Barack Obama

Some months ago (sorry!) I had more than one request for treatment of the pronunciation of Barack Obama's name.  There was this from American Jonathan Bogart:
I've heard more than one BBC newsreader pronounce the first name of the president of the United States the way I (an American) would refer to a military quartering, approximately "BERReck." This flies in the face of the way American journalists pronounce it, the way Kenyans -- who might be said to have first dibs -- pronounce it (which is not quite the same, as the r is an alveolar flap and both syllables are equally stressed), and the way the man himself pronounces it: roughly "BuhROCK." I was wondering what the reason for this might be; is this how the BBC has decided to pronounce the name, did I happen to hear a random couple of errors, or do different newsreaders get to choose the way they pronounce the names of world leaders?

And then I had message from Damien Hall, a sociolinguist at York University, who said:
Just checked in at SBaCL again, and found a comment on the latest post about the (?former) British habit of pronouncing the new President 'BA-r@ck Obama'. [DH is using the @ to stand for the schwa sound--i.e. an unstressed, reduced vowel--ed.] I have resisted the temptation to launch into a response on it, as I predict that the response could be quite lengthy (tempting though it was, as my (American) wife and I have talked about this difference: my observation is that almost all Brits used to pronounce 'Barack' with initial stress but, once he became more familiar, many/most learned that that wasn't where the stress went; and my theory is that it just fits into BrE's usual greater tendency to nativise foreign things including stress-patterns, cf garage etc).

In response to American Anne T. at this post:
I've just come from listening to NPR (National Public Radio) on which a British reporter, didn't catch his name, was interviewing Pakistani people about what they expect from Barack Obama. BARack Obama, he said, repeatedly. With a hard first A and stress on the first syllable, instead of BaRACK with a soft first (and second) A and stress on the second syllable. Why oh why?
Which just goes to prove that this blog is not a democracy, since the poor, mispronounced man has been in office for over a year now, and I've failed to respond to what has to be the most requested topic in my inbox.  Since then, I've had further correspondence with Damien, who points out this joke at the pronunciation's expense:

Early on, when he was but a candidate for the Democratic nomination (whom people over here seemed to unanimously think would lose to Hillary Clinton, though that's only my impression, as I was in America at the time), the misperception that his name was pronounced 'BA-r@ck' gave rise to a memorable moment from Andy Parsons on Mock The Week. I can't find a video of it, but the line was essentially this:

Parsons: 'BA-r@ck'? That's a bad name for a candidate, isn't it? Imagine the scene: "Ladies and gentlemen, 'BA-r@ck' Obama!" "Whaat? Oh, OK - 'Oy! Obama! You're SHIT!'"
This is only funny if you know the BrE use of barrack as a verb that means mean 'to heckle, to shout down' (particularly with reference to politicians--see the examples here).  (And, yes, you can say shit on the BBC--but only (BrE) after the watershed.)  Damien also thinks we pronounce the surname differently, with BrE speakers more likely to reduce the first syllable /o/ to a schwa, and Americans more likely to retain a fuller [o].
My excuse for leaving this topic for so long is that, as you know, pronunciation is not my strong point.  So, I asked John Wells, author of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, what he made of this.  He reports:
In the current (3rd) edition of LPD I give the BrE pronunciation as ˈbæræk or -ək, the AmE as bəˈrɑːk or bəˈræk. I don't think it's a BBC decision. It's the usual BrE vs AmE treatment of foreign disyllables: cf cliché, café etc.
We've talked about some of these differences in various places before, especially here.  But we've also talked about the feeling that names should be pronounced as the named person pronounces them--or at least as closely as one can with the sounds at one's dialectal disposal.  Since all the sounds here are available to BBC newsreaders, it's hard for me to feel like the usual treatment of foreign disyllables should apply, since names have a lot more allowance for variation from the standard dialectal rules than non-name words do.  So, the difference is explained, but not justified in my book.

Of course, you'll be able to (indeed, I can too) point out lots of examples in which Americans pronounce British names incorrectly.  But they typically do so from a position of ignorance, rather than intention.  Since it'd be hard to miss Americans' pronunciation of their own president's name, it seems less likely that ignorance is to blame here, though it may well be inattention rather than intention.  (And, as someone with a horrible memory for learned pronunciations, I cannot lead the switch-hunt.) 

So, what do you think?  Excusable or not?  To what lengths should one go in order to accommodate the pronunciation of personal names that flout one's dialect's rules?  Do (AmE) newscasters/(BrE) news readers have different responsibilities for this than the rest of us?  Or, by attempting the 'correct' pronunciation, do they leave themselves open to mocking? (I was trying to find the Saturday Night Live clips in which Victoria Jackson tried to authentically pronounce 'Nicaragua', but apparently they are not on the web. Ho-hum.)


  1. There's a Saturday Night Live segment with Jimmy Smits (I think) - where he was doing that Nicaragua over-enunciation; is that what you're talking about?

    In any case, I think one should make a reasonable attempt to get a name correct. Jose should be Ho-ZAY, not JOE-See. Barack Hussein Obama should have the emphasis on the 2nd syllable of each name.

  2. There may have been one with Jimmy Smits too, but there was definitely one with Victoria Jackson or another female cast member doing velar fricatives...

  3. I would have thought that stress is different from normal accent variation where proper names are concerned. And to me it seems like the argument is which syllable the stress should come on (although I suppose there's a choice between long and short 'a' on the second syllable).

    There's also a lot of disagreement on Jim Carrey's name in the UK, because of the General American similarities between 'marry', 'merry' and 'Mary' (which I think you might have already written about, so sorry if I'm bringing up an old topic!).

    Apparently, residents of Bath in southern England think that the name of the city should always be pronounced with a long 'a', even by northerners who would otherwise use a short 'a' (i.e. for the tub). So there's often an argument between pronouncing names 'properly' and allowing for accent variation.

    Sorry, I'm aware that I haven't really said anything in that comment!

