Translinguistic taboo avoidance: Arabicizing "Ayrault"

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Bloomberg reports (rather delicately) that the name of France's new prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is causing a bit of problem when it is transliterated into Arabic: "When spoken, his family name is colloquial Arabic in many countries for the third-person singular possessive form of the male sex organ." France's foreign ministry has nipped this problem in the bud, however, by issuing a statement with a recommended transliteration that will prevent people from reading Ayrault's name in Arabic as "(his) dick."

On the Middle East Institute editor's blog, Michael Collins Dunn breaks down the translinguistic embarrassment in more detail. The taboo word is أير ('ayr), slang for "penis" in some varieties of Arabic. Evidently "Ayrault" was being transliterated as أيره (colloquially pronounced 'ayr(h)o), which can be construed as أير plus the masculine possessive suffix ه — thus, "his dick."

The solution that the French foreign ministry came up with is to recommend that Ayrault's name be transliterated as أيرولت ('ayrolt). That takes the silent "-lt" ending in French and explicitly spells it out to avoid the problem of unfortunate homonymy. Arabic news outlets (as well as Arabic Wikipedia) have apparently taken the suggestion to heart. I would guess that Arabic newscasters are also using the spelling pronunciation of 'ayrolt to forestall any snickering from their audience.

The French are possibly sensitive to these cross-linguistic tangles after having to find a way to transliterate the last name of Vladimir Putin (Путин in Russian). As noted by William Safire in 2005 (and commenter Sarah C. here last year), spelling his name as "Putin" in French would suggest a pronunciation like putain, a slang word for "prostitute" and all-purpose curse word. So they avoided that by spelling his name as "Poutine." [Or at least that's the story that's often told -- see comments below for a healthy dose of skepticism.]

Naziha Baassiri of the Now Lebanon blog noted another parallel: the name of Pakistani diplomat Akbar Zeb can be taken in Arabic to mean "the biggest dick." (His last name would be transliterated as زب, or zubb, which like أير 'ayr is an Arabic slang term for "penis.") Baasri claims that "Zeb has been unable to present his credentials as Pakistan's ambassador to a number of Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain." Without a suitable avoidance strategy, some taboo language might simply be too much to bear in the decorous world of international diplomacy.

[Update: Eugene Volokh emails to say that Akbar Zeb apparently wasn't ever proposed as an ambassador to Saudi Arabia. See David Kenner's Foreign Policy post for more on the apocryphal story.]

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61 Comments »

  1. Robert W said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:12 am

    Of course Vladimir Poutine is funny in its own way in Quebec.

  2. Michael Collins Dunn said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:14 am

    I'm honored to be quoted by Language Log, though I wish the post that got quoted was on a more elegant theme. Thanks.

  3. Int'l said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    Small correction: أَيْر is not just slang. It is found in some of the earliest grammars of Arabic. In fact, lisān ul-ʿarab quotes the famous Persian grammarian of Arabic Sibāwayh as utilizing the word, with the same meaning, in poetry.

  4. Simon K said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    That reminds me of the famous tale of a Turkish diplomat whose name brightened up the day of the British Ambassador to Moscow.

  5. Lugubert said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    Is Poutine really that much better than just almost Putain? According to the Wiki, Poutine is, besides the dish, "Acadian slang for mushy mess and is best described as a heart attack in a bowl."

  6. Charles Gaulke said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:35 am

    Of course, in Quebec, Poutine was hardly an easier name to take seriously, so even in the francophone papers they just called him Putin.

    Are there any kind of comparisons on the rate of taboo-avoiding transliterations in the news media in different languages? I get the impression we don't bother much in English, but I probably wouldn't usually know if we had…

  7. HP said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:38 am

    And when rendering naughty-sounding American politicians' names in English, the rule is to add an extraneous e, as in "Dick Armey" or "John Boehner."

  8. Naziha Baassiri said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    Quick note guys, it's Baassiri not Baasri. Thanks.

    [(bgz) Sorry -- fixed.]

  9. Paul said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    Interesting that newspapers in Quebec also use the "Poutine" translation, despite it being the name for french fries with cheese and gravy. I suppose giving him a slightly goofy last name was better than giving him an offensive one.

  10. Denis said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:42 am

    Poutine is fine, it's a traditional dish with a strong French Canadian identity. Besides simple jokes, it's not embarrassing, and these jokes wouldn't really work in France anyway, since that dish is not famous there at all.

