Afghanistan and Pakistan

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In the sentence of Obama’s speech to congress that starts at 40:12 in the NY Times video-with-transcript, he says “Afghanistan and Pakistan”, and what caught my ear was that he pronounces all three a’s in Afghanistan like the a in cat, and both of the a’s in Pakistan like the a in father.  I know there was a lot of discussion of his pronunciation of Pakistan last October (some on the right accused him of elitism or unamericansim over it, and then there was the usual blog-battle, e.g. here), but it’s just interesting that it doesn’t carry over to Afghanistan, and that in each word all the vowels are identical, showing that he doesn't have a single suffix -stan with fixed pronunciation (nor do most Americans, probably). Now I wonder how he will pronounce all the other Stans in the region. (I think in my own dialect I pronounce Kazakhstan with all three a’s as in father, but Afghanistan the way Obama did. But Pakistan that way too. Presumably depends on how old one was, and in what environment, when one learned them.)



52 Comments

  1. Stuart said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 4:46 am

    I think the context makes a difference. In my NZE idiolect, I pronounce all three "a"s in Afghanistan the country with "a" of "father", but an Afghan hound and an Afghan biscuit both have the "a" of "cat". Pakistan, the country in which my father's childhood home now lies, is always with both "a"s as in "father".

  2. Cecily said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 4:57 am

    Some people mix the sounds in the same word.

    I'm in England and whilst I'm not sure if I'm typical, for all three countries I tend to say the final "stan" with a long "a" (like father) and the preceding "a"s with a short sound (like cat).

  3. aaron said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 5:23 am

    Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Uyghurstan – father

    Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Pakistan – cat

    Funny, never thought about this before. Strange as well that the ones I learned later in life, the former Soviet republics, are pronounced in a way that is closer to that region's languages but Kurdistan (a non-state I never considered till my mid twenties) is not.

    Of course when I was a kid I had a "reel draawl" on Aaafganista-un but that's another story.

    Age 31, South Carolina

  4. Dave of Derbystan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:07 am

    I pronounce the a in stan as "a" of "father", but the rest of the "a"s as the "a" of "cat". This is with all the *stan countries.

  5. Paul said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:16 am

    In my English of the north of England, they're all [a] as in cat.

  6. Nightstallion said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:43 am

    In my non-native but well-developed English, it's cat-a all the way.

  7. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:49 am

    In my SAE (central Alabama), I pronounce all of them with the short a (as in cat). The short o (as in father) sounds very British to me, although that appears to be mistaken as Paul notes at least in the north of England it's not the case. If an American were saying it, it'd definitely come of as being pretentious to me, since it just doesn't "fit" in American pronunciation.

  8. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:51 am

    This being LL, I suppose we ought at least to establish what the "correct" values of the vowels are. Afghaanistaan افغانستان & Paakistaan پاكستان . The only "cat" vowel is the first one in Afghanistan.

    As for Kurdistan, I find it hard to distinguish from Kirghizstan when it's read out on the BBC.

  9. David Marjanović said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:03 am

    Interesting that everyone uses the same vowel throughout each word. Vowel harmony?

  10. Ray Girvan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:04 am

    In my English (southern UK, born mid-50s): all vowels as "cat" except the final one. So Afghanistaan, Pakistaan, etc. To shorten the final one makes them sound (to me) like folksy characters called Stan. Afghani Stan, Paki Stan, Turkey Stan, Curdy Stan, and so on.

  11. Picky said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    I am fairly sure that, in my London English, the word Pakistan (the most familiar of these placenames in my world) had the father vowel in both positions in my youth (1960s), and changed to the cat vowel in the first position later. Now the second "a" is also drifting towards the cat vowel. In the other placenames I am inconsistent in the "stan" syllable, sometimes using one sound and sometimes the other (wimp!). But the first two vowels in Afghanistan have always been the cat vowel for me.

  12. Alan Gunn said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:37 am

    I don't think I pronounce any a like the one in father except for the one in father itself. This may be an upstate New York thing. When I was a kid, one of my teachers used to have a lot of fun with the way we, and she herself, pronounced a's.