    1. A long A? So B-ay-th? Not quite. A long vowel is how we say it in the alphabet. AY.I think you mean a broad A.Which sounds like "Ah". B-ah-th. Same as Americans use in Ob-ah-ma, f-ah-ther and I suspect in certain other words which when said fast sounds like an "O" to our British ears: pahsta,mahzda,lahs Vegas,

  4. I'm a British native living in the US, and I, for a long time, also wanted to pronounce the President's first name with first-syllable stress (although I have now adjusted to the second-syllable stress with the vowel of BRA as I have become more familiar with him).

    For me, the reason is simple: it's the spelling of his name. There are no words in the English language, to my knowledge, where the spelling "-ack" corresponds to the vowel of BRA. Black, flapjack, etc. all have the vowel of TRAP. "Barrack" or "barracks" has first-syllable stress, with schwa in the second syllable. This mismatch of spelling and pronunciation still makes it feel slightly weird to pronounce the President's first name the name he himself pronounces it.

    I have never had any problem pronouncing the surname of Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel, with second syllable stress on the vowel of BRA. The reason is that he doesn't spell his name with "-ack". It would be interesting to ask current Brit residents how Ehud Barak's name is generally pronounced there.

    I once raised this point on a Language Log posting, and a commenter replied that "Barack" WAS originally pronounced the British way (with first syllable stress) in Luo, the language of Pres. Obama's paternal ancestors. In Swahili, the lingua franca of Kenya, the stress apparently got moved to the second syllable, but the old spelling remained.

    BTW neither BERReck nor BuhROCK will make any sense as phonetic spellings to non-Americans, because they the rely on the Mary-marry-merry merger and the father-bother merger, neither of which is current outside North America.

  5. I had not thought about it but you're right, the locals (Brits) murder the pronunciation of my name as well, totally changing the first vowel (ih to eee) and putting the emphasis on the first rather than the second syllable. I think it's really important to use the person's own pronunciation as a guide and not try to re-interpret it to fit rules you're used to.

  6. I think it's an emotional thing as well as a habitual one. I agree with vp that the syllable -ack is always pronounced with a short a in the UK, and so it would be natural to assume it should be in Barack, too. But also, I think that to try and pronounce it with a long a, as in the American pronunciation, sounds pretentious. It's the sound of the nouveau riche, tring to imitate the upper classes and failing. So, although in this case it is correct, there is a strong aversion to it in this country. I think it's the same thing that happened with Colin Powell's name. To pronounce that with a long o (as in cocoa) sounds incredibly pretentious in UK English.

    Sounds form accents, and accents are incredibly socially loaded things, especially in the UK. I get the point about courtesy in pronouncing someone's name, but I can really see why that isn't always the most important factor, especially when you're not actually in the presence of that person.

  7. Vp - Ehud Barak tends to be pronounced with second syllable stress, although it is still a short 'a' sound (TRAP not BRA).

    I (BrE) now also pronounce Barack the same way (second syllable stress) but I don't lengthen the second vowel.

    Ros, is correct. I just attempted it with a long second vowel and it sounded ridiculously posh and out of step with my usual accent. And attempting it with a more authentic American long vowel just makes it sound mocking.

    (I would disagree over Colin Powell though because the long vowel is in the first syllable. I just think it's because it's a common prosaic name that people find it strange - and pretentious - to pronounce that way. If it was spelt Kolin then it wouldn't be a problem.)

  8. superdinosaurboy07 February, 2010 17:32

    I'm with ros all the way - aping American pronunciations makes you sound silly, and anyway American /a/ vowels are different enough from ours to be really difficult for SBE speakers to hear/reproduce. Furthermore, we like far more of our unstressed vowels to become schwas than AmEng; and we tend to go for initial stress in foreign words.

    So Barack is just a perfect storm of AmEng-SBE differences. All I can say is that I don't think we are doing it on purpose to annoy Americans!

    Incidentally, this topic was discussed on Language Log here:

    @nicole: the way I understand you to be saying that your name is pronounced by British English speakers is completely bizarre to me. I pronounce 'Nicole' with second stress, and with the [I] ='ih' rather than [i] = 'eee' sound. Where do you live?

  9. For the BBC to mispronounce the name of a major foreign leader is just insulting. They don't have to wrangle the vowels to sound more Am/E, but they should at least get the stress right so as not to give the name as a Br/E joke name (barrack?) If Obama gives his name with the stress on the second syllable, then the professionals who report on him should do the same.

    Worked with a Kurdish nurse named Kamil. Stress on the second syllable. Because otherwise he would have been called Camel... which some of the young guys called him to wind him up.

  10. Three years ago, when Obama was still a novelty, I fielded a question on Language Log about the pronunciation of Barack. I pointed to this advice from the BBC Pronunciation Unit:

    "His name should be pronounced buh-RAAK oh-BAA-muh. When he first came to prominence, there was some disagreement about his first name, which was also sometimes pronounced buh-RACK or even BARR-uhk, but our recommendation is based on the pronunciation he uses himself."

    It appears that not everyone at the Beeb got the memo.

  11. Oh, and the trill-heavy SNL sketch with Jimmy Smits ("NBC News Employees," Nov. 10, 1990) had Victoria Jackson in it too, as a secretary. Transcript here, discussion by Jane Hill here.

  12. I'm a tiny bit embarrassed I didn't remember/link to the Language Log post...but thanks for the links to that and the SNL sketch, everyone.

  13. I agree with Zhoen that newscasters should at least get the stress right. It seems weird to me that they wouldn't try to approximate correct pronunciation (within reason-- no need to go bonkers with the vowels) of a major world leader.

    I guess I'm just used to people having the last word on how their name should be pronounced. For instance, over the years, I have met many Andreas, and they have been almost evenly split between the ahn-DRAY-ah and AN-dree-ah pronunciations. Once I knew the person's preference, it would have been rude to use the alternate pronunciation!

  14. I have a question for everyone who says that the US pronunciation of "Barack" sounds ridiculous or affected in BrE: How do you pronounce "Iraq"? At least in southern England, most people pronounce the name of that country with second syllable stress on the BRA vowel. Is
    that pronunciation of Iraq also affected? Would it help if Obama's name were spelled Baraq?