  11. lukas said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:46 am

    I don't know if Poutine was born out of taboo-avoidance only. Transliterating -y- as -ou- and -ин as -ine is perfectly standard in French (as in Youri Gagarine).

    [(bgz) Via Facebook, Chris Waigl adds some more examples: Dmitri Nikolaïevitch Anoutchine, Alexandre Gavrilovitch Gourvitch, Ivan Vladimirovitch Mitchourine.]

  12. Lane said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    I wonder why ايرو wouldn't work. It would come out as "Ayroo" more than "Ayro", but that's better than "Ayrolt", and much better than "His dick."

  13. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    Isn't ay" in French pronounced something like /eɪ/? And I'd guess that what's transliterated as "ay" in Arabic is more like /aɪ/, right? If so, why didn't the French suggest a spelling that would be transliterated 'eyro?

    Looking forward to corrections.

  14. Denis said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    'eyro, 'ero or ero would be written the same way in Arabic since e is not an Arabic vowel.

  15. Yvon Henel said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 12:16 pm

    @Jerry Friedman
    There is no such one to one correspondance between French "ay" and /eɪ/. All the more for family names. It could be a simple /e/ or even an /aɪ/ depending, largely but not always straitforwardly on the regional origin of the said name.

  16. Naziha Baassiri said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    @Lane,

    ايرو it would depend on the pronunciation, which in turn depends on the person whether or not s/he chooses to place the emphasis on the E. So the problem does not lie in the ending letter.

  17. Terry Collmann said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    Time once again to remember the Northern Irish diplomat Sir Con O'Neill, who led the British delegation that negotiated the UK's entry to the European Economic Community, to the vast amusement of Francophones.

  18. David Schueler said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

    Are the French that incapable of stressing the first syllable?

  19. Yet another John said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

    @David Schueler: Surely the French are capable of stressing the first syllable, but they have to pick a way to transliterate the name, and is there any way to write a two-syllable word in French in such a way as to indicate that the first syllable should be stressed? (Does anyone know, if it were written as "Pouting" to look like an English loanword, how would French speakers be inclined to pronounce it?)

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    @Denis: I probably should have remembered that about /e/ in Arabic.

    @Yvon Henel: Thanks. How is the Prime Minister's surname pronounced? I'm sure I've heard it, but on American news, and I wasn't paying much attention.

    @lukas and BGZ: Let's not forget the great Russian poet Alexandre Pouchkine.

  21. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 2:28 pm

    @Yet another John: Even loanwords with "-ing", such as "living" and "jogging", are accented at the end of the word.

  22. Tom Recht said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 2:35 pm

    Not to mention Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose middle name was a source of endless amusement to Mussolini.

  23. Bloix said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 3:01 pm

    Not to mention Lénine and Staline, both standard French transliterations.

  24. Ross Presser said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 3:22 pm

    Why does this all sound like a scene from The Life of Brian to me?

  25. Bob Ladd said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

    Lukas and Blois beat me to the punch. How else would you transliterate Putin's name into French except as Poutine? Moral: never take William Safire as an authority on anything linguistic.

  26. zoetrope said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    Isn't the French 'r' best approximated by the letter غ in Arabic anyway, and not by ر? Could they avoid the problem by writing Ayrault's name as آيغه or آيغو?

    [(bgz) That does seem to be one solution -- the Bloomberg report says that "a U.A.E.-based Arabic-language channel has sent an internal note to its journalists, asking them to write his name as 'Aygho'" (where "gh" presumably stands for غ). See Michael Collins Dunn's post for more on that.]

  27. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 4:17 pm

    And when rendering naughty-sounding American politicians' names in English, the rule is to add an extraneous e, as in "Dick Armey" or "John Boehner"

    Sorry, what's "extraneous" about the e in Boehner? In names of German origin, oe is the equivalent of ö. It's a completely different vowel (IPA /ø/ rather than IPA /o/). Bohner exists as well, but this is a different name with a different origin, namely "bean farmer" (< Bohne "bean") as opposed to "loft-dweller" (dial. Bö(h)ne "loft") or "decker" (< dial. bönen "lay boards"), both possible etymologies of Boehner.

    I've been kind of surprised how many people I've encountred who have evinced scepticism at the pronunciation /ˈbeːnər/, implying that this is an affectation in order to avoid being called a cock. All I can figure is that they didn't grow up in the American Midwest where this is the norm. I went to school near Spoede (/ˈspeːdi/) Road in St Louis; one of my distant relatives was former Cardinals manager "Red" Schoendienst (/ˈʃeːndiːnst/). Boehner is from Ohio, so I have no trouble believing the same pronunciation rules apply there.

