you say barrack i say barack
January 22, 2009 3:12 AM   Subscribe

Why do some British news reporters insist on pronouncing Barack Obama's first name like "barrack"?

They hear it correctly from Americans all the time. I would understand if it's something in their accent that makes it hard for them to pronounce Barack correctly but it's not. At least half the time I hear British reporters say it correctly.
And is there a correlation with this as to why people prefer to say "Iraq" i-rack or ee-rock?
posted by sammich to Media & Arts (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Same reason reporters from the US South pronounced "Blair" with two syllables, sometimes three. It's an accent.
Next?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 3:26 AM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Probably just laziness, but perhaps the correct pronunciation sounds off-puttingly pretentious, false-posh to some British ears, rather the way some people had to make an effort to say 'Coh-lin Powell'. They know it's correct, but a little subconscious voice is saying, 'no, you'll make him sound like some kind of pompous twat'.

Better than 'Bore-arc O'Boremore', anyway, which is how one of my colleagues seems to say it.
posted by Phanx at 3:31 AM on January 22, 2009


The BBC seems to think there was some disagreement, but it ought to be clear by now.
posted by Phanx at 3:38 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


pronounced "Blair" with two syllables, sometimes three

How is this possible, even with an accent? I'm genuinely curious.
posted by misozaki at 3:47 AM on January 22, 2009


British and American pronunciation of names is one area where you tend to see a lot of difference. The general rule seems to be that the British pronunciation stresses the first syllable, whereas Americans tend to stress the second.

Take for example the name 'Maurice'. Americans pronounce it 'maur-eese', whereas the British normally say 'morris'.

I think British people hear Americans pronouncing familiar names in an unfamiliar way all the time, so we tend to just pronounce 'new' names the way that sounds 'right' to us.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 3:51 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Buh-lay-uh.
posted by Phanx at 3:51 AM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Same reason it's Hoo-stun (instead of Hugh-ston) and Mitchigan (Mishigun) or Los Ann-gel-eese (Los Anjelus).

Or Bir-ming-ham, come to think of it.
posted by Grrlscout at 3:54 AM on January 22, 2009


Oh, I see now (or hear it, rather). Thanks, Phanx.
posted by misozaki at 3:57 AM on January 22, 2009


"Barack" means "Blessed" in a Central African language called Luo. To get the correct pronunciation you would probably need to ask a Kenyan goat herder like his dad. Just saying.
posted by rongorongo at 4:05 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Barack" is the man's name. To get the correct pronunciation you would probably need to just listen to him pronounce it. Just saying.
posted by explosion at 4:59 AM on January 22, 2009 [12 favorites]


We think Americans say it like "Colon".

That's because that's how his name is pronounced. KOH-lin. Not KAH-lin. Powell prefers his name to be pronounced that way (even his parents pronounce it in the more traditional manner).

Don't believe me?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:08 AM on January 22, 2009


"Barack" is the man's name. To get the correct pronunciation you would probably need to just listen to him pronounce it. Just saying.

A good rule, maybe, but not one that anyone in the world follows almost any of the time when it comes to pronouncing names of people and places in foreign countries. Do you pronounce the name of the capital of Russia like its residents do?

However, more specifically here, we're on the boundary between a question of accent and a question of basic pronounciation. The long "a" sound in the second half of Barack Obama's first name, correctly pronounced, sounds to British ears (naturally enough) like many words in which Americans use a long "a", and British people a short one. So pronouncing Barack correctly can sound like one is adopting a fake American accent for the duration of a single word - it should be obvious why some people feel weird doing that.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 5:24 AM on January 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's an accent.

Not if I'm understanding the question correctly; to me,

pronouncing Barack Obama's first name like "barrack"

means pronouncing it /'bærək/, with the stress on the first syllable, which is not a matter of accent but of misunderstanding how the name is said. If the question was badly phrased and the pronunciation meant is /bə'ræk/, with the stress on the second syllable (rhyming with "rack"), then it's still not really a matter of accent (since Brits are perfectly capable of pronouncing it correctly), it's more a matter of habits of pronunciation ("the correct pronunciation sounds off-puttingly pretentious").

Do you pronounce the name of the capital of Russia like its residents do?

Irrelevant. Place names have nothing to do with personal names. Moskvá, the Russian name of the capital of Russia, is a completely different word from English Moscow (which happens to be historically derived from it). Some cities have historically unrelated names in different languages (French Ratisbon = German Regensburg, Slovak Bratislava= German Pressburg = Hungarian: Pozsony). Personal names are unique and theoretically have only one correct form, the one used by the person in question (though of course in practice that is often unknown). If one knows that Colin Powell pronounces his name /'kowlən 'pawəl/, it is in some sense dismissive to pronounce it some other way. "Don't call me out of my name," as the saying goes.