  15. As the one with the original complaint, I should say that I haven't heard an egregious mispronunciation of the President's name from a BrE-speaker in many months. No doubt the "correct" pronunciation has circulated more widely by this time.

    The only other BrE "mispronunciation" that has jumped out at me recently has been right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh as "Lim-BOH" rather than his own "Lim-BAH." I don't mind that one nearly as much, which probably says more about my political leanings than about my tolerance for dialectical variation!

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  17. Slightly off topic, but as you bought up the verb "to barrack" i just thought i'd point out that in Australian English to barrack means "to support or cheer (for)". Complete opposite to the BrE meaning! The stress is the same though (1st syllable).

  18. @Jonathan Bogart:

    Re "Limbaugh": Are you sure that what you heard was an error?

    I have never listened to Mr Limbaugh, but based solely on the spelling I would expect his name to have the vowel of THOUGHT, not the vowel of BRA. For about half of all Americans, possibly including you, these vowels are the same: but I would expect LImbaugh, having grown up in Missouri, to have preserved the historical distinction between them, giving different vowels in pairs such as "cot" and "caught".

    You may have heard the British THOUGHT vowel, which is generally more back and rounded than the American one, and thus sounds extremely different from BRA.

  19. @vp: Those vowels are the same for me, though I can tell the difference in dialects which differentiate, and I'm familiar enough with BrE not to confuse oʊ with ɔː; from my limited exposure to Rush, they're the same for him too. (Though Wikipedia gives the pronunciation of his name as ˈlɪmbɔː, which supports your reading.)

    However, on interrogating my memory, I see that I've mistyped what the BrE pronunciation I heard was: not Limbo, but Limbow (rhyming with wow), which renders the above discussion superfluous. Sorry!

  20. I swear I remember another SNL sketch with just Victoria Jackson... a Weekend Update segment where she was giving a special report on the situation with the ¡San-di-ni-stas! in ¡Ni-ca-ra-gua!. Google isn't helping though...

  21. I know Lynne doesn't like us getting too off-topic in the comments, but all this reminds me of the pronunciation of Bowie, as in David Bowie. In American the 'bow' part is identical with 'bow-tie', and in BrE it's more like 'bow-wow-wow' (with an /au/ sound). However, it's a stage name, and I've always heard he named himself after the knife, which is of course named after it's purported inventor, Jim Bowie--both of which are pronounced BOO-ee (/'bu i/)

    I just realized after typing this that some of this relates to the LAST post, with the named for/after discussion. I'm from Texas,and I have discussed this with my BrE friends before, who have heard about this difference. For me, 'named after' is much more natural than 'named for', though I have to say that they feel a bit different to me. I've explained the difference to people before, but I'll think about how best to explain it and post it to the other thread.

  22. To me there's a significant difference between shifting a vowel sound - which is terribly easy to do and seemingly mandatory for every syllable to cross the Atlantic - and and shifting the stress. The former sounds like a mere difference of accent, whereas the latter sounds like an error.

    So the problem with the "Barack" pronunciation must be the stress on the first syllable, and yes, I would agree with those who label it "wrong". Whereas when it comes to the first syllable of Colin Powell's name (or the last syllable of Ariel Sharon's) I'm inclined to live and let live. I prefer the short "o" in both cases; pronouncing "Colin" the American way makes it sound exactly like "colon" to a Brit, and that seems like an insult the man does not deserve. (Whilst "Ayriel Sharone" is just bloody difficult to say, and almost certainly not the standard Hebrew pronunciation anyway.)

  23. Barak [sic - but I presume it's the same name] in the Bible (notably in the famous passage in Hebrews 11) tends to get pronounced in Britain with a short a in both syllables (no schwas) and stress on the first.

    Possibly this has some influence on the British pronunciation of Mr Obama's Christian name.

  24. That Barack was Barry (not Barree) to his family and friends may also leave a shadow on how some Brits approach the stress of his name, given the whole -ack discussion.

    (To scoot off topic (BrE) momentarily, ref Maxibons' point about the pronunciation of Bath by northerners, I think a similar thing is happening in reverse over the pronunciation of Newcastle by southerners - "Newcarsl" seems to be met with derision these days, and only "Newcassel" will do, wherever you're from.)

  25. @Dan: yes,that's what I was thinking of. Glad I'm not the only one who remembers it!

  26. For me it's baRACK. The long/short vowel aspect hadn't occurred to me as there is very little difference in ScE pronunciation. I agree that a person's name should be pronounced as they themselves pronounce it (while allowing for accent differences).

    I have noticed that Jon Stewart on The Daily Show occasionally pronounces Obama's name with first syllable stress on both first and last names, and with the second and third syllables both having a schwa. Obviously that's for comic effect though.

    Watching Anthony Bourdain recently on British television, I noticed the announcer giving it a (more or less) French pronunciation, as boorDAN. He himself, like all Americans I've come across, pronounces it boorDAIN, and that Frenchified pronunciation just strikes me as incredibly rude, even though I mostly try to give as natively correct a pronunciation as I can of non-English words.

    And one more slight diversion. I can remember BBC newsreaders pronouncing the name of Greenock (in the west of Scotland) as Grennock. That one used to irritate Scots constantly. It was only when an English friend of mine pointed out to me that it was to fit with the pronunciation of Greenwich (which is Grennitch) that I understood the reason for that one, but I still find it very very insulting that those newsreaders couldn't be bothered to get the pronunciation right for a place politically and technically in their own country.

  27. Around 1980, the satirical sketch show Not the Nine O'Clock News took the mickey more than once out of BBC newsreaders' pronunciation -- particularly the tendency to pronounce foreign names "exactly" as in their homelands (overlaid with an RP accent).

    I can't find any clips of Pam Stephenson as Angela Rippon (if I recall) saying "Mugabe", "Zimbabwe", and -- the all-time favourite -- "guerrilla". Pronounced geh-RREEE-yah.

  28. Brits (mis)pronouncing the second syllable of Obama with the TRAP vowel instead of the PALM vowel is an instance of a broader pattern for the letter A in "exotic" loanwords, which this blog has covered.