  13. Chris said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    Doesn't "father" itself have regional variability in pronunciation? I pronounce it with the same first vowel sound as "water" but I don't think that's universal.

    I don't think I've ever heard Afghanistan pronounced the way Nigel Greenwood suggests it should be – but then, lots of non-English proper names get regularly mangled by English speakers.

  14. Chandan Narayan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:06 am

    I think there's a simple explanation for President Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan. His roommates throughout college, but most recently at Columbia, were Pakistani, and likely pronounced the "a" vowels as low-back, thus influencing his pronunciation. He's just keepin' it real.

  15. language hat said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    I suppose we ought at least to establish what the "correct" values of the vowels are.

    In what language? Both Afghanistan and Pakistan are multilingual countries. It annoys the heck out of me when people say the "correct" pronunciation of Kabul has the stress on the first syllable, presumably because that's how it's said in Urdu; in both Pashto and Dari/Persian, the main languages of Afghanistan, the stress is on the final syllable. For the country name, I say /æfˈgænɪstæn/; I pronounce all the stans with /stæn/ except for Kazakhstan, whether because of vowel harmony or because that's more strongly associated with Russia (so that I have the Russian pronunciation firmly fixed in my head), I can't say. As for Pakistan, it's always struck me that people from there say it with only two syllables, or with a barely noticeable middle one: /pak(ɪ)ˈstan/.

  16. Akshay said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Noticed it a long time back, during the election campaign itself. :-) Perhaps Obama pronounces all '-stans' to rhyme with 'cat', but pronounces Pakistan 'correctly' because he travelled there during his college days?

  17. Andrew said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    I think I (English, mostly southern) use the short a in all cases except Pakistan, where I use the long a in the last syllable only. This may be because of the influence of 'Pakistani', where I would definitely use the long a; since one doesn't normally have cause to say 'Afghanistani', etc. (one can just say 'Afghan') the same influence doesn't exist in those cases.

  18. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:16 am

    Chris: "Doesn't "father" itself have regional variability in pronunciation? I pronounce it with the same first vowel sound as "water" but I don't think that's universal."

    Oh dear, here we're up against the problems in referring to sounds by means of key words. Yes, the first vowel sound in "father" does vary regionally, but then so does the first vowel sound in "water".

    Actually, this discussion is really about vowel phonemes, not vowel sounds. The "CAT vowel" phoneme actually varies quite a bit from region to region (fronter, backer, lower, higher, laxer, tenser, with or without an offglide), but all that's important here is that it's distinct from another vowel phoneme (which itself varies from region to region); roughly, the former is fronter than the latter. For many people, CAT and FATHER are good keywords, but that might not work for everyone.

  19. Cameron said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    The first 'a' in both Afghanistan and Kazakhstan should be as in "cat". The second and third are as in "father".

    You can take that as pretty definitively "correct" – I grew up as a bilingual speaker of English and Persian, and lived in Iran for much of my childhood.

    The first 'a' in Tajikistan is also as in "father". The first 'i' is long.

    I'd actually pronounce Kazakhstan as something more like Qazaqstan in Persian. The two gutturals are the same, that they are reflected as K and Kh reflects a "russified" pronunciation.

  20. Eric Baković said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 11:20 am

    Lakshmi Singh (of NPR) makes the same distinction — I wonder if the same explanation is applicable to both?

  21. David Marjanović said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    I'd actually pronounce Kazakhstan as something more like Qazaqstan in Persian. The two gutturals are the same, that they are reflected as K and Kh reflects a "russified" pronunciation.

    Not quite. In Kazakh, /q/ becomes [χ] in certain circumstances, says Wikipedia. Also, it has vowel harmony — all three vowels are the same.

