ah-boo GRAYB

Academic, Language, Politics

A few days ago, Mark Liberman posted a link to this Global Security web site with information on the proper pronounciation and meaning of the prison which has been so much in the news:

The prefered NIMA [National Imagery and Mapping Agency] transliteration is Abu Ghurayb” (pronounced ah-boo GRAYB)

… The prefix abu” means the father of” while the word Ghurayb” means raven” — so father of the raven” is the literal meaning of this place name. There are actually four discrete locations associated with this name in Iraq, as well as a number of other facilities that use this name, some of which are at locations with other placenames.

Then, yesterday, Geoffrey Pullum noted all the variant (mis)pronunciations of both the Abu Ghraib Prison, and General Taguba, by members of the .S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee. He wonders why they can’t bother to get it right:

It really does seem as if American political figures actually try to avoid being good at pronouncing foreign words. These are men and women who spend their lives speaking in public on important topics. They have highly educated staff members to do research for them. Why on earth couldn’t they get a bit better at pronouncing simple place names and names of U.S. generals?

His theory is that proper pronunciation would work against them, presumably making them look elitist and overly intellectual. Not an unreasonable hypothesis when one considers how Bush v. Gore was played out in the media. Bush seems like a man-of-the-people because he sounds dumb.

All this discussion was interesting enough, but then Mark Liberman remembered hearing Judith Irvine present a paper at a conference (emphasis added):

…upwardly-mobile men among the Wolof nobility cultivate inarticulateness as a sign of status. They make morphological errors — for example simplifying the Wolof system of noun-class indicators by moving nouns into the default category, as a child or a beginning adult learner might do — and they may even develop a speech impediment.

He believes that this may not be a behavior restricted to Wolof society:

I think that something a bit more general may be going on. After all, male members of the British aristocracy are also stereotypically disfluent, at least in according to P.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python.

UPDATE: Mark Liberman provides a link to this more accurate article on how to pronounce Abu Ghraib.

Also, a friend says this about the meaning:

I also not so sure about the meaning, gharaab is raven, although it is possible that ghraib is a local plural, so it would meaning would be–literally–“father of ravens”. Ghraib might also mean absence, oddness, or more appropriately, westerners.