Nepal, Naple(s), Naipul, nipple, whatever

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We at Language Log are no strangers to Nepal:

"'Bāphre bāph!' — my favorite Nepali expression" (8/12/18)

"Learn Nepali" (9/21/16)

"Dung Times" (3/14/18)

"Royal language" (9/29/15)

"Oli ko goli" (10/13/15)

"Unknown Language #7" (2/27/13)

"Unknown Language #7: update" (5/12/13)

Being linguists and language specialists, we know how to pronounce this deceptively simple name, right?

"Nepal":  /nəˈpɔːl/ (About this sound listen); Nepali: नेपाल About this sound Nepāl [neˈpal]

But the general public is not so sure.

When I joined the Peace Corps in 1965, I told my father that I was going to Nepal, he commented, "They don't need Peace Corps volunteers in Italy, do they?"

One American friend pronounces "Nepal" as though it were "Naipaul", the surname of the 2001 Nobel Literature Prize laureate.

The joke going the rounds now is that President Trump once pronounced "Nepal" as "nipple":

"Stephen Colbert builds on Trump's reported Nepal-'nipple' mix-up with a Trumpean geography lesson", The Week (8/14/18)

It's all over the internet.  Just do a search on | Trump Nepal | and you'll see.

Apparently this happened in a prepping session for a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year.  I read about a dozen articles dealing with Trump's alleged gaffe, but I can't find any evidence that it actually happened.  It's usually hedged as "apparently", "supposedly", "reportedly", "seemingly", but many of the headlines and even quite a few of the articles out there present Trump's purported blunder as fact.

Most of the reports dealing with Trump's ostensible faux pas may be traced back to this article in Politico:

"Trump’s diplomatic learning curve: Time zones, ‘Nambia’ and ‘Nipple’:  The president has often perplexed foreign officials and his own aides as he learns how to deal with the world beyond America's borders."  By Daniel Lippman

I don't want to refer to this brouhaha as "f*k* n*ws" because that would be overly trite in the present climate, but let's just say that it seems to be apocryphal.

[h.t. John Rohsenow]


  1. Tom S. Fox said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

    I’ll do it for you: This is fake news.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

    Doesn't sound fake to me, but it does sound like the kind of dad-joke mispronunciation one hears all the time.

  3. Bloix said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 5:43 pm

    Daniel Lippman has been a reporter for the WSJ and for Politico. He asserts that he has two different sources "with knowledge of the meeting" – this is either a way of disguising the fact that they were there, or at least that they were told directly by different people who were there. He was unable to get anyone who was there to say that it didn't happen and the only rebuttal he could get was a "white house official" who wasn't there and can't even say that he's spoken to attendees who said that it didn't happen, only that they "don't remember" – like the folks who didn't "remember" if Trump said "shithole countries." And this White House denies even things that are obviously true – if they refuse to deny that something happened, it's pretty strong evidence that it did happen. I would put this in the column of probably true and certainly not fake.
    PS- I'm literally appalled that Language Log would call a story in a reputable publication that is appropriately sourced and that gives room for both sides "fake." You're accusing Daniel Lippman of being a liar, and on what evidence? Why on earth would you do that?

  4. David Marjanović said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 7:33 pm

    Given the English spelling system, those are entirely plausible pronunciations. "Button" may have been a joke, but I see no reason to assume "nipple" or something much like it couldn't have been Trump's honest attempt to pronounce a word he had read but never (consciously) heard before.

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 14, 2018 @ 7:45 pm

    "The statesman is an easy man / He tells his lies by rote. / The journalist makes up his lies / And takes you by the throat."

    For Lippman to be truthfully reporting what his sources told him is not the same as Lippman actually knowing what did or did not come out of Pres. Trump's mouth at the meeting, since Lippman was apparently not there and does not claim to have had access to a recording. I'm struck, however, by the difference between "mispronounced" for Nepal and "laughingly referred to" for Bhutan, suggesting that the first was an inadvertent error but the second deliberately jocular wordplay. How would Lippman's sources be confident about that distinction, especially if they themselves were not at the meeting and are themselves simply relaying hearsay? If we had audio of the meeting are we sure we could determine objectively what was a mistake and what was a joke from intonation cues? We certainly can't assume that Mr. Trump is so lofty and dignified that he would never ever have engaged in a nipple-related double entendre, leaving mistake as the only possibility.

    The article does claim elsewhere that the President is at least intermittently conscious of his own limitations in this area and sometimes tries to phrase things in order to avoid having to say a name he knows he may mispronounce. It's possible that saying "button" with intonation suggesting it was a deliberate joke-pronunciation would be one sensible way to handle the problem of not knowing how to correctly pronounce "Bhutan."

    Separately, you have the problem of how to evaluate the adequacy of other people's alleged lack of recollection that it happened. I think it would be kind of weird if someone came forward to testify that they have a clear and specific recollection that the President definitely pronounced "Nepal" correctly, because that's not usually the sort of thing you make a mental note of.

    There is a different anecdote in the article about staffers being impressed (in a different meeting) that the President got "Cote d'Ivoire" right, but that sounds more like the sort of thing where the President had been drilled/rehearsed on the pronunciation in advance, so the staffers were consciously listening to see how it went on the night of the performance. I must say I am moderately surprised that the President is missing out on the opportunity to take the obvious populist route of just calling it "Ivory Coast" as was previously the convention, rather than let foreigners tell us how we should talk about them in English.