    (Armey is an even odder example, as there's nothing "naughty-sounding" about "army" and, again, this is most likely a derivative of French Armée "armed", so if anything it's the y that is "extraneous", not the e.)

  28. AJD said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    @David Schueler: Yes, pretty much. French doesn't have distinctive syllable stress; the last syllable of a phrase receives stress automatically.

  29. Andrew Filer said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    Daniel von Brighoff, I'm sure that was a joke. It happens that Dick Armey and John Boehner both have names that, at least when written, would make most 10-year-olds snicker. The joke is that the apparent "misspelling" of the name is done to reduce snickering.

  30. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 5:12 pm

    Michael Foot, quondam leader of the UK Labour Party, apparently caused grief to local media when he visited Romania many years ago. I believe the solution adopted was to pronounce him as 'Fote.'

    I recall the BBC having trouble with the name of the Korean foreign minister Lee Beom-seok, in general using a pronunciation which I'm told was not very like the Korean.

    Deng Xiaoping rarely got pronounced right in English media either.

  31. Martin J Ball said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

    @David Eddyshaw: but, remember, Michael Foot was a leg-end in his own lifetime … :)

  32. Belial said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 6:27 pm

    @Yet Another John "(Does anyone know, if it were written as "Pouting" to look like an English loanword, how would French speakers be inclined to pronounce it?)"

    A reasonable French pronunciation of "Pouting" would be such as to give equal mirth to American English speakers as "Ayrault" apparently gives to Arabic speakers, but with the genders reversed.

  33. marie-lucie said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

    As noted by William Safire in 2005 (and commenter Sarah C. here last year), spelling his name as "Putin" in French would suggest a pronunciation like putain, a slang word for "prostitute" and all-purpose curse word.

    Safire seems to have assumed that the name would reach France through English-language media and therefore cause the reactions he described ("Putin" would sound exactly like putain 'whore' – this is a very old word, related to Spanish puta, Italian puttana; its use as a curse word is fairly recent). But Russian names such as Путин, reaching France through Russian sources (Embassy, Russian media, etc), are transposed into French according to French rules of spelling and pronunciation, hence Poutine (and also Youri Gagarine and similar names, as mentioned by another commenter). Resemblance with the name of the Canadian food (of recent date) is purely coincidental.

  34. Steve Morrison said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

    There was also the chess player Alexander Alekhine, whose name is transliterated with a final e even in English, evidently because he became a French citizen.

  35. Tom Recht said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    I remember an interview with Ken Follett on Spanish TV some years ago in which the interviewer insisted on pronouncing the ll in Follett's last name as [j], causing much mirth among the studio audience and increasing puzzlement in the interviewee.

  36. A.M. said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 8:57 pm

    Transliteration of Путин as Poutine doesn't only abide to French spelling rules, but also corresponds to the historical tradition. Before 1917, all Russians leaving the country had passports with their names transliterated from Cyrillic into Latin letters following the French spelling rules.

    This way of spelling adds, at least for Russian eyes, some shade of educated aristocracy to the name's bearer, since it was mostly this sort of people who got to travel abroad at the period.

    Of course these things are funny only if they happen to someone else. There's an anecdote about an Indian scientist giving a talk at a conference in Moscow. The scientist's last name sounded, and spelled, exactly like мудак ("moron", very offensive). To avoid misunderstanding, the organizers decided to transliterate the colleague’s name as Мьюдэк (implying the diphthong in the first syllable and the ae in the last), and announce his talk accrodingly. Unfortunately, though, the colleague was not informed of the change, and, after hearing his name corrupted, rushed to correct the announcer…

    Boris Akunin in his (quite fictional, of course, but well-researched historically) "The Diamond Chariot" mentions the struggle of Russian diplomats in late XIX century Japan to get the Japanese to adopt some better-sounding hieroglyphs to transcribe Russian proper names. The issue of having to deal with offensive or funny sounding foreign proper name must have a long history, I guess.

  37. David Eddyshaw said,

    May 17, 2012 @ 9:31 pm

    My concentration on War and Peace during some of the more stirring battle scenes has not been helped when General Bagration appears. Though I believe soldiers of all nations are familiar with the fellow, mutatis mutandis …

  38. Peter Taylor said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 1:50 am

    There's a second instance of Baasri which could do with being corrected to Baassiri.

