Erdoğan: the herd’s verdict

erdoganThe name Erdoğan raises several questions for speakers of English. One concerns the unfamiliar Turkish letter ğ; this is readily converted into English w. But the vowels are more problematic. Here I’ll discuss the stressed initial vowel.

In most languages, the spelling er corresponds, logically enough, to some kind of ‘e’ vowel followed by some kind of ‘r’ consonant. In Turkish, the vowel is a relatively open ɛ (leaning towards æ for some speakers):

The nearest English equivalent would be the pronunciation of the word air (ɛr in America, ɛː in southern Britain).

But in English words, the spelling er before a consonant is generally pronounced as the NURSE vowel: a long schwa əː in southern Britain, and an r-coloured vowel ə˞ in America. There are hundreds of examples, eg:

herd, verdict, term, perfect, person, service, alert, advert, commercial, convert, university, observe, reverse, Sherlock, Mersey, Germany

If a foreign name is only rarely used, its pronunciation may vary considerably. But if it becomes frequently used, a consensus generally emerges. For example, English speakers generally opt for their ‘air’ = SQUARE pronunciation in Camembert, their ‘er’ = NURSE pronunciation in Lucerne.

The weekend’s events have put Turkey’s president on everyone’s lips. So what are we hearing on British TV?

Occasionally we get the ‘air’ = SQUARE pronunciation:

But the herd’s majority verdict seems to be the ‘er’ = NURSE version:

This choice, between a generally more accurate SQUARE type pronunciation and a more English NURSE type pronunciation, arises with various foreign names, including Merkel and Berlusconi.

Further notes

Regarding the final vowel of Erdoğan, the most accurate English choice would be the PALM vowel, as in Botswana. This is the option chosen by Americans. Although some Brits use PALM, we can hear in the clips above that their majority choice is the TRAP vowel. This difference between American PALM and British TRAP often arises in foreign names, eg Ghandi, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Milan.

However, the British choice of TRAP in Erdoğan is rather unusual, in that English words containing a after the sound w are generally pronounced with the vowel of LOT. Examples:

want, wand, watch, wash, wasp, wallet, waffle, swan, swallow, swap, quantity, qualification, squad, squash, squander, Watson, Wanda, Obi-Wan

Perhaps that exotic letter ğ somehow interferes with the influence of the w on the following a.

(The w generalization is blocked if the following sound is ‘velar’, k, g or ŋ, in which case the vowel of TRAP is used: wax, wag, quack, swagger, wangle, Swank, etc. There’s a small number of other exceptions, such as the onomatopoeic word wham and the name David Walliams.)

4 replies
    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Hi, Jill. A transcription lifted from Wikipedia is [ɾeˈd͡ʒep tɑjˈjip ˈæɾdoɑn]. The accompanying audio is here. The site Forvo offers several recordings, including

      The latter makes it easier to hear stress on the second syllable of Recep. According to Wikipedia, “most speakers lower /e/ to [æ] before the coda /m, n, l, r/”, hence the transcription [ˈæɾdoɑn], but I wouldn’t feel compelled to transcribe the vowel in the above clips as opener than [ɛ].

      The clips also suggest that the most accurate English vowel in the final syllable would be PALM /ɑː/, the Americans’ choice.

      Interestingly, nobody seems to opt for GOAT in the middle vowel, as in swallowing and Alloa, apparently preferring schwa + w, as in waterwing and Delaware. (Though I think I can say swallowing and Alloa both ways.)

      • Jill
        Jill says:

        Thanks! I am most struck in the sound clip above by the nasalisation of the final vowel and deletion of final [n] (at least, I can’t hear it!). I also hear the name as two syllables, so no [o] as such, just a [w]. Agree with you that the initial vowel is borderline CV3 and ash (sorry no IPA).

        • Geoff Lindsey
          Geoff Lindsey says:

          Good point. Forvo has quite a few Erdoğans, and most end with nasalized vowels. But these have final n, auditorily and visibly on Praat (maybe the prevocalic ones, despite the glottals, are a liaison effect).

          Of coures my Words of the Week posts are short and relatively non-technical. Here I assumed without discussion that (aside from picking up that ğ ‘is’ a w) news people are reacting mainly to the spelling. The first clip here has Jon Snow saying ˈəːdəgən in 2012. I doubt he does that now.

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