  29. I can honestly say that I pronounced his name wrongly out of ignorance, because I've never hear him say his own name, and because I hear so many alternatives here in Britain. It took me until I was part-way through the comments to realise what was the correct way of saying it, with all the alternatives flying around. I'd better try to put a long A sound in his second syllable then...

  30. I come across this problem with my own name, as a BrE speaker living in France. No matter how many times I introduce myself as Zoe (pronounced ZOH-wee), it always gets gallified into Zuh-WAY. It used to irritate me but in the end, I discovered that it saved me a lot of time and effort just to call myself Zuh-WAY in the first place...

  31. Hi, I'm Boris. (for the uninitiated boRIS, but I've given up long ago)

  32. Both pronunciations of "Colin" are used in the US, and I would not consider Mr. Powell's version the "standard" one, if such a thing exists. Most Colins I know of pronounce it as though it were spelled "Collin." (That can be almost a perfect homophone with "calling.")

  33. As others have commented, it seems unnatural to a BrE speaker to stress the second syllable of a two-syllable word. Over time, I guess we will get used to the correct pronunciation of Barack. I am surprised that UK newsreaders don't seem to have used their pronunciation unit (despite the 1980s mocking in Not the Nine o Clock News, it provided a very useful service). The correct pronunciation of Barack strikes less of a dischord than Colin (Powell) and some US pronunciations of Iraq.

  34. Regarding Iraq (and Iran), I (in the US) have two pronunciations with almost free variation between eye-rack (and "I ran") and ee-rahk (and ee-rahn) with slight prefernce for the latter (but the former for Iran), so I don't have any objections as to how these might be pronounced in the UK (unless it's something like ee-rack or eye-rahk which would sound very strange to me)

  35. Re: hips unhinged - I am currently in Germany and have more or less given up on pronouncing my name my way. It saves me repeating myself two or three times. I say MEH luh nee, they say MAY la nee. I've been told that the L gets "swallowed" when I pronounce it "normally".
    As an American, (back on topic) I do say BuhROCK. I think I waited it out, listening to how other people said it before trying it myself. I think I have heard it with ae, sometimes though.

  36. An off-topic sidestep in reply to Cameron MacD B: on the BBC they call it Grennitch, but being a Sarf Londoner myself I can tell you that most locals call it Grinnidge (unless they are very posh locals and, my goodness, some of them are!)

  37. There was an SNL sketch with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson playing an Incredible Hulk-esque transformation of the president when angry (ripped clothes and all). The joke only works if his first name is pronounced 'Buh-ROCK'. BTW my 4-year-old is under the impression that his name is Rocko Bama.

    The POTUS's last name -- in an unlikely quirk of political history -- rhymes with Bin Laden's first name, at least in AmE. How do Brits pronounced the Al Queda leader's name?

    As to how we should pronounce other people names, there's a fine line between being accommodating and sounding ridiculous. As long as the whatever-ized version is done respectfully I don't see a problem with making a name easier to say. I have a cousin named Xochitl, and you can bet we anglicize it! On the other hand: most AmE speakers pronounced the late Iraqi leader's name "Suh-DAHM" but Pres GHW Bush always said "Suh-DAMN" which struck me as an intentional dig, although I guess it could have just been the mid-Texas accent.

  38. It is somewhat rare to find Mr Obama naming himself (we can listen to the oath); but Mrs Obama talks about him a lot, and can be found online doing so. I keep thinking she pronounces his name badly, but obviously it is I who am wrong. As far as I can transcribe it in non-IPA, she says "buh-ROCK". So I guess we should, too. I'd probably settle for Mr Obama.

  39. Julie's comment is interesting, as I recently asked an American colleague if "Coe-lin" was the normal American pronunciation, and she said yes. Perhaps she meant "a" normal one.
    When I spent a year in French-speaking Switzerland as a student, I couldn't persuade people to call me Kate, but had to settle for Katherine (pronounced in the French way). My late father used to tell of an opera singer called Maggie Tate who was big in France and took to spelling her name Teyte so that the locals knew how to pronounce it.
    Kate (Derby, UK)

  40. And barack (roughly pronounced bawrawtsk)in Hungarian means peach. :)

  41. I work in American news, and I have a hard time imagining one of our reporters pronouncing the name "Bernard" with first syllable stress, so I wouldn't really expect the BBC to change pronunciation with respect to "Barack".

  42. If you want to talk about The Rock, Obama did his own version of this during the campaign. the time Obama's performance was the only one described as not cringe-worthy)

  43. Ryan, I think if there were a major player on the world political stage named Bernard, the American news media would correct its pronunciation. Not before guessing wrong for a few weeks or months, though. Same for any other traditional name with more than one possible pronunciation, like Colin Powell's.

    Barack Obama is different, because it's a foreign name. I would expect reporters to look it up first. Same for any made-up name.

  44. Julie, I would love to believe that was true, but even American theatre/er people still do not manage to pronounce George Bernard Shaw's name correctly.

  45. But I believe Shaw didn't pronounce it the "correct" way - at least he gave the vowel in the second syllable its full value, and something like equal stress on each syllable.

  46. In two-syllable words ending ard with accent on first syllable, Brits often make more of the second syllable than Americans do. I'm thinking of both proper names and other words:

    Maynard, bollard, placard, what else? Similarly with the place name Concord.

  47. I am NW-English and I would pronounce Barack Obama as Ba-rack (with both a's as flat Northern a's like it cat and hat). As a variation, I might say BA-r@ck Obama, with the second syllable as a schwa.

    With my Northern accent and pronunciation, I find an approximation of the American pronunciation near impossible to say.

    Similarly, I say "Bath" with a flat 'a', because no matter how I try I can't get a long 'ah' vowel out in that context. I really can't. If I try a long 'ah' in that context, it sounds completely ridiculous and unnatural, and for me 'Barack' is the same problem.