  39. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 2:08 am

    Names of Chinese politicians and scientists in the news make some people giggle: Dong, Dung (often changed to Deng or Tung), Ho, Hua (in Bavarian: "whore"), Wang, and Weiwei (in Bavarian: "broad-broad" [woman]). Then there are famous Indians named Dikshit.

  40. Luke said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 2:21 am

    Remember Cardinal Sin? No one found a way round that.

  41. John M said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 3:40 am

    @David Eddyshaw / Reinhold {Rey} Aman

    That's something the Pinyin devisers and the pro-Pinyin brigade conveniently neglect. They have basically doomed thousands of PRC Chinese emigres with names containing j, q, x, z, maybe c and certain diphthongs to have an incorrectly pronounced name everywhere that uses the Latin alphabet, especially in non-English speaking countries.

    I know some parents who have actively avoided using words that would be transliterated with the "odd" Pinyin letters to name their children. I have also come across some Chinese names which are similar to the Gwoyeu Romatzyh spelling. which seems to make more sense.

  42. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 8:35 am

    Oo, trivia question. In what languages that use the Latin alphabet will Pinyin j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, or c be pronounced more or less correctly?

  43. Jim said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

    "Oo, trivia question. In what languages that use the Latin alphabet will Pinyin j, q, x, zh, ch, sh, r, z, or c be pronounced more or less correctly"

    None.

    "Then there are famous Indians named Dikshit."

    Or Sukhdeep. The -deep part of a lot of Indian names is an occasion for all kinds of mischief.

    German surnames can be a lot of fun too. The other day there was an article in the local paper about a memorial service at Ft. Lewis for a soldier from Minnesota named "Dickhut" who had forced his drill sergeant to pronounce his name correctly in Basic Training. Obviously he had balls to match. And I remember a guy who was in my teacher certification course surnamed "Dick". His first student teaching assignment was in a middle school. He came back in tears.

  44. Andy Averill said,

    May 18, 2012 @ 8:42 pm

    Those with a Beavis and Butthead sense of humor don't even need to go to foreign names for entertainment. I remember when I was in school that every signup sheet seemed to have the name Mike Hunt on it, though no such student existed.

  45. James C. said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 1:15 am

    For a definition of "more or less" that allows conflation of aspirate and non-aspirate stops, and alveolo-palatal and retroflex sibilants, and taking the Wikipedia as gospel:

    J: English
    Q: Albanian
    X: Portuguese, Basque, Galician, Leonese, Maltese
    Zh: pretty much nowhere
    Ch: English, Castillian and Latin American Spanish, Vietnamese
    Sh: English, Albanian (and most languages where English loanwords keep their spelling)
    R: English
    Z: German, Italian, Finnish
    C: most Slavic languages using the Latin alphabet

  46. LDavidH said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 4:09 am

    I've often been intrigued as to how many normal words in one language mean something rude in another. In Sweden, Brad Pitt is a rather unfortunate name, since "pitt" is colloquial for penis. For the same reason, American geography always caused giggles when we got to Pittsburgh…
    In Albanian, the same is true of "kar" (slang for penis, pronounced not quite like "car" in AmE, but nearly).
    And I assume that the Indian names mentioned above are quite innocent in their original languages!

  47. Andy Averill said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 8:17 am

    @James C, I was under the impression that zh in pinyin was pronounced like the zs in Hungarian (Zsa Zsa Gabor?), or the s in leisure. At least that's how I've always pronounced it. But come to think of it, I can't think of any English words that have that combination of letters (and neither can onelook.com).

  48. Ellen K. said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 9:06 am

    Well, if the question is will zh be read more or less correctly, seems to me it doesn't matter whether or not zh is actually ever used in English, only how we interpret it when we do see it. And I would think it's pretty common to associate that with the voiced version of sh; that is, the sound in the middle of "leisure".

  49. Bob Violence said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 9:47 am

    @James C.:

    R: English

    …though interestingly enough, the Chinese (or at least those responsible for transcribing foreign names into Mandarin) seem to think the English r- is different enough that English r- usually becomes l- in Mandarin. (The Mandarin r- is, however, used for the French j.)

    And while we've all been focusing on consonants here, there are also a good number of finals and medials in Pinyin that are hardly intuitive for English speakers; the ones that immediately come to mind are yu-/-u (as in ju), -ui, -ou, wo/-uo, yan/-ian, the i in zi and zhi, and the e in ge and geng. This is no condemnation of the system but simply meant to reinforce the claim that English-speakers are not particularly advantaged by it. (If that was their intention, they probably would've just gone with Wade-Giles, which isn't "intuitive" either but was already well-established in the English-speaking world.)