"Barack" means "Blessed" in a Central African language called Luo. To get the correct pronunciation you would probably need to ask a Kenyan goat herder like his dad.

Don't be ridiculous. And Obama's father was a senior government economist, not a fucking goat herder. I'm trying hard not to make any worse assumptions about your "answer" than I have to, but think twice next time before you say something like that.
posted by languagehat at 6:21 AM on January 22, 2009 [11 favorites]


Do you pronounce the name of the capital of Russia like its residents do?

Irrelevant. Place names have nothing to do with personal names.


My point was not etymological. The fact is that in real life, most of the time, people do not think of either personal names or place names as an occasion to switch from their normal mode of speaking to one where they sound indigenous to the social or geographical context they're talking about. As I added, perhaps they should.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:26 AM on January 22, 2009


[a few comments removed - the less this turns into a pronunciation battle, the better]
posted by jessamyn at 6:35 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


My own theory is that the BBC secretly disdains American accents and this is their little way of reminding people that they know better than Americans how to pronounce their names.
posted by Dasein at 6:39 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm curious about this as well. If they feel weird slipping into another accent for one word, why do they pronounce Angela Merkel's name with a hard 'g'? In Britain, Angela has a soft 'g.'
posted by bluefly at 7:05 AM on January 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


why do they pronounce Angela Merkel's name with a hard 'g'? In Britain, Angela has a soft 'g.'

This probably has something to do with the fact that vowel sounds are the big difference in most accents, and so it seems more natural to shift a vowel sound into your own accent than it does a consonant sound.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:14 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


If they feel weird slipping into another accent for one word, why do they pronounce Angela Merkel's name with a hard 'g'? In Britain, Angela has a soft 'g.'

They don't all use the hard g, but for those that do, a) it's an extremely easy change to make and remember, with none of the relative subtlety of the Obama example, and b) accents distinguish themselves primarily by their vowel sounds, so you don't sound "German" to the same degree just by using a hard consonant. But above all, much real-life language use simply does not follow very consistent rules.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 7:17 AM on January 22, 2009


Actually, the German PM's name could be a very interesting example, but now that I am thinking deeply about it, I can't recall (1) how her first name is pronounced in German (I am assuming AHN-guh-luh, with a long A) or (2) how her first name is pronounced by the British media (I seem to remember hearing EHN-guh-luh, with a short A -- like the typical english pronunciation, but with a hard G). Any Britons who watch Deutsche Welle care to comment?
posted by Rock Steady at 7:30 AM on January 22, 2009


game warden to the events rhino has it. The stress on the second syllable and long 'a' sound in the American pronunciation just don't come naturally to an English English speaker, making it hard to say the name 'correctly' without feeling like you're doing a weird American accent/taking the piss.
posted by Mocata at 7:34 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Merkel's christian name woul dbe pronounced with a hard G (and the muted, e sounding a at the start). The British news media is better than most at getting pronunciation right. That said, it still bugs me that we refuse to use other countries pronunciation, let alone names, for their own cities. Cologne instead of Köln for instance.

It's like the discussion about the name Koepke the other week here. People pronouncing it Kepkey in America is fine, it's their name. But it's a Germanic name.

I'm a pedant when it comes to these things I admit.

That said, speaking of Colon... Willy Colon of the Steelers I think... Pronounced like Cologne, for some reason.

Now, as for Barack, I'm pretty sure I've heard it pronounced both ways in the US media, given it's what I see more of... Meaning now, I'm not even sure how it's supposed to be pronounced (and the Barrack vs Barack doesn't actually help).

Oh, as for Irack or Erock... Neither damnit! The American eye-rack pronunciation is hideously wrong. It's closer to Ih-Rarq. As with Ih-Rarn. I don't know where eye-rack came from but it winds me up something rotten.
posted by opsin at 7:58 AM on January 22, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'd also comment that in response to Mocata's comment there, the long a isn't a problem for anyone who speaks English closer to RP than a regional accent. Your classical English accent, in where you would say bath with a long a sound, means in RP saying Barack's name with a long a sound in the second syllable isn't so troublesome.

Admittedly, most of our newsreaders have no idea what RP even is nowadays...
posted by opsin at 8:00 AM on January 22, 2009


AIUI, Obama's father pronounced it like "barrack."
posted by jgirl at 8:02 AM on January 22, 2009


Apologies for my rather glib comment about Obamas father up thread. It would seem that quite a lot of ignorant or malicious crap has been written about the president's background and I would wish to distance myself from it.

