MAHATHIR.

Once more I turn to you, o Varied and Learned Readers, in my perplexity. For years I’ve been reading about Mahathir bin Mohamad, longtime prime minister of Malaysia. Without giving it any special thought, I mentally pronounced Mahathir something like [maˈha.θir] (ma-HAH-theer, with voiceless th). But when I visited his Wikipedia article, I noticed the pronunciation given was [maˈhɑ.ðe] (ma-HAH-they, with voiced th). Now, the voiced th makes sense, because the Arabic spelling (which I had never looked up) is محضير… but why is there a final r in the romanized version, and is the final r pronounced or not? Googling mahathir pronounced got me “Mahathir (pronounced mah-hot-te, btw — don’t ask me why),” “pronounced ma-hah-TEER,” “pronounced Mahat’hir,” and the presumably jocular “pronounced as Mad-hat-tail,” leaving me no wiser than before. I know, I know, you can’t trust Wikipedia, but I can’t help but think somebody who went to the trouble of correctly formatting and using the IPA symbols probably knew what they were talking about. But (in the immortal words of The Troggs) I wanna know for sure. So: anybody familiar with how Malaysians actually pronounce this name? (Bonus points for explanations of the phonemics involved.)
Update. In the comments, pavel says [ma'ha.te(r)] is a more accurate transcription, and he seems to know. Thanks for all the thoughtful and informative answers!

Comments

  1. Youtube is sometimes helpful in these sorts of cases. I found this link to what seems to be an English-language Malaysian news source, in which “Mahathir” is pronounced about 22 seconds into the video. To me, it sounds a lot like the pronunciation you got from Google – “mah-hot-te.”
    The video is here:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u58N76C3mx8
    I know little of Malay or related tongues, but years of my grandmother beating me in an attempt to force a little Arabic in my brain has resulted in something of a feel for the sound of that language. Hearing the list of largely Arabic-derived names in the video posted above forces me to think that the sound patterns, stress and intonations of Malay must have altered these Arabic words pretty severely from their source – what are soft and longish syllables in Arabic sound clipped and harder in the newscaster’s (presumably) Malay accent.
    My guess would have been “Mah-haht-eer,” but don’t put much faith in that! Arabic-derived names obviously have varying pronunciations from location to location and are privy to the influence of local tongues.

  2. This is an opinion based entirely on intuition rather than on any academic knowledge of transliteration, however -
    I feel that the “r” makes total sense within the boundaries of an ‘r’-less dialect. When I say “mahathir” quickly, with either a ð or a softly aspirated [t] it sounds something like: “ma-’ha-they-uh” (with the “uh” representing a schwa – excuse my clunky phonetic transcription – if you can read this, in IPA it would be something like /mɑ’hɑt̝ʰɪ ə/)
    At any rate, I think that the joke presentation of “mad hat tail” is more telling than you give it credit for, in light of the the fact that a final /r/ and a final /l/ receive similar treatment in many r-less dialects, particularly in the RP-variant that probably gave rise to this transliteration

  3. Thanks, Dee, finding a video was a great idea! There’s clearly no -r sound (and yes, Malay has clearly altered the Arabic words pretty severely).

  4. Perhaps we are dealing with a New England accent here?
    I phrase that as a joke, but I do mean a serious suggestion–that something similar to the process which turns parked the car in Harvard Yard into pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd may have have turned Mahathir into Mahathey.

  5. Chockalingam (Chocka) says:

    Dear Languagehat,
    I wonder what is the source of the word Mahathir. Maha in sanskrit means great. I do not know much about the suffix ‘theer’. What is in a name?
    Regards,
    Chocka

  6. The other Arabic names are likewise very, very different from their original forms – check out Khaled at the end of the video, for instance.
    If you’re looking for a new language, LH, you might find Malaya particularly simple. It has to be the easiest Asian language for English speakers: a ton of loan words from English and Dutch, a Western alphabet, no particularly difficult pronunciations (and nearly all pronounced as written), no tones, and very straightforward grammar. What more could you want? Plus, you’ll be 90% of the way to speaking Indonesian once you’ve got it down!