    The long 'a' is very uncommon in Northern English, and I can't even imitate the Southern English long a, never mind manage it in foreign loan words. I can manage it in Obama, but probably only because it is similar to "drama" and other words I have grown up using. I CAN'T pronounce 'Barack' as Americans would, so I pronounce it my (British) way. Someone else asked how the English would pronounce it if he spelt it "Barak". I'd pronounce it the same, with first syllable stress.

    People think it is impolite, but just as a French person would struggle to get the correct English pronunciation of an English name, someone who speaks one version of English can sincerely struggle with the pronunciation of a name in another. There seems to be an expectation that just because we all speak English, we must be able to master the pronunciation of proper names in other versions of English more easily than a speaker of a different language. It just doesn't work that way. Why can you accept that it is very difficult for many English people to imitate AmE pronunciation of everyday words, but not accept that they might struggle with proper names? There is no difference.

    My name is "Sophia". Being Northern, I pronounce it with equal stress on both vowels. More stress on the first vowel is also ok. But I accept that in Southern England, they will replace the first syllable with a "schwa". Some even change the ee-a ending to an ay-a. In Spain, they would pronounce it in the Spanish way. French people always call me "Sophie". I accept this, so I can't understand why anyone would take offence at this.

    I say i-rack (not ee-rack or ee-rahk). Again, both flat Northern English vowels, either equally stressed or with the stress on the second syllable.

    "Saddam" I would pronounce either Sad-am (flat N-English a again, never sa-dahm) or more commonly Sad-@m with a shwa.

  48. I am a transplanted USan living in London for 16 years now. I am irritated by BBC newsreaders who make a fetish of pronouncing, say, Indian place names as their native speakers would, and yet say "MAY-ree-land" for Maryland, rather than "MEH-ri-l'nd" as most USans might say it. I have also heard "MITCH-u-gun" rather than "MISH-i-gun" Whenever I hear these pronunciations, it's like biting on a sore tooth.

  49. As a British person, I find it quite difficult to pronounce "Barack" with the stress on the second syllable. I can understand why so many British people pronounce the name wrong.

    I bet 100% of Americans pronounce the name of the British town "Bath" in the way they normally would pronounce that word, even though the local pronunciation of the town is with a long a.

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  51. A good rule is that you use the phonemes from your language that best approximate to the phonemes of the foreign one. There's also the AmE rule that foreign words must be made sound even foreigner than they actually are, in particular that all /a/s become /ɑ/s. Abandoning IPA for a moment, the latter rule means that Nicaragua becomes in AmE nicaraaaaaagwaaaaaaa. The corresponding BrE convention is to make foreign words sounds as vulgarly English as possible, so that Nicaragua is knicker-aguar to rhyme with jaguar.

  52. There's also the AmE rule that foreign words must be made sound even foreigner than they actually are, in particular that all /a/s become /ɑ/s.

    I'm not sure what you mean here: the AmE SPA/LOT vowel (/ɑ/) is a reasonable approximation to an Italian/Spanish/French [a]. The only other candidate would be the TRAP vowel: however that tends to be raised or diphthongal in many varieties of AmE.

  53. I don't know whether anyone is still following this thread, but I have a new discovery to share with the blog, from The Bridge, which is a new biography of Obama.

    According to my interpretation of this passage, Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., pronounced his own first name the British way (i.e. like the verb "barrack"). However, the text is problematic, as we shall see. Here it is (p. 51):

    Obama's new friends knew him as "Bear-ick" -- not "Buh-rock"

    [Since the same chapter tells us that Obama Sr. had a British accent (unsurprisingly, having learned English in Kenya), this is sure to be a travesty of his actual pronunciation. It manages to rely on no fewer than three mergers which the speaker would probably not have had: not only the Mary/Marry/Merry merger, and the father/bother merger, but also the weak vowel merger. Do the publishers of these books hope to sell copies outside North America? Why they couldn't have said BA-ruck and bu-RAHK, which would have been far more widely comprehensible, is beyond me. Anyway...]

  54. Just a quick observation.. I tried every male name I could think of in English that has 2 syllables and they ALL stress the first syllable in an English accent; Roger, Matthew, Stephen, Allan, Bernard, Colin, David etc etc. In contrast, girls names with 2 syllables can be stressed on the second syllable; Diane, Suzanne, Marie, Christine, Janine, Collette, etc. The response seems to be that the iambic name (ti- tum) sounds feminine (and 'fancy' and French!) while the trochaic (tum-ti) sounds masculine (and 'solid' and nit French!). So, perhaps to say buRACK somehow feminizes him and we don't want that!

  55. Zhoen says:
    For the BBC to mispronounce the name of a major foreign leader is just insulting.

    Although commentators on both sides of the pond do this with the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, whose first name should be VlaDEEmeer not VLAdimeer.

  56. I Believe that Names should be pronounced the way that particular person wants it to be pronounced (if possible, I for one can not pronounce the icelandic valcano the blew a few years back.)

    another example that comes to mind for me is Simon Cowell on American Idol refusing to pronounce Kara Dioguardi(care ah)the way that she wanted her name pronounced but instead persisted in calling her Car ah.

  57. Coming in late to the discussion...
    The girls' names that Edda lists are all French-influenced. More traditional English names such as Susan, Mary, Helen, Judith have the stress on the first syllable (and I would pronounce Christine that way, too).

  58. Coming in VERY late but I had to make a few comments. AmE speaker here.

    First, excellent blog! I've spent a couple of days reading the posts herein and am finding it fascinating.

    Now to my point -- I think it's very disrespectful to deliberately mispronounce a person's name after learning what the correct pronunciation is. I always make an attempt to pronounce names as the name's owner would, to the extent that it's possible given the phonemes available to me, and I would expect others to do the same. For example, it's not reasonable to expect an English (either BrE or AmE) speaker to pronounce Pang Qing's name exactly correctly since the Mandarin "q" phoneme is not native to English. But it _is_ reasonable to expect the name to be pronounced "ching" rather than "kwing", the former being a close approximation, while the latter (which I actually heard from an Olympic commentator) can only be excused by ignorance.

