For Arabic speakers and speakers of similar languages, the name of this year’s World Cup host is a no-brainer. For English speakers, however, it is literally one tricky letter after another. That’s because even the word Qatar is a Romanized version of the original Arabic قطر , which means that each letter is not exactly what it seems. Let’s do our best to figure it out.
How to say ‘Qatar’ like a native speaker
American English speakers usually say “kuh-TAR,” stressing the second syllable, which sounds like the word “tar.”
British English speakers add an ‘a’ sound more similar to ‘cat’ and give more weight to the two syllables.
However, the English pronunciations are only approximations of the Arabic pronunciation, which uses a fuller sound for the “q”, a blunter “t”, and a roll on the final “r”.
“The Arabic word for ‘Qatar’ really only has three letters: qāf, ṭā, and rā,” she explains. These are romanized to q,t and r respectively. And unfortunately none of them have an English equivalent.
- qaf (ق): “This is one of the most difficult sounds for English speakers to make,” says Abdulhamid. “To learn this sound, we recommend that students put water in their mouths and use the back of their throat to avoid swallowing it. That’s how you get that guttural sound.” The resulting sound is somewhere between an English “g” and “k”.
- ṭā (ط): Abulhamid describes this sound as an English “t” with a fuller tongue. When you pronounce an English “t”, you will notice that your tongue slams behind your front teeth. “A ta sound is made farther back and your tongue touches your palate,” she says.
- ra (ر): This one is a bit easier. “Unlike the English letter ‘r’, ‘ra’ doesn’t have a strong vowel sound,” says Abdulhamid. In English, consonants like “r,” “m,” and “b” are called voiced consonants because you need the vocal cords to make their sound. (Try it now. No one’s listening!) Consonants like “t” and “p” are voiceless, meaning you can just use your mouth and some air to pronounce them. The Arabic “ra” has a technical voice, but is much shorter than an English “r” and is more like a short trill, as in the Spanish word “perro.”
Where are the vowels? “There are no long vowels in the Arabic word for Qatar,” says Abdulhamid. “Instead of letters, our short vowels are represented by accents.” In an Arabic pronunciation of Qatar, the a’s are formed further back in the throat, as an American would pronounce “only.”
Where’s the stress? While the Arabic language naturally uses stressed and unstressed consonants, Abdulhamid says that this particular word has equal emphasis. “It may sound like there’s a stress on the first syllable,” she says, “but that’s because ‘qāf’ is a strong initial sound.”
In the translation “Forgive me, I only have a keyboard with letters of the Roman alphabet and no idea what IPA is”, the statement would be something like: ghu-terh.
How do you say it as a non-Arabic speaker trying his best
It’s important to learn about one of the most spoken languages in the world, but pronouncing a perfectly pronounced “Qatar” can sometimes feel a little out of place. In the same way that English speakers tend to approach other non-English words like “croissant,” there’s a happy medium that shows you’ve at least put some thought into it.
“If you can get the ra sound, that’s a good start,” says Abdulhamid. “And keep in mind that the initial letter is not a hard ‘k’ sound.”
Don’t be too discouraged either. All second language speakers have sounds that are difficult to master. Abdulhamid says that Arabic speakers learning English stumble over “p” sounds, which often come out as “b.”
“Second-generation Arabic speakers love to tease their parents about it,” says Abdulhamid.
Now, once you’ve mastered a well-thought-out pronunciation of Qatar, you can move on to the next major World Cup event: trying to figure out why Americans call it “soccer.”