Barack Obama senior did indeed have an illustrious career. However he was indeed brought up in the small, rural, Luo village of Nyang’oma Kogelo where goat herding remains a standard pastime. Listen to some of the local residents pronounce his name here.
posted by rongorongo at 8:20 AM on January 22, 2009


I knew a guy once whose first name was Barrick, pronounced "barrack". It's pretty rare in the US but perhaps a tad more common in the UK, and maybe that leads the reporters to say it that way.
posted by beagle at 8:29 AM on January 22, 2009


(since Brits are perfectly capable of pronouncing it correctly),


Again: it's an accent. It has nothing to do with "being capable".


Brits pronounce derby "DAR-bee". Should I tell the SkySports newsreader he is "capable" of pronouncing it "DUR-bee"?

Are Philadelphians "capable" of pronouncing the suburb Cheltenham "CHELLT-inum"?

No- they pronounce it CHELL-ting-ham, because they're Americans.
posted by Zambrano at 8:33 AM on January 22, 2009


Well, they also pronounce his last name as "Obamer," but let's not get into that...
posted by zsazsa at 9:02 AM on January 22, 2009


The stress on the second syllable and long 'a' sound in the American pronunciation just don't come naturally to an English English speaker

I don't understand this. He pronounces it exactly like the word "rock," which is pronounced almost identically in British and American dialects. It's not [æ] by any stretch.
posted by kittyprecious at 9:24 AM on January 22, 2009


He pronounces it exactly like the word "rock," which is pronounced almost identically in British and American dialects.

I speak RP, and I assure you that the way I say "rock" is completely different to the way Obama pronounces the second syllable of his first name.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:42 AM on January 22, 2009


in RP saying Barack's name with a long a sound in the second syllable isn't so troublesome.

It's still a bit surprising, though (I have an RP accent.) I thought it was pronounced like the word meaning "big building with soldiers in," which in England is "BAH-rack" for every accent and class I can think of.

But, of course, knowing it's Bar-ARK I'll try to say it like he does. That's only polite. People will think I'm showing off, though...

Aside: I pronounce my own name "wrongly." It's a Gaelic spelling, so the "d" is pronounced "t" - Alastair. No-one told me this when I was growing up so I've always said "Alasdair." Most confusing - should I correct my pronunciation of my own name?
posted by alasdair at 9:42 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Same reason reporters from the US South pronounced "Blair" with two syllables, sometimes three. It's an accent.

I try to pronounce people's names as they do in their home country. That's why I call the Brittish ex-PM "Tony Blah".
posted by originalname37 at 9:55 AM on January 22, 2009


There actually was some comment in England surrounding the pronunciation of his name. More or less the same thing the question asks: why the hell do some reporters get it wrong? But that was a few months ago, and I assumed everybody was doing right by now, even me. Though reading the comments on this thread has made me realise not.

I thought the issue with the mispronunciation was about the placement of stress, with people wrongly putting the stress on the first syllable and not the second, leading to a pronunciation like the word 'barrack'. But LH's IPA examples show that neither of those are correct, and the actual pronunciation turns out to be /bəˈrɑːk/ - definitely not the way I thought it was said.

In my defence, and probably the defence of about 20+ million English speakers, if I heard it pronounced that way, I would automatically shorten the vowel in the second syllable. I can say that word properly, so it's not strictly a question of accent, but I am so used to replacing 'long a' with 'short a' due to differences in accent within England. For me, it would happen naturally, even in a name. Maybe that accounts for some of the mistakes?

Oh, and /oʊˈbɑːmə/ is a whole nother story...
posted by Sova at 10:26 AM on January 22, 2009


I'll weigh in from my own perspective as a Brit in the US. I know that to many Americans British English sounds impossibly pompous, but this ear for our own version of the language is a two-way street. I am not judging or saying that one way or the other is correct. With that caveat here goes: Bu-raahk to British ears quite pretentious. The long flat second syllable sounds like someone feigning class, indeed it sounds pretty nouveau riche which, with our good old British class system, is not a good thing.

There are quite a few pronunciations in US English similar to this and they sound pretentious to British ears. We tend to put accents on the first syllable of loanwords (although, because it's English there are plenty of exceptions). Basically we try to make them sound as much like English as possible. Perhaps the worst divide in British/US English is in the fillet/filet conundrum. The word filet does not exist in British English, it's a loanword that somehow go Anglicized to fillet. Of course this is the weirdest example as the word in US English is still ostensibly French, but it does create for some strange sounds to British ears such as hearing an American order a flaming yarn (filet mignon). It just isn't idiomatic to British English (we would attempt a French pronunciation for the whole term and not just the first word -a bit like how Pasta du Jour or With Au Jus are also strange French adaptations in US English -to Brits putting something into French sounds a bit silly, what's wrong with Pasta of the day for example?) I know I've sort of gone off from the pronunciation of the president's first name, but it's part of a whole divide in US/British English that, for me, centres around forcibly Anglicizing pronunciation or not. To Brits, not Anglicizing or, I guess we could say, normalizing pronunciation sounds pretentious.