    From the posts here it sounds like there are three arguments being offered for why it's acceptable for BrE speakers to pronounce Barack incorrectly:
    1. The stress is on an unexpected syllable.
    2. The vowel is not a native phoneme to the speaker.
    3. It just sounds wrong.

    For 1, it may be true that most (or even all) disyllabic male British names are stressed on the first syllable (I honestly don't know). But surely _some_ words in BrE are stressed on the second syllable. You don't stress words like "engage", "balloon", "create" on the first syllable, do you? (Or perhaps you do, please inform me if I'm woefully mistaken about BrE pronunciation.) What's the difference if it's a name? You can still make those sounds come out of your mouth.

    For 2, I assume it's the second vowel that's in question, since the first is just a schwa. Are there really BrE dialects that don't contain the open "a" of "calm", "hot", "sob"? Even if your pronunciation of these words is not exactly as in AmE, it would still (I think) sound closer to correct to use whatever vowel you use for these words.

    Argument number 3 is the one I find hardest to understand. Whether the pronunciation sounds "wrong" to you is surely irrelevant after you know what the correct pronunciation is. For example, I did not know until today that the vowel used in the name of the city of Bath is the open "a" rather than the hard "a" of "cat", "sat", "pan". Now that I know, I will make an effort to use the correct pronunciation, even though it sounds very wrong to me, having pronounced it and heard it pronounced like the thing you do in a tub for my whole life. How would you feel if a foreigner pronounced "Britain" to rhyme with "obtain" and offered the explanation that it "sounds more correct" to him?

    For me, the name is nearly the same as "the rock" with the initial "th" replaced with "b". If you did the same, I would think it would be a better approximation than calling him "barrack".


  59. Mark

    Are there really BrE dialects that don't contain the open "a" of "calm", "hot", "sob"?

    I'm not aware of any British accents which would pronounce those three words with the same vowel. The LOT and PALM vowels are not only distinct but don't sound remotely similar to our ears.

    The PALM vowel is hugely problematic. Most words pronounced with that vowel are in the BATH group, but there is a great geographical divide between those who pronounce BATH words with the PALM vowel and those who pronounce it with the TRAP vowel. To complicate this divide, there's a class divide, mostly, in the northern half of England by which some speakers identified as socially aspirational use the PALM vowel sometimes or always with all or some BATH words. And then there are people who have moved geographically or along the social scale, thus complicating even further their choice of BATH vowel.

    This confusion has the result of inconsistency at the higher phonological level. Unfamiliar words with letter-A spellings are assigned by some to the BATH group, by others to the TRAP group.

    It seems that you want us to rhyme Barack with Iraq. Well OK, that means a BATH vowel, but to a huge swathe of English. Welsh and Irish speakers that means a TRAP vowel. So Barack rhymes with attack

    Note that spelling. The inherited conventions of English spelling are that we mark the stressed 'short' vowels of TRAP, DRESS, KIT and STRUT with two consonants. Most consonants are represented by double letters; /k/ is represented by CK. For most 'short vowels' this convention is dropped when the consonant sound is word-final. But the convention still stands for /k/ ~ CK.

    The spelling -ack is the regular sign of the pronunciation you object to as in alack, back, cack, frack, hack, jack, Jack, lack, mack, nicknack, pack, quack, rack, sack, tack, whack.

    I can't help thinking that the Obama family back in Kenya originally chose the Barack spelling to reflect a 'short A' pronunciation. At some point in recent generations somebody decided to change the pronunciation. Could it have been the President himself? Ot his father?

    For me, the name is nearly the same as "the rock" with the initial "th" replaced with "b".

    In any British accent that i know of, that would be baroque.

  60. For example, I did not know until today that the vowel used in the name of the city of Bath is the open "a" rather than the hard "a" of "cat", "sat", "pan". Now that I know, I will make an effort to use the correct pronunciation, even though it sounds very wrong to me, having pronounced it and heard it pronounced like the thing you do in a tub for my whole life.

    A perfect example of why your approach to the pronunciation of names doesn't work. Only some British English speakers pronounce the city of Bath — as well as the thing you bathe in — with that vowel.

    There are two common pronunciations of Bath and bath. In the bad old days people would say only one was 'correct', though they would disagree as to which. In these more civilised times we just observe that there are two alternatives.

    How would you feel if a foreigner pronounced "Britain" to rhyme with "obtain" and offered the explanation that it "sounds more correct" to him?

    I would fee sympathetic, even apologetic. It's not their fault but ours for having such a difficult spelling system.

    And I for one never tell anyone that their pronunciation is 'incorrect'. If it's a pronunciation that nobody uses, that's what I tell them. If a different pronunciation is preferred by some or most English speakers, I tell them that.

    (In the event, it's much easier with foreigners. You just supply the pronunciation you prefer. Most of the time they're grateful. And often they immediately imitate you. But if they take no notice, why should it matter? If they prefer to say Britayne, that's their lookout.)

  61. For 1, it may be true that most (or even all) disyllabic male British names are stressed on the first syllable ... What's the difference if it's a name?

    The answer is there is Edda and Kate's postings. Girls' names are largely French-derived. French inherited a lot of similar-sounding pairs of male and female names, which they differentiated by adding a suffix to the female name. This suffixes is gently stressed in French and heavily stressed when the name is anglicised.

    Now British reader-speakers are aware of the end stress on French-derived words when it's reflected in the spelling. But there's a significant number of French words absorbed into, such as ballet, English which don't imply end-stress in the spelling. American reader-speakers pronounce them with heavy English end stress. British read-speakers don't.

    I'm sure many BrE speakers associate the AmE stress in Barack with the AmE stress in ballet. To their ears it's just a regional variation. (I sort-of feel that myself, at least some of the time.)

  62. I looked up Barack Obama Senior, the President's father, yesterday.

    The name Barack, everybody seems to agree is from the Arabic root b-r-k meaning 'blessing'. Not that it's a name used by Arabs, but it's found among sub-Saharan Muslims. So it would make sense to use spelling Barak.

