Colbert Sides With President On 'Ih-Rahk'

Author Ben Yagoda i i

hide captionAuthor Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware. His books include When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse. His website is www.benyagoda.com.

Maria Yagoda/Courtesy of Ben Yagoda
Author Ben Yagoda

Author Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware. His books include When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse. His website is www.benyagoda.com.

Maria Yagoda/Courtesy of Ben Yagoda

Last week, Stephen Colbert hosted his show in Iraq, guest-edited Newsweek and shaved his head — all in the name of refocusing Americans' attention on the Iraq war. Colbert pronounces the name of the country "ih-rahk." That's the pronunciation that most closely approximates the original Arabic. It's also the pronunciation used by President Obama, as well as diplomats, anti-war activists, professors and news anchors (except on Fox).

But two other pronunciation choices are popular among Americans at large: "ih-rack," and "eye-rack." They share a second syllable that rhymes with "back." That's an "a" sounds that to American ears seems normal and homegrown, while plahza, nirvahna and soprahno sound highfalutin and foreign.

The reasons for the shift to "eye" in the first syllable are less obvious: It doesn't spring from any regional American dialect or correspond to any other vowel change, other than "eye-talian," (which has historically been used in novels and films to show that characters are know-nothings). Yet it's widely used. An unscientific but extensive investigation of YouTube examples shows "eye-rack" as the pronunciation of choice for members of U.S. military below the rank of, say, captain, their families and red-state Republicans. Sarah Palin, being in two of those groups, is a slam-dunk "eye-racker."

Yet I'd be surprised if Palin said "eye-talian." And that points to a striking thing about "eye-rack": it doesn't necessarily come off as bigoted. In fact, it seems pretty normal.

When I polled students in one of my journalism classes about their pronunciation, the results were: three "ih-rahk," six "ih-rack" and eight "eye-rack." When I questioned the last group, one student said she knew "eye-rack" was wrong, but felt that saying "ih-rack" would get her laughed at. Another had been taught by a middle-school teacher that "eye-rack" was correct.

The mainstreaming of "eye-rack" awaits scholarly examination, but here is my hypothesis. In the long-ago days before we invaded the country, "eye-rack" was rare and sounded as ignorant and derisive as "eye-talian." It still shows a lack of knowledge and respect. But its widespread popularity represents something else, too: a deep ambivalence and frustration about our military enterprise there. If we can't win the war, or even always understand why we're fighting it, nobody can take away our right to mangle the country's name.

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