How to pronounce Qatar, the World Cup host whose name everybody says wrong

In the 12 years since FIFA president Sepp Blatter dramatically opened a scandalous envelope and introduced Qatar to the world, millions of Westerners have learned a lot about the controversial host of the 2022 World Cup. They have learned about the hot 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’ve learned how a small emirate in Connecticut plans to host the biggest sporting event on the planet.

They have learned almost all the basics except the most basic one: how to pronounce “Qatar”.

They’ve pronounced it “kuh-TAR” and “KA-tar” and “cutter.” Brits occasionally opt for “kuh-TAAH”. Some Americans have done their homework and still somehow settled on “cut tar.” For a while, some online dictionaries confusingly spit out “cotter”.

All are wrong, but the mispronunciations got so out of hand that the state of Qatar essentially gave up on authenticity and accepted some of them.

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“The English pronunciation is different because the word uses two letters that only exist in Arabic,” Ali Al-Ansari, the Qatari government’s media attache, told Yahoo Sports in an email. The accepted pronunciation “would sound like saying: Kuh-TAR“.

In other words, what you hear when you search “how to pronounce Qatar” is good.

“Another way that also works is Kuh-Ter“, Al-Ansari added, “but sometimes it sounds like ‘gutter’, so we prefer it Kuh-Tar“.

Other Arabic speakers have explained that the English word closest to the native pronunciation might 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 be heard in the local languages ​​at the World Cup – cannot be written in the Latin alphabet. If you want to learn, YouTube is your best bet:

Soccer - 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar Preview - Doha, Qatar - October 26, 2022.  A general view of signage in Doha ahead of the World Cup REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Workers are still busy preparing Qatar to host this month’s World Cup. (REUTERS/Hamad I Muhammad)

Why is it so hard for English speakers to pronounce “Qatar”?

The difficulty comes from “emphasis on sounds that English doesn’t have,” says Amal El Haimeur, a linguist and professor of Arabic at the University of Kansas. The Arabic word for Qatar, دولة قطر, is three letters, two of which are completely foreign to most Westerners, and therefore fiendish to pronounce without practice.

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“It’s like we have sleeping muscles,” says Mohammed Aldawood, an Arabic professor at American University in Washington, “We have to wake them up to pronounce them correctly.”

The first letter, depending on the dialect, produces a deep ‘k’ or a hard ‘g’, followed by a low stress similar to an ‘ā’.

The second is the oral ‘t’. In linguistics, these are called “veralized” or “uvular” consonants, meaning that the speaker must press the back of the tongue against the roof of the mouth. “It’s caused by obstructing airflow [through the] mouth,” says El Maimeur.

And the last sound is “ar” with a rolled “r”.

Accepted English pronunciation does not include all three of these nuances. But this, according to experts, is a natural feature of language learning.

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“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 Maimeur. When faced with an “emphasized” Arabic sound, non-native speakers, including her students, “will replace it with a non-emphasized counterpart.”

“Qatar” is not unique in this regard. Aldawood points out that other common proper names, including “Saudi” and his own name “Mohammed,” have been adapted by English speakers and are technically mispronounced.

“Any language, any word,” Aldawood says. “Over time, people are starting to change it to make it easier to tell.”

So even when Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, opens 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 different host names.

Infantino, a Swiss polyglot, has taken some steps towards authenticity. But his director of Scottish media relations still goes “KA-tar”. And World Cup Ireland chief cameraman Colin Smith will call it “kuh-TAR”.

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