    There's no long history of the name in the Obama family because they weren't Muslim until they converted and called a baby boy by that Muslim name. But either they were unaware of the Arabic etymology or the birth certificate was written by (or under) a British colonial administrator. Either way, they chose a same spelling more like that of the word for soldiers' lodgings: barracks.

    Sure enough, Wikipedia gives the pronunciation as barracks without the final /s/ sound. This might be open to doubt, but that a footnote quotes his biographer

    The Old Man had also been called Barack, but his was a working man's name, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

    So presumably the pronunciation was changed by the President's mother. Intriguing that this change can be seen as a departure from regular working class speech. That's how the pronunciation of Maurice in the French way sounds to British ears. For us Maurice sounds just like Morris.

    Incidentally, if ever you come across habbit-al-baraka 'seeds of blessing', buy them and mix them with cubes of feta cheese in olive oil. Alternatives — which may be the same thing under different names — are kalonji and nigella seeds. Delicious.

  63. I missed vp's post. Sorry vp!

    If the President's friends called him Bear-ick, that would strongly suggest that he was then using his father's pronunciation. It's hard to see how you could get bear-ick from the spelling, but it's perfectly plausible as an aural imitation.

  64. @David

    Thanks for your well considered comments.

    The PALM vowel is hugely problematic. Most words pronounced with that vowel are in the BATH group, but there is a great geographical divide between those who pronounce BATH words with the PALM vowel and those who pronounce it with the TRAP vowel.

    Do that latter group not have the PALM vowel (as pronounced by the former group) in their phonological inventory at all? In other words, are there no words at all that they pronounce with the open a? If so, then I would understand how Barack would be difficult to pronounce. But if the issue is that the two groups both use the same two vowel sounds but use them in different words, then my point stands; if you can pronounce all the phonemes in the name, there's no reason to substitute other phonemes.

    It seems that you want us to rhyme Barack with Iraq. Well OK, that means a BATH vowel, but to a huge swathe of English. Welsh and Irish speakers that means a TRAP vowel. So Barack rhymes with attack.

    Even in the US, some people pronounce Iraq with a TRAP vowel and others with a BATH (open a) vowel. Some people (perhaps even myself although introspection has not produced a definitive answer) pronounce it differently at different times. So it's hard to confirm or deny that I want you to pronounce Barack to rhyme with Iraq. The pronunciation should be /bə'rɑːk/. If the second vowel is hard to pronounce a substitution can be made, but I can see no justifiable reason to change the position of the stress.

    For me, the name is nearly the same as "the rock" with the initial "th" replaced with "b".
    In any British accent that i know of, that would be baroque.

    Hm, in my dialect, "baroque" is pronounced with a long o: /bə'roʊk/, nothing like "rock" which is pronounced with an open a /rɑːk/. Is that the same for you? The OED seems to agree with my pronunciation.

    For 1, it may be true that most (or even all) disyllabic male British names are stressed on the first syllable ... What's the difference if it's a name?
    The answer is there is Edda and Kate's postings. Girls' names are largely French-derived. ...

    I think it's also true in the US that most disyllabic male given names are stressed on the first syllable. Offhand I can't think of a counterexample. Nevertheless, this does not in the slightest impede my ability to say "Barack" with the stress on the second syllable. Anyway, it's not like Barack is a common name in the US. It's just as foreign for us as it is for you. (Actually before he was elected I thought his name was one of his biggest liabilities. Many Americans are not comfortable with foreign names, especially one that sounds Arabic.)

    Only some British English speakers pronounce the city of Bath — as well as the thing you bathe in — with that vowel.

    Ah, in that case I won't bother to modify my pronunciation. :-)
    In general I would say the pronunciation of the residents of a city should prevail, but I admit that I am not consistent on this point. For example, the city of New Orleans is pronounced by most of its residents something like /'nɔːlɪnz/. But I, like most of the rest of AmE speakers who don't live there, pronounce it with three syllable, an r and a long i: /nuː 'ɒrliːnz/.

    But a personal name is different; there is exactly one authority on how it should be pronounced. And that pronunciation should not be altered due to the spelling of the name. If someone whose name was spelled "Smith" pronounced his name "Greeble", I would do the same. Or more realistically, I would think it rude to pronounce "Featherstonehaugh" with four syllables after hearing its owner pronounce it with two.


  65. Thinking more about the pronunciation of the city of Bath, it occurs to me that if I did start using the open a in this word, other AmE speakers would view it as highly marked, even humorous, as if I were trying to imitate a British accent. (Actually it probably wouldn't even be understood, I'd have to clarify "you know, that city in England... as in The Wife of Bath?") I don't think anyone in this thread has raised this point, but is this part of the issue, that you feel that other BrE speakers around you would view your pronunciation of Barack as humorous or silly?


  66. On the 'correct' pronunciation of Bath...

    Last Friday the broadcaster Samira Ahmed revealed on this episode of the News Quiz (click) that she gets her husband to amuse her by pronouncing Bath with his Cheshire accent. In return she amuses him by saying Newcastle. Simple pleasures.

    Do press that link; the News Quiz is very funny. The link to this episode should be active for two or three weeks. Samira starts toward the end at 25:18. Then Jeremy Hardy goes to town commenting.

  67. I see that three posters — vp, Lisa and Sir Watkin — have commented on Barak.

    Yes there is a Barak in the Old Testament. And Ehud Brog adopted the name in 1972. But my little investigation of the President's father's name (from root b-r-k) revealed to me that this is a different name — from the root b-r-q meaning 'lightning'.

    I believe we stress Barak as a first name on the first syllable. I know I do. But Ehud chose it as a surname. It doesn't seem strange to stress the surname on the second syllable — which seems to bear out Edda's theory that male first names tend to have initial stress, unlike surnames and female first names.

  68. markn

    John Wells, who Lynne, consulted, is the author of the book Accents of English and the concept and formulation of lexical sets. According to John's scheme, if you subtract the BATH words from the PALM group there is a vestigial, but somewhat odd group remaining. Odd in that almost all of them are in some way foreign words — broadly speaking words from the world of Empire and other foreign parts, as well as the Italian words used in describing music. And even these lists are unstable, with some speakers using the TRAP vowel for at least some of them.

