May 26, 2004

Bush -- and Reuters and Fisk -- get Abu Ghraib wrong

When I listened to George W. Bush's speech about Iraq on Monday, I noticed that he handled the pronunciation of Izzadine Saleem and Lakhdar Brahimi just fine, but tripped over Abu Ghraib, which he said three times in three different ways.

At the time, I considered blogging about it. However, I decided not to do so. I felt that these pronunciation issues are a minor point, and shouldn't be emphasized over the content of the speech, and I generally dislike the fuss that's been made over Bush's linguistic problems. I also know from experience that memory for disfluency is often inaccurate, and so I would be very reluctant to write about something like that without finding a recording to check my memory for what was said.

In most news stories, Bush's disfluent rendition of Abu Ghraib was ignored (e.g. in the New York Times story), or mentioned in passing, without any details. That's pretty much as it should have been, in my opinion. The real story is the content, not the pronunciation.

However, the Reuters wire sent out a piece featuring Bush's mispronunciations, which were described as "abugah-rayp", "abu-garon", and "abu-garah". And in an op-ed attack on American policies, Robert Fisk specified Bush's "hesitant pronunciation of Abu Ghraib as 'Abu Grub'".

As I said, I don't think the whole mispronunciation business is very important; but given that people are going to talk about it, I think it's interesting that they don't take the trouble to describe what happened accurately. If we're going to criticize President Bush for not taking the trouble to learn how to say a currently-important word fluently, shouldn't we also take the trouble to observe carefully the facts of what he did say?

Here is the passage in Bush's speech where the three pronuncations of Abu Ghraib occurred:

A new Iraq will also need a humane, well-supervised prison system. Under the dictator, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture. That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values. America will fund the construction of a modern, maximum security prison. When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghraib will be relocated. Then, with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghraib prison, as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning. (Applause.)

As for the "correct" way to pronounce, here's what Slate had to say a couple of weeks ago, including a link to a (non-Iraqi?) Arabic rendition. I put "correct" in scare quotes because there is always some uncertainty about how to anglicize (or americanize) the pronunciation of a foreign name that contains sounds without an English counterpart.

There are RealVideo versions from CSPAN and on the White House web site, and a RealAudio version is available from NPR. The section quoted above occurs at about 21.29 in the CSPAN version, and at about 21.12 in the White House version. After considerable trouble with non-standard downloading techniques and wrestling with conversion of proprietary audio formats -- I'll add to Bill's complaints about this stuff that observation that I did all this on a Windows box, and still had to struggle -- I was able to create .rm and .wav files of the paragraph in question -- you can listen to the whole paragraph in RealAudio here, and .wav clips of the crucial segments are linked in below.

In the first rendition, Bush seems to hesitate disfluently at three points, indicated by hyphens in the pseudo-orthographic version below:

Under the dictator, prisons like - abu gar - reb - were symbols of ...

Aside from the hesitations, this pronunciation seems to be a pretty good rendition of what Sam Schechner at Slate magazine recommends. In particular, the vowel of the last syllable was a pretty good IPA [e], not diphthongized like the vowel in English babe but also not laxed and shortened like the vowel in English bed. The president divided "Ghraib" (Arabic for "raven") into two syllables, but this is a plausible anglicization of a word for which the preferred transliteration is actually Ghurayb. Contrary to my memory of the original speech, Bush did not stutter or repeat any syllables, he just hesitated three times -- once before "Abu Ghraib", once in the middle of it, and once at the end. You can listen to a .wav clip here of the words "...prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture".

I don't think that Reuters is accurate in transcribing this as "abugah-rayp". The president's vowel was not diphthongized, as the "ay" would suggest, and the final consonant, though clipped because of the final disfluent hesitation, seems definitely to be a [b], not a [p], as can clearly be seen by the "voice bar" after the closure in the spectrogram (of the "Abu Ghraib" part) below:

First item's grade: Bush gets A for phonetics, C for fluency; Reuters gets a C for transcription.

Bush's second rendition is fluent but puzzling: I'd render it in IPA as [gɑrɔm] or [gɑrɑm]. It's fluent, but the final vowel seems to be backed and somewhat rounded, and the final consonant is definitely nasalized. However, Reuters is also wrong to transcribe it as "garon". The final consonant sounds like an [m], as you can hear in this clip, and on the video, you can clearly see the labial closure.

Second item's grade: Bush gets D for phonetics, A for fluency; Reuters gets a C for transcription.

Bush's third rendition is also fluent, and gets the consonants right. The final vowel of "Graib" is back but not round -- I'd put the whole thing in IPA as [gərɑb] (or maybe [gurɑb] -- the first, unstressed vowel is rather short, and acquires some rounding from the following [r], so its quality is hard for me to decide on). (You can listen for yourself to a clip of the passage here). The final-syllable vowel is not what Slate recommends, but I've heard several newscasters using it in "Abu Ghraib" over the past few weeks.

Reuters treats this pronunciation as "garah" -- that seems to be a complete invention, as both the sound and the video seem to me to indicate that there is a final labial consonant. Their only excuse is that a [p] (at the start of "prison" follows -- but the spectrogram below (of the words "...the Abu Ghraib prison") again clearly shows a voice bar for the [b], not the noise pattern expected for an [h]:

Third item's grade: Bush gets B for phonetics, A for fluency. Reuters gets D for transcription.

Summary: Bush gets a grade point average of 3 -- (4+2+1+4+3+4)/6 -- a solid B. Reuters gets a grade point average of 1.67 -- a weak C-.

We should expect better. As one commentator observed, by now Bush should be able to reel off the pronunciation of Abu Ghraib as confidently and correctly as the pronunciation of the Alamo. But I'm just as disappointed in Reuters. Having decided to devote a whole story to criticizing the pronunciation of a sitting president of the United States, couldn't they take the trouble to sit down with a recording (and the help of a phonetician, given that their reporter obviously had no relevant skills or knowledge) and get the facts right?

As for Robert Fisk, he describes Bush's pronuncation as "Abu Grub", exhibiting the breezy disregard for mere factual detail for which he has become famous. Fisk is wrong on every relevant count, for all three of the president's renditions. In all three renditions, the president divided "Ghraib" into two syllables -- Fisk missed this. The president's final vowels in his three versions of "Ghraib" were [e], [o] and [a] -- Fisk uses orthographic "u", which can't plausibly be a representation of any of these. The president mispronounced the final consonant as [m] in his second version -- Fisk missed it again. Phonetically, Fisk flunks.

[Update: I was able to download the .rm file from CSPAN, and with a bit of help from the RealEditor program, cut out the paragraph in question from Bush's speech. It's available here. I still haven't figured out how to strip out the audio track so as to make spectrograms. I'd also like to be able to get a copy of the version on the White House site, as the audio and video quality seems to be much better, but the site seems to be set up in such as way that no downloading is possible, only streaming.]

[Update 2: I was able to download an audio-only version from NPR, and extract the relevant paragraph, here. After an inordinate amount of (I hope legal) fuss, I was able to convert this to a .wav format, so that I could make spectrograms. I also extracted short clips of the crucial three pronunciations, linked in above.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 26, 2004 08:21 AM