May 26, 2004

Bush wrongly accused of correct Arabic

It is ironic indeed that the Reuters characterization of President Bush's first pronunciation of "Abu Ghraib" (discussed by Mark here) as "abugah-rayp" roughly matches Professor Ahmed Ferhadi's model pronunciation: they were accusing the President of pronouncing the name in almost exactly the way that Ferhadi says is correct. But they were wrong about the pronunciation Bush employed.

Like Bill Poser, I am a Linux user, because I need to have a machine with an operating system fit for grownups to do serious work in a reliable and controllable computing environment. Unlike Bill, though, I am still forced to maintain a Windows machine so that I can use WordPerfect (my coauthor Rodney Huddleston in Australia has twelve years of file creation and macro-writing invested in WordPerfect, and we have to share lengthy and complex files because we're writing another book together). I used the Windows machine to go to the file Bill pointed out he was unable to play. Since I had not used Windows Media Player before, it immediately started up a configuration process that made Windows Media Player the default player for every single kind of sound or video file you could imagine, part of their campaign to destroy such firms as Real Audio, whose product I had been using before. I let it have its evil way (I can always change everything back, though doubtless they will have found ways to make that difficult). Then it let me play the file.

Interestingly, I found that in the variety of Arabic spoken by Professor Ferhadi, the pronunciation is clearly [abugrep], but it also sounds very much like [abugurep], because the r is an alveolar tap, not an approximant like the American English r, which means the g and the r are separated enough that there is a hint of a vowel between them. For the first sound in "Ghraib" I was expecting a voiced velar fricative (like the g in Castilian Spanish haga), but what I'm hearing from Ferhadi is [g]. (One should never underestimate how much the dialects of Arabic vary.) And the last sound in "Ghraib" is definitely [p] in Ferhadi's pronunciation, not [b], possibly because he says the name all on its own and it is uncommon to fully voice a phrase-final plosive.

So the Reuters allegation that Bush said "abugah-rayp" would mean that he got it almost exactly right (here I'm ignoring the details of the length and monophthongal quality of the [e] vowel; Bush basically got that right too.) They were wrong about Bush's actual production, though: he pronounced it with a final [b], as Mark shows. (I suspect this is an acceptable Arabic pronunciation, but it does not match Professor Ferhadi's model exactly.) Mark's point is not impugned in any way, of course, and I agree with him: I'd fail the Reuters reporter in my phonetics class.

And Bush's grade? Mark says B. I say that people who insist Bush don't talk good should just try giving a broadcast speech to an audience of millions with Arabic place names in the script before they sit in judgment. He is probably doing just about as well as any of us could do. And on some occasions he hits on closer approximations to the right pronunciation than we heard from members of the Senate Committee on the Armed Services not long ago.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 26, 2004 06:57 PM