  22. Troy S. said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    To touch on what Nigel said, the problem seems to derive from the ambiguous way long and short vowels are transliterated from Arabic into Roman script. In Arabic, the short a is not ever written except as a diacritic and the long a is generally written as the letter Alif, but in English they're both rendered as an 'a'. For my two cents Kyrgyzstan seems to be the hardest of all the stans to figure out how to pronounce correctly. It seems like there's an epenthetic vowel missing before the -stan suffix.

  23. rpsms said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Where I am originally from in Upstate NY, you would more than likely encounter people who pronounced "probably" as "probly" or even "prolley," but you might never hear those same people transform "probability."

    Perhaps this is a related phenomenon

  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    Just to provide another datapoint (US, grew up in the Middle-Atlantic "scrapple belt" although w/ parents from Pittsburgh & Buffalo), I pronounce the first syllable of both countries like the vowel in "laugh" (which seems at least subtly different to me than the "cat" set), but the middle syllable of Afghanistan and both final syllables like the vowel in "man," which is decidedly different for me from both the "cat" set and the "father" set and whatever other set "man" in.

  25. dw said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    I don't think I pronounce any a like the one in father except for the one in father itself. This may be an upstate New York thing. When I was a kid, one of my teachers used to have a lot of fun with the way we, and she herself, pronounced a's.

    This is very interesting as the word "father" has, I believe, a unique phonological history. Most words with the "father" sound /ɑ/ in modern General American pronunciation derive from Middle English /al/ (e.g. "calm"), /ar/ (e.g. "cart"), /aʊ/ (e.g. "caught") or /ɔ/ (e.g. "cot"). "Father" is one of the few exceptions, excluding loan words that weren't around in Middle English. It might have been expected to rhyme with "gather", and I'm not sure that anyone knows why it changed.

  26. dw said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    For the record, "Pakistan" = /pɑkɪstɑn/; "Afghanistan" = /æfgænɪstɑn/. Both stressed on the last syllable, I think, though it's hard to tell.

  27. Karen said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

    Not to be combative but – Kazakh isn't a Persian dialect but rather a Turkic language, so what does it matter how a Persian would pronounce it, any more than how an American would? And for Americans, what does it *really* matter how even a Kazakh would say it? Unless you're going insist we stop saying Italy, for instance, since Italians don't call it that.

    To me it's very interesting that we don't say the "-stan" the same way in the various words – I myself say Kazakh- and Tajiki-stan with the same vowel, but it's not the one in the other words.

  28. Cameron said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    Well, Persian was the lingua franca in that region for centuries, as the presence of the Persian suffix -stan in all those names testifies.

  29. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

    @ Chris: I don't think I've ever heard Afghanistan pronounced the way Nigel Greenwood suggests it should be
    Those quotes I placed around "correct" were scare-quotes! I certainly wouldn't want to lay down rules for these countries' pronunciation in English: I merely wanted to clarify the length of the vowels in the Persian/Arabic script.

    @ dw: For the record, "Pakistan" = /pɑkɪstɑn/; "Afghanistan" = /æfgænɪstɑn/. Both stressed on the last syllable, I think, though it's hard to tell.
    That's probably how I pronounce them in (Southern British) English. I think I tend to stress the final & 2nd syllable respectively. Pakistani (& Indian?) speakers of English tend to say what sounds to anglophones rather like /ˈbɑkɪstɑn/ because of the non-aspiration of the P. And of course they usually say /æfˈɣɑnɪstɑn/.

  30. Cameron said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    Nigel Greenwood wrote: "That's probably how I pronounce them in (Southern British) English. I think I tend to stress the final & 2nd syllable respectively. Pakistani (& Indian?) speakers of English tend to say what sounds to anglophones rather like /ˈbɑkɪstɑn/ because of the non-aspiration of the P. And of course they usually say /æfˈɣɑnɪstɑn/."

    Do they really say /æfˈɣɑnɪstɑn/ ? I would expect the long a more like /ɑː/ .

  31. John Cowan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    This is very interesting as the word "father" has, I believe, a unique phonological history. [...] It might have been expected to rhyme with "gather", and I'm not sure that anyone knows why it changed.

