How to pronounce Qatar, the World Cup host whose name everybody says wrong

In the 12 years since FIFA president Sepp Blatter dramatically opened the scandalous envelope and introduced Qatar to the world, millions of Westerners have learned a lot about the controversial host of the 2022 World Cup. They have learned about high temperatures and the exploitation of migrant workers. They learned how oil turned the peninsula’s desert into a bustling international hub. They learned that Qatari law criminalizes homosexuality and prohibits alcohol. They found out that a small emirate the size of Connecticut is planning to organize the biggest sporting event on the planet.

They learned almost all the basics, except the most basic of all: how to pronounce “Qatar”.

It’s pronounced “kuh-TAR” and “KA-tar” and “cutter”. The British occasionally choose “kuh-TAAH”. Some Americans did their homework and still somehow decided to “cut-tar”. For a while, several online dictionaries confusingly omitted “cotter”.

They are all wrong, but the wrong pronunciations have gotten so out of control that the Qatari state has essentially given up on authenticity and accepted some of them.

“The English pronunciation is different because the word uses two letters that only exist in Arabic,” Ali Al-Ansari, the Qatari government’s media attache, told Yahoo Sports via email. The accepted pronunciation “would sound like you’re saying: Kuh-TAR.”

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In other words, what you hear when you search for “how to pronounce Qatar” is fine.

“Another way that also works is Kuh-Ter,” added Al-Ansari, “but sometimes it sounds like ‘gutter’ so we prefer it Kuh-Tar.”

Other Arabic speakers explained that the English word closest to the original pronunciation might actually be “guitar”. In Gulf dialects, the first consonant in “Qatar” is more of a “g” than a hard “c”.

But the correct pronunciation – the one that will roll off the local tongues during the World Cup – cannot be written in Latin. If you want to learn, the best choice is YouTube:

Soccer - FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Preview - Doha, Qatar - October 26, 2022 General view of signs in Doha ahead of the World Cup REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Workers are still busy preparing Qatar to host the World Cup this month. (REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed)

Why is it so hard for English speakers to pronounce ‘Qatar’

The difficulty comes from “stressed sounds that English doesn’t have,” says Amal El Haimeur, a linguist and professor of Arabic at the University of Kansas. Qatar’s Arabic name, دولة قطر, consists of three letters, two of which are completely foreign to most Westerners, and therefore devilish to pronounce without practice.

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“It’s like we have sleeping muscles,” says Mohammed Aldawood, a professor of Arabic at the American University in Washington, “We have to wake them up to pronounce them properly.”

The first letter calls for either a deep guttural “k” or a hard “g”, depending on the dialect, followed by an unstressed vowel similar to “ā”.

The second is the guttural “t”. In linguistics, they are called “veralized” or “uvular” consonants, meaning they require the speaker to press the back of the tongue against the palate. “It was produced by obstructing the flow of air [through the] mouth,” says El Maimeur.

And the last sound is “ar” with a rolled “r.”

Accepted English pronunciation does not include all three of these nuances. But this, experts say, is a natural feature of language acquisition.

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“In any language — like with me when I speak English — if I don’t have a sound in mine [first language], I will replace it with the closest sound in my language,” says El Maimeur. When faced with a “stressed” Arabic sound, non-native speakers, including her students, “will replace it with its unstressed counterpart.”

“Qatar,” in this sense, is not unique. Aldawood points out that other common proper nouns — including “Saudi” and his own name, “Mohammed” — are adapted by and for English speakers, and are technically mispronounced.

“Any language, any word,” says Aldawood. “Over time, people start changing it to make it easier to pronounce.”

So even when Gianni Infantino, Blatter’s successor, opens the World Cup in Qatar, he and his FIFA colleagues, some of whom have been visiting the Gulf for more than a decade, will have differing opinions on the host nation’s name.

Infantino, a Swiss polyglot, has taken some steps towards authenticity. But his Scottish director of media relations still likes “KA-tar”. And Ireland’s World Cup chief operating officer, Colin Smith, will call it “kuh-TAR”.

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