    {This is mostly down to the Great Vowel Shift. Foreign words adopted earlier have the FACE sound. The turning point came approximately between importing potatoes and finding a use for tomatoes.)

    Looking more closely at the 'foreign' PALM words, it's striking how many of them have the vowel next to the end before an unstressed syllable. Very few have the vowel followed by a final consonant and only two end in a voiceless consonant: Bach and baht.

    The 'native' core is largely accounted for in this list

    calm, balm, palm, alm, father,
    bra, ma, pa, mamma, papa, aha,
    ah, ha(h), blah, hurrah

    Of course, the vowel sound isn't as rare as that — at least not in the 'non-rhotic' accents of Southern England,Ireland and part of Wales. In these accents START words have the same sound with no audible /r/-sound.

    So if you want these BrE speakers to pronounce Barack your way, you'd best spell it Burark.

    2. but I can see no justifiable reason to change the position of the stress

    And yet that seems to be exactly what the future President did as a young man.

    3. For me /bə'roʊk/ is an exclusively American pronunciation, although (to my surprise) John Wells includes /bə'rəʊk/ as a BrE alternative in his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. The OED is misleading. In John's notation the first BrE choice is /bə'rɒk/.

    There's the same BrE/AmE split with words like cosmos. Your pronunciation sounds to me like cosmose.

    4. The key to intelligibility with the name Bath is to use exactly the same pronunciation as you use for the bath you wash in.

  69. The turning point came approximately between importing potatoes and finding a use for tomatoes.

    Sorry, this may not make sense to some (many? all?) AmE speakers. The point is that here we say to-MAH-toh and po-TAY-toh. And never (I believe) to-MAY-toh.

    When we imported the potato, we immediately began saying the word as well as writing it. So the vowel 'shifted' just as 'long-A' did in native English words.

    When we imported the tomato, we didn't know what to do with it. Botanists wrote about it but it wasn't common in speech. When we discovered that out was edible, the Great Vowel Shift was over. So when it became a widely spoken word, it received the foreign long-A; it was too lae to shift to the FACE vowel. Nevertheless, a spelling pronunciation was still a possibility, and I presume that's what happened in America.

  70. the 'non-rhotic' accents of Southern England

    Sorry, that's very misleading. Non-rhotic (R-less) accents prevail in most of England. The main exceptions are in the West, including the South West.

    R-lessness is common all over the world in British former colonies — including pockets on the Eastern Seabord of America.

  71. @David Crosbie

    Sorry if my earlier post wasn't particularly clear. What I take from Obama's biography is:

    * The President's father, Barack Obama Sr. pronounced his own name with first-syllable stress.

    * As a child and adolescent, he was known as "Barry" rather than "Barack".

    * At some point (it's not exactly clear when, but it must have been some time after he left home for undergraduate studies) he made the conscious decision to be known by his full first name "Barack", and decided to adopt second-syllable stress at that time.

  72. vp

    Yes that's what I. thought you meant.

    I'd go further and suggest that along with the decision to use his full name he made a conscious decision to give it American stress. This AmE/BrE divide occurs in the name Maurice and the 'foreign' borrowing cited by John Wells in his response to Lynne:

    It's the usual BrE vs AmE treatment of foreign disyllables: cf cliché, café etc.

  73. Unknown, when you'r discussing the history of sounds, terms like long A are very useful. The sounds changed over time, but the groups of words containing each sound was relatively stable.

    Both tomato and potato were imported with the pronunciation of 'long A' that was current at the time.

    • was imported before the change
    • passed into speech
    • changed its pronunciation with all the other 'long A' words

    • was imported at a botanical name before the change
    • did not pass into speech, because botanists didn't discover a popular use for the plant
    • was imported into popular speech as an international word with similar pronunciations in familiar languages — at a time when the Great Vowel Shift was over and done

    By contrast

    • is an extremely old word with a 'short A' — as is clear from the Old English spelling bæð
    • did not change with the Great Vowel Shift, which only affected long vowels
    • is therefore not pronounced B-ay-TH in any accent

    • is an extremely old word with a 'long A' — as is clear from the Old English spelling baðian
    • change with the Great Vowel Shift
    • is therefore pronounced B-ay-TH-in any accent (with TH-sound as in this, not as in thick)

    The current variation in pronunciation of bath (and BATH words in general) in Northern English, Southern English and American accents is important and interesting, but nothing to do with the concept of 'long A'.

  74. I had an uncle Maurice in New Jersey (where I, AmE, lived for a long time). His name was pronounced Morris, and the shortened version was Uncle Mar. I think this was an uncommon pronunciation of Maurice for this side of the Atlantic. Usually it's said like More-eese.

  75. All much confused by so penchantmany commenters' penchant for respelling, which only works in the commenter's own accent. ROCK as a respelling comes out different either side of the Atlantic.
    I am left wondering whether the former President's name was rather baroque.
    I'm a great fan of IPA in these matters, as there is a slim chance it could remove some of the ambiguities.

  76. BrE (Scot, 60+). In either of the president’s names, I have no problem putting the stress where it seems to belong, although I DO believe those who find this (physically) difficult. The problem for me is the vowel represented by the letter A. Palm, trap bra, David crosbie’s long list of words: they all have the same vowel to me. I can just about hear the difference between northern and southern English pronunciations of bath, but I don’t hear them as DIFFERENT vowels. It’s just that the southern pronunciation is given a slightly longer duration. When I try to do that it sounds as if I am taking the piss. BaRACK is the same as BaRAACK, and rhymes with both Iraq and attack, unless I overcorrect and sat BaRAAAAAACK.
    To me, rack never rhymes with rock, nor Mac with mock, sack with sock. That’s what several commenters mean by respected stress patterns, but living with your own accent.
    Re Colin Powell. At the time of the first Gulf War, the syllable Col rhymed with Paul. By the time of the second Gulf War it rhymed with coal. I’m sure there is a very short comic scene at the end of one of the Back to the Future films with the rhymes-with-Paul version is used. But my memory may be wrong.


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)