I've seen quite a few people on the BBC say BAruck but knowing that the accent on is on the second syllable will only really make Brits say bu-RACK similar to to they way that we mostly say the name of the country i-RACK. Of course living in the states, I pretty much pronounce it the American way, unless I forget, and then I adopt the second-syllable stress British compromise (that sounds much more grand than it is!)
posted by ob at 10:56 AM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting discussion on people's names and whether it's presumptuous or not to pronounce them as they themselves do them in this previous AskMe thread.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:44 AM on January 22, 2009


>Secretly?

They are called "The Pronunciation Unit". Example post "How to say: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad". Their contact details are on the first link if you wanted to ask.
posted by rongorongo at 1:40 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


rongorongo: Thanks for the video. As far as I could tell, only one local said the name "Barack" (the voice you hear at the beginning and throughout is an announcer speaking Dutch), and he said it pretty much the American way, although with /a/ rather than schwa in the first syllable and a flap /r/.

Now, as for Barack, I'm pretty sure I've heard it pronounced both ways in the US media

I'm pretty sure you haven't, since I've been listening to a lot of US media and have never heard anything but /bə'rɑːk/.

Oh, as for Irack or Erock... Neither damnit! The American eye-rack pronunciation is hideously wrong. It's closer to Ih-Rarq. As with Ih-Rarn. I don't know where eye-rack came from but it winds me up something rotten.


So you pronounce all foreign geographical names just like the locals, do you? Pah-RREE, musk-VAH, Chinese cities and provinces with the proper tones? I don't think so. I think you're just upset other people don't say things the way you do. Get over it.

My point was not etymological.

My point was not etymological either. My point was what I said, and I'll say it again: Place names have nothing to do with personal names.

The fact is that in real life, most of the time, people do not think of either personal names or place names as an occasion to switch from their normal mode of speaking to one where they sound indigenous to the social or geographical context they're talking about. As I added, perhaps they should.

Perhaps, if they want to sound foolish.
posted by languagehat at 2:14 PM on January 22, 2009


Why do some British news reporters insist on pronouncing Barack Obama's first name like "barrack"?

For the same reason we don't refer to Nigel McGuinness as "NOIJ-ul" - it sounds affected to the ears of the people that we're speaking to.
posted by Aquaman at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2009


You know, not all Americans pronounce his name correctly. I wouldn't hang this on just the British.

I remember quite a few people who never quite learned "Ronald RAY-gun" and always called him "REE-gun". (The existence and service of Don Regan^ undoubtedly did not help.)

It also goes the other way. Some Presidents (and probably other countries' leaders as well) have their own accents. I doubt you could have gotten the Boston out of JFK or the Texas out of LBJ. On the other hand, Obama may go overboard with the native pronunciations such as pah-kee-STAHN. I bet more than one listener had no idea he was taking about PACK-i-stan.
posted by dhartung at 4:30 PM on January 22, 2009


BBC (23 January 2007) How to say: Barack Obama
posted by dawson at 11:18 PM on January 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for finding that one dawson. Their link to a clip of him saying his own name is now broken but it shows that they based their decision on the way he says his own name in this case. The formation of the Pronunciation Unit goes back to the 1920s in the days of Lord Reith - the BBC's first Director General. They call on a large number of native speakers to nail words in particular languages - but I guess they also have the job of being pragmatists. If you are a journalist or presenter working for the BBC you either follow their guidance or are officially wrong. By the same token if you believe everybody is saying something incorrectly they are the people you should argue with.
posted by rongorongo at 3:35 AM on January 23, 2009


I've heard a lot of Canadian journalists pronounce "Obama" as though it rhymes with "drama," even though it doesn't.
posted by oaf at 9:26 AM on January 23, 2009


Huh? Yes it does, at least in the U.S. How do you pronounce "drama"?
posted by languagehat at 9:27 AM on January 23, 2009


I'm American, so I pronounce "drama" the same way I'm guessing you do. But in Canada, "drama" rhymes with "Alabama." "Mazda" and "pasta" get the same treatment.
posted by oaf at 10:03 AM on January 23, 2009


Related: The other day on the BBC's "The World," Owen Bennett-Jones (I think it was) apologized for mispronouncing Malia Obama's name. He'd been pronouncing it MAHleeah but had received many emails telling him the correct pronunciation, maLEEah.
posted by torticat at 10:09 AM on January 23, 2009


« Older Does naming a child after a famous figure have any...   |   Publishing data 2008 Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.