Take a spin around a globe. Do you recognize all of the country names? Depending on when your globe was created, some of these country names might not even exist anymore. Ceylon, Mesopotamia, West Germany, Prussia, Yugoslavia, Zanzibar — all no longer in existence.
But what about the countries still around — can you pronounce all the names? We bet not. The names are based on the native languages, and they don’t always translate properly to English. You might think a mispronunciation is no big deal, but it reflects a lot more. Think about your name. If you’re a James, and someone constantly calls you Jamie, even after numerous reminders, you might think they’re just being plain rude. When you learn a little bit about the language of a country and its proper name, you’re showing respect.
Below are five countries with names that are often mispronounced by English speakers. Once you learn them, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable talking about them in other contexts, and perhaps impress some people from those countries. Maybe you’ll even be inspired to plan your next vacation. Enjoy!
Most English speakers pronounce the name of this small country (formerly part of the USSR) as bel-AR-uhs. Not so! The name is actually pronounced bell-uh-ROOS. The official languages of Belarus are Belarusian and Russian; both Slavic languages have a different style of pronouncing vowels from American English. The “U” is pronounced like “OO,” and the accents tend to hit the final syllable.
Moldova is another former Soviet Republic located in Eastern Europe. When faced with the name, English speakers tend to put the accent on the middle syllable: mole-DOH-vuh. Actually, the emphasis is spread out equally on all three syllables: mol-doh-vuh. The name of the country is from the Moldova River, the home of the first capital.
Qatar is a Middle Eastern country with Arabic as the primary language. The sight of a “Q” without an accompanying “U” can be confusing for English speakers. Most people pronounce it as cat-AR. But if you pronounce the name correctly in Standard Arabic, you almost swallow the final syllable, creating a sound like CUT-ter. In the local dialect, the country’s name is pronounced KIT-ar.
The Maldives is a country made up of a series of islands off the coast of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. When confronted with it, most Americans would pronounce the country’s name by breaking it into recognizable syllables: MAL-dives with an American accent, elongating the final “I.” However, this final syllable is actually pronounced with a long “E”: MAL-deeves.
The Maldives may come from a Sanskrit phrase that means garland islands, referring to the general shape of the islands. It also explains the pronunciation. Sanskrit has more open vowel sounds than American English, as well as a vowel structure somewhat similar to Spanish, so the “I” is pronounced like “EE.”
Considering how often this Middle Eastern country is in the news, you might be confident in your pronunciation. Think again. While most Americans would say Eye-RACK, the correct pronunciation is ee-ROCK, with the I pronounced as a long e. The same principle applies to its neighbor Iran, which is not Eye-RAN, but rather ee-RON.