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The Semantic Is The Political

This Matt Yglesias post about the BBC's rather helpful pronunciation strike force gives me the opportunity for a linguistic kvetch that's been on my mind ever since the accession of Iran's lovable president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Namely, the conventional pronunciation of … Read More

By / November 7, 2007
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This Matt Yglesias post about the BBC's rather helpful pronunciation strike force gives me the opportunity for a linguistic kvetch that's been on my mind ever since the accession of Iran's lovable president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Namely, the conventional pronunciation of his name, repeated ad nauseum in speciously authoritative tones many, many times a day across all the major news networks, is wrong. Not just a little bit, but badly wrong.

Whenever you hear Brian Williams, or Brit Hume, or Chris Matthews, let alone any of the supposed middle-East specialists they bring on the air (everything-expert Richard Clarke was particularly egregious on an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher not long ago), pronounce "ak-ma-DEEN-uh-jad," bear this in mind: The name is a compound. 'Ahmadi' is a very common Persian surname, like Smith. 'Nejad' means family or clan. So 'Ahmadinejad' means approximately 'of the Ahmadis.' So the convention in American punditry puts the stress on the one place it can't be, which is on the bridge between the two words.

It should be pronounced 'ah-madi-ne-JAD,' accent at the end. Which brings me to another point. The 'h' in 'Mahmoud' and "Ahmad' isn't the Hebrew/Yiddish 'ch', and certainly not the 'k' sound that gentiles who can't manage a proper 'ch' seem to favor. Rather, it's a soft, barely voiced 'h' at the back of the throat. (N.B.: the same letter in Arabic is a bit harder, which I think leads to some confusion with Persian names, but 'Ahmed' should still never be pronounced 'Akmed.')

Just to show that my point here isn't about respecting Mr. Ahmadinejad per se, I'll also note that one of his most popular nicknames among Iranians is "Ahmaghinejad." The word 'ahmagh' means donkey or ass, so 'Ahmaghinejad' means son of an ass. And I heard from an Iranian friend last night that a new sobriquet is 'Avaleenejad,' which is a contrived way of calling him a primate ('aval' means first). Persians have a knack for derogatory political nicknames — there are some fairly uproarious limericks about Jimmy Carter that are still floating around Tehran.

Now, whenever I hear, as I'm sure you have many times, one participant in a debate claim that his opponent is "engaging in semantics," or something to that effect, I get an urge to yell, "But semantic theory is very important, and has implications that goes well beyond mere language, and is frequently and inextricably tied to cultural and political theory." The foregoing is an example of what I mean: While I don't have survey data at my fingertips, I think it's a safe bet that the vast majority of media coverage of Iran and its president, in addition to incorporating mispronunciations of the latter's name, will trumpet Ahmadinejad's belligerent ideology and bizarre views about his country without mentioning that he is a preening figurehead whom most Iranians detest. So the opacity of the Persian language to the west is mirrored by an opacity of the dynamics of Persian politics — which is at once considerably more complicated and less sensational than all but a tiny sliver of Iran coverage would suggest.

This strikes me as not an isolated, but a systemic phenomenon, arising out of the embarassing dearth of expertise in south Asia and the middle East present in both our political and our pundit classes. We should not forget that Condoleeza Rice's specialty is Kremlinology, a field that went extinct nearly twenty years ago, nor that on Sept. 10, 2001, the Bush administration saw China as the biggest strategic threat to the United States, because (among other reasons) nobody within its highest foreign policy circles particularly cared about regions of the world that were peripheral to Cold War concerns. (Yes, I'm aware that Dick Cheney was Defense Secretary during the first Gulf War; no, that doesn't make him an Arabist.)

One immediate, and potentially cataclysmic consequence of this pre-1989 crouch, is the utter bafflement within the government and along the Brookings-AEI axis (both links via Andrew Sullivan) about how to deal with the downward spiraling situation in Pakistan. During the Cold War years, both Democratic and Republican administrations adopted an unofficial pro-Pakistani tilt, stemming from Nehru's leadership in the Non-Aligned movement and vague fears about Indian socialism, and Pakistan's consequent exploitation of India's positions to get a slice of American largesse. This is why the US looked the other way at Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons. (The apotheosis of the US-Pakistan relationship, and one of the worst blemishes in US diplomatic history — nicely documented in Christopher Hitchens' book about Henry Kissinger — was the Nixon administration's tacit approval of Pakistan's genocidal operations during the Bangladesh Liberation War.)

Whatever one thinks of the utility of an alliance with Pakistan on a Cold War rationale — I happen to regard it as one of the stupidest afterbirths of containment policy, only slightly more strategically warranted than, say, an invasion of West Germany upon the election of Willy Brandt — the point is that neither of the Bush Administrations nor the Clinton Administration gave any thought to re-evaluating the US-Pakistan relationship, and now we are faced with the prospect of apparently having to support a power hungry military dictator who is jailing his political opponents en masse and is intent to undermine whatever progress the US has faciliated towards regional democratization.

To tie the two threads of this post together, let me close by asking: Am I the only one who detects an absurd and dangerous incongruity in the fact that the executive and legislative branches, not to mention the chattering classes, are occupying themselves debating the justification and pragmatics of attacking a country that currently lacks any ability to project influence beyond its nearest neighbors, on the grounds that it might, someday, maybe, develop nuclear weapons, while a second country that already has an extensive nuclear arsenal and whose government, military, and intelligence services are deeply infiltrated by elements sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, teeters between anarchy and iron-fisted authoritarianism? Compare the consensus among the major presidential contenders to "keep all options on the table" (hint, hint) with regard to Iran, with the derision Barack Obama faced when he contemplated unilateral operations in Pakistan.

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