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Names Americans mispronounce: Guide to foreign countries

The U.S. Congress is debating new economic sanctions on Iran this week.

Should you switch over to C-SPAN, you would hear members of the world’s most powerful legislative body offering perhaps a half-dozen different pronunciations of the name of the country they argue cannot be trusted.

It can be jarring to hear legislators arguing fervently that only they understand the true threat posed by Iran even as they mangle its name.

Still, many Americans can probably sympathize.

It’s not just members of Congress, after all, facing down foreign names they may be unsure how to pronounce. Thanksgiving is coming up, meaning heated and perhaps beer-fueled debates about the state of the world.

Whether you’re wading into those arguments or merely listening as Uncle Frank goes on another tirade for or against NSA leaker Edward Snowden, you’ll probably notice that there’s a subset of important foreign names and places that are often referenced in contemporary American debate but that, somehow, we as a nation have yet to figure out how to pronounce.

Max Fisher published this November 22, 2013

A guide to 26 foreign countries and names that Americans mispronounce

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If you're not sure how to say his name, or the name of his country, read on. (AFP/Getty)

This is Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If you’re not sure how to say his name, or the name of his country, read on. (AFP/Getty)

Here then, as a service to congressional and Thanksgiving arguments alike, is a list of 26 foreign names that Americans most frequently mispronounce, as well as guides for how to say them correctly and warnings against common mispronunciations.

Even if you know to say ee-RON rather than EYE-ran, there are others you might be unknowingly misstating — such as Pyongyang or Bashar al-Assad. You can hear many of them spoken out loud at Voice of America’s pronunciation site.


Iran: ee-RON How it’s NOT pronounced: EYE-ran

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei: ah-lee hah-men-ey-ee How it’s NOT pronounced: allie komonny

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: hah-sahn ROH-hah-nee How it’s NOT pronounced: hassun roo-honey

Iraq: ee-ROCK How it’s NOT pronounced: EYE-rack (ee-Rak. ee-Rock is a Persian pronunciation)

Qatar: KUH-tur (almost exactly “cutter” but more emphasis on the first syllable) How it’s NOT pronounced: kah-TAR

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: buh-shar al AH-sud* How it’s NOT pronounced: basher al uh-sahd * This is the Arabic pronunciation (hear it here), for when you really want to show off. Most Westerners simply say buh-shar al ah-SAHD. (Bashaar al Assad)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: reh-jehp tie-yep urr-doh-wan How it’s NOT pronounced: ressip tie-yep urr-dug-an

Egyptian coup leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi: ahb-dell fah-tah al-SEE-see How it’s NOT pronounced: ab-dell fah-tah al-sissy


Pakistan: pah-kee-stahn* How it’s NOT pronounced: pakky stan * Both of the a’s should be pronounced as in paw, not as in pat. This is true of most a’s in this section.

Taliban: tah-lee-BAHN How it’s NOT pronounced: tally-ban

Hamid Karzai: hah-MID car-z’EYE How it’s NOT pronounced: hah-meed CAR-z’eye


Beijing: bay-jing How it’s NOT pronounced: bay-zhing

Shenzhen: shen-jen How it’s NOT pronounced: shen-zen

Bo Xilai: bow shee-lie How it’s NOT pronounced: bow zhee-lee

Guangzhou: gwang-joe How it’s NOT pronounced: goo-ang-zhoo

Pyongyang: pee-yuhng-YAHNG How it’s NOT pronounced: p’YONG-yang

Juche: JEW-chay How it’s NOT pronounced: joosh-ay

Aung San Suu Kyi: oun saan soo chee* How it’s NOT pronounced: ung san soo k’yee * The first syllable is like “sound” without the s or the d. More here.

Phnom Penh: naam pen How it’s NOT pronounced: fuh-nom pen


Sheremetyevo Airport: sheh-reh-MYEH-tyeh-vah How it’s NOT pronounced: share-met-yeh-vyo

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev: m’yehd-V’YEHD-yehf How it’s NOT pronounced: med-veh-dehv

Angela Merkel: ahn-GAY-luh M’AIR-kuhl How it’s NOT pronounced: ann-juh-luh murr-kuhl

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa: rahf-eye-EHL koh-RAY-ah How it’s NOT pronounced: raffy-ell core-ay-uh

Bolivian President Evo Morales: aiy-voh moh-RAH-lehs How it’s NOT pronounced: ee-voh mo-rall-ess


Kyrgyzstan: keer-guh-stan How it’s NOT pronounced: If you’re not sure, you’re probably wrong.

Niger: nee-ZH’AIR (rhymes with “Pierre”) How it’s NOT pronounced: NYE-jur

Max Fisher
Max Fisher is the Post’s foreign affairs blogger. He has a master’s degree in security studies from Johns Hopkins University. Sign up for his daily newsletter here. Also, follow him on Twitter or Facebook.




December 2022

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