    It didn't change in the sense you mean: the vowel of father was lengthened after the Great Vowel Shift but before the 17th-century shift /a/ > /æ/. In some dialects, the lengthening happened first, giving /feɪðər/ (e.g. in Yorkshire). Ditto with rather, except there are also dialects which show no lengthening at all and have /æ/.

  32. Irene said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

    Nigel said: Afghaanistaan افغانستان & Paakistaan پاكستان . The only "cat" vowel is the first one in Afghanistan.

    I'm confused. Isn't Afghaanistaan beginning with alif? Is that alif not pronounced the same as the other alifs?

  33. Lazar said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:10 pm

    I pronounce all of the stans with "cat" vowels: /"p{k@st{n/, /{f"g{n@st{n/, /"k{z@kst{n/.

  34. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:52 pm

    @ Irene: Nigel said: Afghaanistaan افغانستان & Paakistaan پاكستان . The only "cat" vowel is the first one in Afghanistan.

    I'm confused. Isn't Afghaanistaan beginning with alif? Is that alif not pronounced the same as the other alifs?

    Good question. The answer is no. The first alif is a "dummy" alif, which is required to support (or, if you prefer, indicate) a short vowel. (If the word were Ufghanistan or Ifghanistan, it would still be spelt the same, with an initial alif.) An initial aa would be indicated by a madda over the alif, as in آمریكا /a:mrika:/ "America".

  35. language hat said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

    The first 'a' in both Afghanistan and Kazakhstan should be as in "cat". The second and third are as in "father".

    You can take that as pretty definitively "correct" – I grew up as a bilingual speaker of English and Persian, and lived in Iran for much of my childhood.

    Huh? In the first place, your personal pronunciation does not define "correctness" for other English speakers, no matter where you've lived. In the second place, the words are English, not Persian, so Persian pronunciation is irrelevant. And in the third place, what does Persian have to do with Kazakhstan? Even when Persian was the lingua franca of the merchants in the southern stans, Kazakhstan was nothing but Turkic nomads.

  36. Tim said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    I think I pronounce all of them with [æ], except Kazakhstan. For some reason, [kæzək] just doesn't sound right to me. The desire to harmonize the vowels ends up causing me to say [kazəkstan], but I'm pretty sure I might say [kazəkstæn] occasionally, too. But, all instances of a in all the other Stans are [æ] for me.

  37. Wrongshore said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:40 pm

    Tim Curry established the definitive pronunciation of "Afghanistan" in his sub-hit single "Working On My Tan":

    Do it in Jamaica
    Do it in Japan
    Do it in Afghanistan
    Oh man
    Working on my tan.

  38. Faldone said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 10:17 pm

    I don't think people are always the best judges of their own pronunciations of words. I've heard Afghanistan pronounced by British radio voices with three different pronunciations of the three A's. The first is a cat A, the second a father A, and the third something leaning towards an AW sound.

  39. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 6:39 am

    @ Cameron: Do they really say /æfˈɣɑnɪstɑn/ ? I would expect the long a more like /ɑː/ .
    Good point. Probably depends how anglicized they are.

  40. mollymooly said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    John Wells' lexical sets for 24 vowel classes are summarised here. The first table shows the 24 classes and the third shows how they map to the 20 vowels in "General American".

    "cat" is in class #3 (keyword TRAP)
    "man" is also in class #3; J. W. Brewer's æ-tensing isn't represented separately in Wells' classes.
    "father" is in class #12 (keyword PALM)*
    "laugh" is in class #7 (keyword BATH)
    "short o" centres on class #4 (keyword LOT), but Matthew Stuckwisch, like most Americans, has the same vowel in class #12.

    *although Alan Gunn, Chris, and many Irish people including me put "father" in class #13 (keyword THOUGHT). For me this is also true of "rather" and the name of the letter R; hence "Toys R Us" doesn't quite work.