  7. Wikipedia got it right. The youtube video also shows how it is pronounced.
    While Malay has altered Arabic words a fair bit, the Arabic transliteration of his name could be in jawi (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jawi_script) instead of a proper arabic.
    Pronunciation wise, “i”s at the back of words in colloquial malay are now generally pronounced “e” – like Mahathir’s name in the video. Another example would be the name Khalid. In Arabic and classical Malay it would be “kha-leed” but in colloquial Malay, “kha-led”. And that has even taken into spelling as well (Khaled.)
    I’m not familiar with IPA conventions so I can’t give you an proper IPA version. Generally I wouldn’t rely on jawi to read modern Malay. I learnt it when I was a kid but was never really fluent at it. It works well for classical malay but its no good for modern Malay spoken Malaysian peninsula and Singapore.
    p.s. I am Singaporean but my first language is Malay

  8. I’m with zul. I’m pretty sure that’s a Jawi rendering of his name. In Arabic his name is normally spelled مهاتير, which would be pronounced “ma-ha-teer”. The Arabic Wikipedia entry also mentions محاضير as an alternate spelling. That’d be pronounced “ma-ħa-dˤir”. (Sorry for the half-assed IPA, but I consulted Wikipedia for those two letters since there isn’t a really good way to approximate them in English.) It’s interesting to note that both retain the final r.
    zul, the correct Arabic pronunciation of Khaled/Khalid/خالد is “kha-led”, not “kha-leed”. Maybe you were thinking of Khalil?
    On a completely unrelated note, is there a program that lets you plug in some IPA and get an audio output?

  9. I just noticed that the Malay Wikipedia entry gives the Jawi rendering as محضير. Where did you find the محضي spelling? Google doesn’t seem to get any hits related to him with that spelling.

  10. I’m not sure that the IPA transcription you’ve quoted from Wikipedia, [maˈhɑ.ðe], reflects that usual everyday pronunciation in southern peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. I suspect that those who pronounce the name with a dental fricative are influenced by the orthography; a kind of hypercorrection. And the second vowel is not typically back. I’d say [ma'ha.te(r)] is a more accurate transcription, where the [t] is unaspirated and the final syllable coda an alveolar tap, though it’s absent more often than not. In colloquial Malay in the abovementioned region, [r] in coda position is dropping out (though people may think it’s still there because of course it’s preserved in the orthography, and morphological processes that make it an onset will allow it to ‘reappear’), so it’s not at all surprising that the final “r” in “Mahathir” is typically not pronounced.

  11. The recommendation to BBC broadcasters in the 90s was /mə’hʌdɪə/, or if you prefer, ‘ma-HUDD-eer’ (spoken with a non-rhotic accent). This was on the advice of native Malay speakers in the BBC’s own Malay language service. Of course, the present members of the Pronunciation Unit may have changed this in the light of even better information.

  12. Thanks, all, especially pavel for a particularly helpful comment.
    I just noticed that the Malay Wikipedia entry gives the Jawi rendering as محضير. Where did you find the محضي spelling?
    I copied it from the Malay page, but I must have accidentally missed the final letter, so the -y- got converted into a final version. Tsk.

  13. Maha in sanskrit means great. I do not know much about the suffix ‘theer’.
    dhīra (धीर) is ‘wise; brave; steady’. That sort of thing.
    mahā-dhīra and महाधीर get some online hits in Hindu/ISKON texts like this and this (v. here).

  14. Egads! I’m Malaysian myself and I’ve always pronounced it:
    Ma (“ma” sound in marksmanship)
    Ha (“ha” in aha
    Tear (Tear as in “it’ll all end in tears…)
    … Have I been saying his name wrong all this time?

  15. This is one of those times where examples break down, because different speakers of English differ in whether tear ends with [ə] or [ɹ], which is half of the discussion. It sounds like pavel is saying that it’s [ɾ] rather than [r], when present. Of course, David Marjanović may step up to defend the one-contact trill.

  16. This reminds me of the Pinochet situation. It turns out there is no one correct way to pronounce it, and it looks like the same is true here.

  17. John Emerson says:

    Off topic on language learning: My beloved 3 1/2 year old grandnephew knows when to say “You haven’t seen anything yet”. He was showing his grandmother some of his new toys and she ooed and ahed about the first one.

