research before their fingers make contact with the keys on their laptop. And that their knowledge of the English language leaves much to be desired. Of course, this may be true. ‘Quatar’ suggests as much. But ironically, those quick to condemn others for bad spelling are guilty of exactly the same crime of which they are accusing the great unwashed, i.e. a lack of research and basic knowledge of language. Foreign language, that is.

Type ‘Katar’ into Twitter’s search box. Go on, even if you hate the bloody thing. Scroll down through the results. Was ist das? It’s German, folks. And you might see a spot of Polish too. Looking at mine right now, I get a pile of German tweets with a couple of Polish ones floating in between. That’s because –ta-da! – ‘Qatar’ is spelt with a ‘K’ in German. Goodness me, non-English speakers use social media!? How dare they?

It’s also acceptable to spell the word ‘Katar’ in French and in Swedish. ‘Catar’ is used in Portuguese as well as in Scottish Gaelic. Not that Twitter is swamped with Gaelic speakers, but I just thought I’d throw that in there.

So, what have we learned today? Qatar’s pronunciation is perplexing and its profuse spelling permutations perpetuate pointless posts and pernickety posturing from patronising pedants. Try saying that after a few pints. Which may, incidentally, be a tad tricky in 2022, as currently the only way foreign residents can buy alcohol in the Gulf state is via a permit system…

The Universal Language
September 15, 2009

Spanish Cow was feeling just a wee bit burned out the other night as Scotland’s World Cup flame was extinguished yet again, with passion and misfortune playing their usual roles.

In one of the rare breaks in a quite enthralling match, my mind wandered to language, and its many links with the ‘joga bonito’. In fact, rather than an attempt to shamelessly piggyback on a similar blog entry by the BBC website’s excellent Tim Vickery, what led to this bout of distracted daydreaming was the realisation that during this campaign, Scotland’s home crowd had not once belted out their old favourite Que Sera, Sera, a tweaked version of the linguistically suspect Doris Day signature song that first appeared in Hitchcock’s The Man who Knew Too Much.

Now, realists out there will suggest that this is simply down to the fact that Caledonia never once looked like joining Anglia and Hibernia (potentially) in South Africa next year, but I have another theory. And it’s a simple one – the lack of an obvious rhyme this time around.

The final line (“we’re going to…”) of this Hampden classic has traditionally followed two straightforward rules: 1) the last word must rhyme with “whatever will be, will be” and 2) the aforementioned last word must be a city or stadium within the host country of the World Cup/European Championship, or even the name of the country itself.

So over the years we’ve had “going to Wembul-ee“ (obviously), “going to German-ee” and even “going to gay Par-ee”. As a linguistic aside, it’s interesting that in English the expression “gay Paris”, with “Paris” pronounced à la française, has retained its original, innocent meaning, but when the French capital is given its English pronunciation and the same phrase is aired, people would instantly assume that directions to Parisian bars such as Café Moustache would be required…


I digress. Anyway, take a look at a map of South Africa – you’ll see that there aren’t that many convenient “-ee” endings floating about. “We’re going to Durban” or “we’re going to Pietermaritzburg” just don’t cut it. OK, so there aren’t any games due to be held in Pietermaritzburg, but you know what I mean. As there were no obvious candidates for this important rhyme, this rousing number never got an outing this time around, which clearly contributed to Scotland’s exit. Absolutely nothing to do with losing badly in Macedonia and Norway.

On the subject of the world’s greatest sporting competition (Olympics schmolympics), congratulations to Paraguay, who qualified for their fourth tournament in a row on the same night as thousands of sets of bagpipes were being quietly stowed away under beds across Scotland. In addition to Spanish, most of the Paraguayan team also speak another language, Guarani, which they frequently use on the field in their South American qualifying matches to bamboozle their opponents. Uruguayans and Bolivians used to hearing ‘man on’ or ‘one-two’ in Spanish suddenly have no idea what their opponents are saying. An argument for stepping up the teaching of Gaelic in Scottish schools, perhaps?

To finish off this fiesta of football flightiness, here’s a random smattering of tough-to-translate terms from around Europe:

‘Grand pont’ (French) – the art of knocking the ball around your opponent, leaving him standing there, while you nip round and collect the ball a couple of metres ahead of him, and continue on with your run. Called a ‘big bridge’ in contrast to the ‘petit pont’ (‘small bridge’), which entails putting the ball through your opponent’s legs. As opposed to ‘big bridge’, ‘little bridge’ does have a simple English translation – ‘nutmeg’.

‘Catenaccio’ (Italian) – seen by some as the beautiful game’s evil twin, this Italian invention involves an extremely well-organised defensive system, with strict man-to-man marking. Fortunately, it’s kind of fallen out of fashion…

‘Kicker’ (German) – confusingly for Anglophones, the noun ‘der Kicker’ or ‘die Kickerin’ in German simply refers to a football player. The verb ‘to kick’ can take several forms in German (bolzen, treten, schlagen). The verb ‘kicken’ is usually limited to the sporting domain, however.

‘Morbo’ (Spanish) – there is no true equivalent to this term in the English language. ‘Morbo’ is what gives Spanish football its legendary spice – much more than mere rivalry, it sums up the feeling between football clubs divided by politics, history, and, of course, language. Who said translation was easy, eh?