  6. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 12:02 am

    I don't know if I've ever had reason to say "Nepal" out loud in English. I'd probably said [nɛ'pɑːl], which is based on the Swedish but fairly close to the Nepali.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 12:43 am

    From Paramananda Pahari:

    I have yet to meet a Brit who doesn't pronounce the name of our beloved Hamro as "Nepawl" instead of "Nepahl." It doesn't matter if they've been in the country a hundred years, they'll still say "Nepawl." Let me know if you've experienced otherwise. It must be one of the famous British idiosyncrasies, like thinking that the Thais don't know how to make a "proper" curry.

  8. Andreas Johansson said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 12:50 am

    Tho from a Nepali perspective I guess it's a major error I'd aspirate that 'p'.

  9. Ellen K. said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    David Marjanović: Given the English spelling system, those are entirely plausible pronunciations.

    I'm not seeing how "nipple" as a pronunciation of Nepal is plausible. Other than the pin-pen merger, which is before nasals only, I don't know of any examples in English where, in a stressed syllable, a written e has a pronunciation like the vowel in the first syllable of nipple. I can see it as word play, or as a misremembering of a pronunciation heard, but not as a pronunciation based on the spelling.

  10. Michael said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

    Get rhymes with kit in many accents, but I'm having a hard time thinking of any other words spelled with e where the syllable is stressed and it has the same vowel as kit, and especially not before p like in Nepal. Maybe he said /'nɛpl/ and it's just a case of people hearing the closest word they know? With no recording it's just eternal speculation.

  11. Akito said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 11:26 pm

    English pretty has the KIT vowel in a stressed syllable.

  12. dainichi said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 2:29 am

    > English pretty has the KIT vowel in a stressed syllable.

    English AND pretty have the KIT vowel in stressed syllables :D :D

    > like the folks who didn't "remember" if Trump said "shithole countries."

    Remembering if someone said that phrase is very different from remembering if someone mispronounced a word.

    > "fake." You're accusing Daniel Lippman of being a liar

    Maybe not a liar, but arguably a sensationalist. I think it's fine to use "fake" to describe something that claims to be something it is not. Not everything which is true is news.

  13. ajay said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 5:05 am

    "I have yet to meet a Brit who doesn't pronounce the name of our beloved Hamro as "Nepawl" instead of "Nepahl""

    Of course. "Nepaul" is how the word is generally pronounced in British English. It isn't wrong, it isn't an idiosyncrasy, it isn't ignorance – it's just the way BrE is spoken. How it's pronounced elsewhere is irrelevant. (We don't say "Frongce" either for "France.)

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 6:19 am

    I respectfully disagree with Ajay. Like the vast majority of my fellow Britons, I have until now pronounced the name of the country Nepal as /neˈpɔːl/. However, now that I have learned the correct pronunciation through the medium of this thread,I will make a point of using it henceforth, especially when in conversation with Nepalese. Yesterday /neˈpɔːl/, tomorrow /neɪˈpɑːl/ — one is surely nevertoo old to learn.

  15. RP said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 11:02 am

    It's not a specifically British pronunciation. Victor Mair, in the original post, specified /nəˈpɔːl/ as the pronunciation used by linguists and specialists. If the British pronunciation tends to differ, it is in the first vowel rather than the second.

    @Philip Taylor,
    What makes you think the "correct" pronunciation is /neɪˈpɑːl/? VM cited /nəˈpɔːl/ as the variant preferred by "linguists and language specialists" when speaking English.

  16. Philip Taylor said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    (RP) Because /neɪˈpɑːl/ is what I hear when I listen to the recording of a native speaker kindly provided by VHM.

  17. David Marjanović said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

    I'm not seeing how "nipple" as a pronunciation of Nepal is plausible.

    Sorry, it's not – but both "neeple" and "nepple" are, and the former in particular is close enough to be joked about or, under certain conditions, even misheard.

    (I'm ignoring the pin-pen merger, which Trump doesn't have.)

  18. ajay said,

    August 17, 2018 @ 2:37 am

    However, now that I have learned the correct pronunciation through the medium of this thread,I will make a point of using it henceforth

    The correct pronunciation? Or just the pronunciation preferred by a very small minority of English speakers (mostly not L1 English speakers) who have decided to assert that everyone else is getting it wrong?

    I pronounce "England" with the first syllable "ing" as in "wing". A German (speaking German) would pronounce it "England" (rather than "Ingland") with the vowel sound as in, more or less, "men" or "lend". I am a L1 English speaker, but I would never have the gall to tell a German that she and all her compatriots were pronouncing "England" wrong in German because she wasn't pronouncing it the same way that I did in English. What a colossally arrogant thing to do! I wouldn't even pronounce it "Ingland" if I were speaking German.

  19. David Marjanović said,

    August 21, 2018 @ 8:05 am

    In that case, though, it can be argued that German simply retains an older pronunciation that was once used in English (however many centuries ago). Examples of this abound, e.g. the [g] that Prague has almost all over Europe, but not in Czech anymore, where Praha has undergone the regular shift from [g] to [ɦ]…

  20. Victor Mair said,

    August 23, 2018 @ 9:31 pm

    From Larry Daloz, who supervised my training for Peace Corps service:

    My recollection of the pronunciation of the term is that there was a kind of “bounce” after the first “baph” as in “a re” [they say]. So I wonder if it might be parsed as “baph” + “a re” + “baph.” Hence, “Whew!” (Your breathy interpretation) + “I’m sayin’ “ + “Whew”!

    More realistically, tho, that bounce may simply be the beginning of a rolled “r.”

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