With this word in the news almost every day at the moment, we are hearing two pronunciations from British broadcasters: /ıˈreınıən/ and /ıˈrɑːnıən/. The first of these is, I think, the majority pronunciation, but the second is heard from many who would probably consider themselves better informed about the country and its people – for instance John Simpson. He and I crossed swords over this, and he alluded to our disagreement in one of his articles nearly thirty years ago, ending “He [i.e. GP] walked on, a disappointed man”. His arguments in favour of /ıˈrɑːnıən/ were two: that it was the pronunciation used by Iranians themselves (but as I pointed out, they are speaking English as a foreign language, and so not to be completely trusted on this – just as a Frenchman speaking English but pronouncing his country name with a nasalized vowel would not be copied by native English speakers); and second, that as the country name is /ıˈrɑːn/, then he was simply adding /-ıən/ in the normal way. I countered this with the example of Panama, which also ends in /ɑː/, but whose derived form is /pænəˈmeınıən/.

I was not trying to persuade him because of a belief that /eı/ was intrinsically the ‘better’ vowel to use, but so that he would conform to the one being used by the majority of his colleagues, and so be less conspicuous to listeners and viewers, who would otherwise start asking themselves (and me!) questions, and stop listening to the content of the report, which is far more important.


  1. Using Panama is actually a good example of a bad argument. Panamanians refer to themselves as panameños, so *panamaños wouldn’t even make sense. It should be Irahnians not Iraynians. English should preserve the vowels of the language whenever possible (unless historically dictated otherwise) Further I would argue you could say EYE-ray-nian or Ee-rah-nian, but not a mix of those two: anglicize it or don’t anglicize it. (fwiw: ee should probably be ih)

    by extension it should be pakistahni not pakist’annie’ – made more interesting by the fact that President Obama says “Pakistahn” but says “Afghanistann” –

  2. “Interested” doesn’t like my example of Panama/-nian, but how about Bahamas – where the derived form, Bahamian, equally changes its stressed vowel from /ɑː/ to /eı/? There can be no question of there being a carry-over from a different language in this case.

    I don’t understand his point about Pakistan – I have no problem with either /ɑː/ or /æ/ in the final syllable. Pres. Obama’s inconsistency between Pakistan and Afghanistan simply shows this variation. Incidentally, the usual Urdu pronunciation of Pakistan has /ɑː/ in the first syllable as well, and this is what is recommended to BBC newsreaders – but note it is ‘recommended’ and not imposed on them.

    “Interested” twice uses the word “should”, implying a rather prescriptive attitude, which I was careful to avoid in my original post.

  3. If we want to refrain from anglicizing, shouldn’t we say “Irani” /irɑːni/ instead of “Iranian”?

  4. English should preserve the vowels of the language whenever possible.

    This strikes me as a completely arbitrary “rule” made up on the spot. What possible justification does it have? Are there any languages that follow such a rule: German doesn’t, as the e in englisch doesn’t sound like the e in the original, though most German-speakers are perfectly able to pronounce it; French doesn’t, as neither of the vowels in anglais sound like those in the original, though most French-speakers are perfectly able to pronounce it; Spanish doesn’t, as the é in inglés doesn’t sound like the i in the original; Russian doesn’t, as the а in англиский doesn’t sound like the e in the original; etc., etc.

  5. English should do whatever its native speakers feel most comfortable with, precisely as every other language that I know does. Anglicisation will take whatever form most people are happiest with.

    And now to my bete noir: Afghanistan. Certain BBC newsreaders of South Asian background pronounce it according, presumably, to some rule of some subcontinental language, with long a’s and the gh voiced like the ch in ‘loch’. They continue to do so, despite public criticism, and in defiance of the standard English pronunciation (short a’s, gh as hard g), presumably because the newsroom producers say nothing.

    Let us contrast a hypothetical BBC newsreader of French background. She/he pronounces ‘Paris’ the French way the first time it comes up in the news, and she/he is told, I have no doubt, immediately after the broadcast that that is not correct in English.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.