Thursday, July 16, 2009

Sun Columnist Struggles with "Unpronounceable" African Countries

Dave Morris, Sun-Herald's tireless consumer advocate, let it slip in his column today that he has trouble pronouncing the names of some "foriegner" African nations. Dave has helped so many readers and now Old Word Wolf is willing to turn the tables and help him. Being a fuddy-duddy old teacher, OWW can't idly sit by while when a nice young man feels the urge to turn ignorance into a small (very small) joke. Making ignorance a laughing matter fosters stereotypes and reinforces the sense that others -- even when speaking of their own nations! -- are somehow not up to Dave's linguistic standards. His joke doesn't bridge global understanding or nurture world peace. But OWW can help.

OWW is convinced that Dave can learn there are no unpronounceable names among African nations. To prove this, OWW has arranged a little chart, scaled from "really easy" to more challenging. It's a self-paced tutorial that Dave can take at home. He can start with the familiar and work through to the very manageable -- and enjoyable -- challenges of mastering how to pronounce the names of every African nation.

Level 1 Easiest: These are African countries whose national names are highly Anglicized in the Western lexicon (that is, Americans commonly say and write them using Dave’s native language family). They should pose no trouble at all to a trained journalist:

South Africa ................... Western Sahara .................... Central African Republic
Ivory Coast .................... Canary Islands ...................... Saint Helena
Democratic Republic of the Congo

Level 2 Also pretty easy. These countries have short names, just one or two syllables, which are easily pronounced with the Anglican sound system:
Chad ... Mali ... Niger ... Sudan ... Ghana (silent h)... Gabon
Benin ... Kenya ... Mayotte ... Togo ... Libya ... Egypt
Seyshelles (say shells)

Level 3 Less easy: Country names of three syllables (forcing Dave to make a decision about stressed-unstressed patterns) or names with adjacent vowels or double L’s (requiring Dave to either separate vowels or master a diphthong or blend.) Practice is easier than theory, I promise.

A. Diphthongs and blends: Zaire ..... Guinea ..... Melilla

B. Three syllables: Angola ... .. Botswana ..... Uganda....... Zambia .... . Maderia ..... Tunisia ...Senegal ..... Cameroon ..... Burundi ..... Comoros .... Malawi .....

Level 4. Maybe Dave finds countries of more than one word hard to pronounce. There are only four, and each can be “sounded out” using common English phonemic groups and stress rules.

..... Sierra Leone ..... Guinea Bassu..... Burkina Faso ..... Sao Tome and Principe

Level 5 The Big Words. Even African country names of four or more syllables are easy to master in about 10 minutes by a motivated learner with a dictionary and unimpeded by a speech impairment. First the rhymers because a little song always helps grasp new material:

Nigeria ..... Liberia ... .. Algeria ..... Somalia ..... Ethiopia ..... Namibia ..... Tanzania ..... Mauritania ..... Eritrea ..... Madagascar..... Mozambique .....

And finally, the Gold Medal for Difficulty is clearly, Djibouti.

The trick is not to let the initial "d" confuse Dave's American sense of what's hard to pronounce. Africans in this eastern continental nation where the local languages are Arabic and Somoli, have not been generally linked to scam letters, which is the context of our helpful columnist's linguistic xenophobia. Djiboutis are, I dare say, just happy if the world just knows they're around and like it when people respect their name enough to say it gracefully. If an American comes calling, they are willing to endure: Jä-BOO-tee.

Dave, if I've overlooked any African nations or if you find one you still can't pronounce, please call and I'll be happy to help. The one that is most commony associated with scam letters is actually among the easiest to pronounce: Ny-jeer-ee-a. Say it and repeat it. You'll get it.

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