  41. Nigel Greenwood said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 11:08 am

    @ mollymooly: For me this is also true of "rather" and the name of the letter R; hence "Toys R Us" doesn't quite work.
    But surely it's "Toys Ya Us" (Toys Я Us)!

  42. David Marjanović said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    The first alif is a "dummy" alif, which is required to support (or, if you prefer, indicate) a short vowel. (If the word were Ufghanistan or Ifghanistan, it would still be spelt the same, with an initial alif.)

    That's because what it really spells here is the initial glottal stop, not a vowel.

  43. fizzog said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    Side-point, i know: but how do we pronounce the 'gh' in Afghanistan? Hard 'g'? 'Ch' as in German 'Loch'? Or as in German 'nicht' (rather different!)? Usage seems to differ across the BBC and elsewhere. Or are the latter options just pretentious?

  44. Aaron Davies said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 2:30 am

    perhaps some crossover with "cossacks" influences some people's pronunciation of kazakhstan?

  45. language hat said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 9:25 am

    I've never heard the 'gh' in Afghanistan pronounced as anything but /g/ by a native English speaker. People from the region say it with fricative /γ/ because that's how it's pronounced in the local languages, but there's no reason to try to imitate that; that sound does not even have the marginal foothold in English that voiceless /x/ does (in, e.g., Bach).

  46. vanya said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    In my experience until 5 or 6 years ago most Americans used to say Kæzækistæn. With, yes, 4 syllables. Borat has probably done more to introduce the Kazakstan pronunciation into mainstream life than any other single influence.

  47. Jim said,

    March 4, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    "I've never heard the 'gh' in Afghanistan pronounced as anything but /g/ by a native English speaker. "

    People redeploying from Afghanistan are using a new pronunciation – /s/ as in "Asscrackistan", which is part of the larger region of "Yuckistan."

  48. Sili said,

    March 22, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

    By now I have no feeling for what I may be using in English, myself – prolly an unsystematic mix. But in Danish all "-stan"s are /æ/ (or /a/, never /ɑ/). At least I don't think so.

    Ray Girvan,

    Some Japanese have gone on to personify the -Stans too. Using their anthropomorphising (I think) suffix -tan:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanis-tan

  49. Sid said,

    April 5, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    There's no discussion. All the vowels are pronounced stahn as in "father". The "a" as in "cat" is a pronunciation that's foreign to all of Asia. "Ah" is the right way to go. I find it mildly arrogant on the part of the English-speaking world to even indulge in such a discussion. If South Asian were to pronounce "Robert" as "Raah-butt", he'd hear no end of it.

  50. Stephen said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    @Sid: Whoa, there. Take a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Near-open_front_unrounded_vowel; /æ/ (the cat vowel) is found in Arabic, Azeri, Bengali, Persian, Sinhala, and Vietnamese (and I'm sure there are many more).

    I think we do tend to think of /æ/ as a uniquely English vowel, and that's why we say /ɑ/ in words that we feel to be especially foreign. Afghanistan has already been mentioned; for another example, take Islam, which in Standard Arabic is actually pronounced with a long /æ/. Instead of reproducing this vowel, which we are perfectly capable of doing, many Americans will avoid the "American a" and pronounce it in a way that sounds more intelligent but which is actually further from the native pronunciation.

    As for your final comment, I think a different standard must be used with personal names. I personally try to pronounce people's names as close as I can to their own pronunciation; whereas with place names I use a more or less anglicized pronunciation, depending on the instance.

  51. American said,

    April 15, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    I pronounce all of the istan countries in a way where the last syllable rhymes with tan. I use the "cat" vowel in Pakistan, not the "father" vowel. I also support all Anglicizations, i still use Peking, Nanking, Bombay, Calcutta, Leghorn, and pronounce Iraq "eye rack."

  52. Fujimora Pantsu! said,

    November 11, 2013 @ 10:49 am

    As an Indian, I would tend to pronounce them all with aa as in 'father'
    Don't know if that is at all helpful, but it is hilarious to hear Pakistan or Afghanistan pronounced with a as in 'cat'

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