December 22, 2006

Turkmenbashi is dead

Saparmurat Niyazov, the self-obsessed nutball who ruled as President of Turkmenistan from 1991 to this week, and probably stole two or three billion dollars from its treasury, is dead, thank goodness. Journalists reporting on this development have been reporting correctly that the old fool renamed himself Turkmenbashi, meaning "Turkmen leader", but the way broadcasters are pronouncing it is nowhere near correct. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) representation of how they say it would be [tɚkmɛnbæʃi]. But none of those vowels are correct.

Turkmen is a Turkic language with vowel harmony, which means that vowels within a root usually have either all back vowels or all front vowels. The word that President Niyazov chose as the new name announcing his permanent status as the leader of all the ethnic Turkmen people is a compound formed from two stems, both obeying vowel harmony. It could be accurately spelled Türkmenbaşı in the modern Turkish alphabet. The IPA representation would be [tyrkmenbaʃɯ], or perhaps [tyrkmenbaʃɨ].

The word is a compound in which the first stem is pronounced [tyrkmen], where the [y] is the IPA symbol for the high front rounded vowel heard in French tu, and the second is pronounced [baʃɯ] or [baʃɨ], where the [ɯ] is the IPA symbol for the high back unrounded vowel that is found in Turkish and Thai and various other languages but not in any of the well-known Western European languages, and [ɨ] is similar but a bit more central (Russian has a sound rather similar to the latter).

Not at all an easy word for English tongues to tangle with, since it crucially involves both a high front rounded vowel in the first syllable and a high back or central unrounded vowel in the last, and English has no vowel reminiscent of either of these.

My suggestion would be that we cease to use the name Turkmenbashi. I propose that instead we refer to the late President by the more technically accurate sobriquet, "awful, corrupt, brutal, authoritarian, self-obsessed, little old madman who ruled Turkmenistan for fifteen years and renamed April after his mother and spent millions on a gold-plated statue of himself that revolved so it would always face the sun." It rolls more trippingly off the tongue, don't you think?

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 22, 2006 08:49 PM