  18. I’ve never, ever heard it pronounced as Ma-ha-teer. If anything, the last bit usually sounds like a somewhat lazy ‘they’ with the ‘th’ sounding almost like a ‘d’. Malays rarely pronounce ‘r’ at the end of a word (even at the beginning and in the middle it’s often clipped or ‘swallowed’). And, as Zul mentioned above, the ‘i’ sound (like ‘ee’) sounds more like ‘ey’ as in ‘hey’. The Malay word for water, air, sounds like a-ey when most people pronounce it.

  19. Final /r/ deletion is typical in standard Malaysian Malay, but not in Indonesian Malay. I’ve only ever heard Indonesians pronounce the name as [ma ha tir].

  20. For what it’s worth, Alex’s Ma-ha-tear (or perhaps teer?) is how I’ve casually always heard in the British media and also in Formula One circles (he backed the Grand Prix near KL and there are Malaysian sponsors. Jackie Stewart, who is punctilious in such matters and knows Mahathir well, uses that pronounciation).
    zul, your comment :
    “the correct Arabic pronunciation of Khaled/Khalid/خالد is “kha-led”, not “kha-leed”. Maybe you were thinking of Khalil?”
    .. leads me to ask: Is it a transliteration problem that causes the locality in Jordan (just ouside Amman) pronounced locally as Wadi Seer, to be spelled Wadi Sir? Should it really be Wadi Seer ?
    (This could open a transliteration thread which would fascinate me but prehaps not LH …
    (Why Yasser, Yasir or Yas’r ?
    (Would Gorbachoff be more accurate ?
    (How did Wades-Giles apparently get an entire language so wrong – Peking, Beijing ? Answers on a postcard, please …)

  21. Should it really be Wadi Seer ?
    That would have been the Victorian version, but since then we’ve adopted a more scientific transliteration that uses internationally understandable symbols like i for /i/ (roughly the sound of English ee) rather than combinations like ee that mean nothing to anyone who doesn’t speak English. Similarly, “Yasser” is an attempt to get English-speakers to pronounce ياسر in a vaguely correct manner; Yāsir is the scientific transliteration, showing the long a, and Yasir is the standard international version.

  22. I know people who know Mahathir quite well (one of them is his daughter Marina, a fellow blogger), and I can say with a fair bit of certainty that his name is not pronounced Ma-ha-teer. It’s Ma-ha-theer (th as in they), which usually sounds like Ma-ha-dey (or Ma-ha-deer) because of 1) Malaysians’ tendency to be unable to pronounce /th/ and 2) their tendency to delete or soften the final /r/.

  23. Thanks, that’s as close to the horse’s mouth as we’re likely to get. But even if he pronounces his name with /ð/, if it’s a sound most Malaysians can’t pronounce I don’t think it can be said to be “the” pronunciation of his name. Like Fujimori (in Peru), it has at least two valid pronunciations.

  24. In that case it seems to me like مهاذير would be the proper way to write it in Arabic.

  25. Good point; I was wondering why ض was used, since it’s not an Arabic name to begin with.

  26. Here’s what Dr. Mahathir’s daughter Marina just told me:
    You’re right. Normally it’s spelt Mahadhir or Mahadzir because that last syllable is based on the `Arabic ‘dhot’.
    My grandpa Master Mohamad, who founded Sultan Abdul Hamid College which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, was an English teacher and he was very insistent that his children pronounced ‘th’ properly ie not say ‘dis’, ‘dat’ etc. So he spelt it that way.
    So all the syllables have equal emphasis and the last one is pronounced like ‘dhir’.
    Like the Malay word ‘hadhir’.
    She brought up a good point about the reason for some of the dodgy modern spellings/pronunciations: in the old days, Malay was pretty much exclusively written in Jawi. The problems only really entered the picture when Roman script became more widely used. I would argue that some of the Jawi letters were probably pronounced incorrectly by Malays well before the widespread use of Roman script, but she definitely has a point.

  27. The formatting got screwed up there. Everything between ‘You’re right’ and ‘hadhir’ should be italics. Obviously, Master Mohamad was not my grandfather. Heh.

  28. That’s fascinating—thanks so much for contacting her!

  29. And I fixed the formatting for you with my magic powers.

  30. Thanks, LH!

  31. I’m Malaysian, and what I hear around here is the named pronounced Mah-ha-tir, with the bit at the end short and sharp. Either that or we just refer to him as Dr M.

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