  50. Bob Violence said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    But come to think of it, I can't think of any English words that have that combination of letters (and neither can onelook.com).

    may not appear in any native English words, but it's commonly used in romanized Cyrillic, where it stands for the letter and (usually) the sound /ʒ/ (Brezhnev is a well-known example).

  51. Bob Violence said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    Sorry, I made the mistake of using angle brackets for graphemes in that last post. The Roman letter sequence in question is [zh] and the Cyrillic equivalent is [ж].

  52. Bob Violence said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 12:13 pm

    One more comment on Mandarin and Cyrillic: in Russian, Mandarin names are transliterated into Cyrillic from the Pinyin forms. This created a problem with the syllable hui, since systematically rendering it into Cyrillic would produce хуй "penis." So hui becomes хуэй, with the /e/ vowel written out as [э] instead of being elided.

  53. Michael Watts said,

    May 19, 2012 @ 8:58 pm

    @Andy Averill:
    The zh in pinyin is pronounced more like the G in George (but which G?). It's the retroflex equivalent of the pinyin j.

    (Mandarin) pinyin r is a funny thing. Personal observation tells me that it represents either of the last two consonants in the english word "garage", and that native speakers won't notice the difference between those two sounds even if you try to point it out.
    Pronunciation of r-onset syllables varies from speaker to speaker, from syllable to syllable holding the speaker constant, and from time to time holding the syllable constant, but I had a (native-mandarin-speaking) teacher who taught that 'r' was simply the voiced version of 'sh', and seemed to think that no further clarification was necessary.

  54. Jonathan said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 8:20 am

    "[The Pakistani man's] last name would be transliterated as زب". Why transliterated? Don't they use the Arabic alphabet in Pakistan?

  55. J. Goard said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    George Bush has an awesome name when transliterated into Korean, since his first name 조지 (joji) is slang for 'penis', and his last name ends up sounding like pussy.

  56. Just another Peter said,

    May 20, 2012 @ 11:13 pm

    @Andy Averill: One football team did even better than that – having been soundly thrashed they decided none of their players deserved votes and the votes showed up in the newspaper as "Mike, Hunt, Hertz". They ended up with a fine from the league.

  57. the other Mark P said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 5:43 am

    There was also the chess player Alexander Alekhine, whose name is transliterated with a final e even in English, evidently because he became a French citizen.

    The composer is Tchaikovsky, but the T is entirely superfluous in English. This leads to some oddities. There is a town in Perm called Chaykovsky, named after Tchaikovski! If people of the same name come to us via Polish, then it becomes Czajkowski.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tchaikovsky_(surname)

  58. Ken Brown said,

    May 21, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    Just Another Peter: as for football teams, on Saturday millions of people watched Blackpool substitute Dicko for Dobbie in the English League Championship playoff (despite its impressive title that game decides 23rd place in the English League system – though the newspapers assure us it is worth more money to the winners than any other individual team game in the world, America included) And I have known two separate men with the surname "Head" whose parents chose to call them "Richard".

    Perhaps we are less sensitive to rude names than some people. Antony Trollope's mother really was called Fanny Trollope, and those words really meant whatever they mean now (which in the case of "fanny" is ambiguous – books tell us that its rude in Britain, but in my version of British English neither "fanny" not "twat" are in fact used to mean what the books say they ought to, and neither is very rude)

  59. Janelle B. said,

    May 22, 2012 @ 2:05 pm

    In Sweden, Brad Pitt is a rather unfortunate name, since "pitt" is colloquial for penis.

    And don't forget his child, Shiloh Pitt, in which the first sounds of each word can be reversed to the other word to get an offensive colloquial phrase (is there a name for that process? I know metathesis works to describe words in which sounds are switched, but I'm not sure if the descriptive use extends to phrases).
    Also, I have noticed that many news sources now avoid using the two names together without the additional surname, "Jolie." I am not sure whether the child's full name always had the two surnames or if it was changed to include "Jolie" later on.

  60. ENKI-2 said,

    May 23, 2012 @ 9:52 am

    You'd think that male politicians would try to encourage people to interpret their names as 'large penis', rather than discourage it. Otherwise, why would they go into politics?

  61. D.L. said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

    I was told that Sicilian immigrants in the U.S. got a good laugh out of the way new immigrants would pronounce "American" ('merdigan) and their own dialect word for dog poo.

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