Mark Liberman asks a question that has often occurred to me as well: what is the proper (Iraqi) way to pronounce the name of the city Samarra? I’ve always said [s@m’ar@] (except in the name of the John O’Hara novel Appointment in Samarra, where for some reason I say [s@m’ær@], probably because that’s how I heard it spoken of when I was a kid), and my usually reliable Webster’s Geographical Dictionary concurs, but Mark says:

I asked Tim Buckwalter how this word is pronounced in Arabic, and he responded:

The word sAmar~A’ has two long vowels (/sa:mar:a:?/) so the stress should fall on the last long vowel and all preceding ones get shortened. However, names that end in /a:?/ tend to drop the glottal stop, and stress shifts to the nearest preceeding long vowel. A good example of this is “Sinai”: /si:na:?/ in MSA, but /si:na/ in colloquial (and sloppy MSA). So, I suspect that this is how he got /sa:mar:a/. But since I don’t know Iraqi, maybe I got it all wrong.

[Note: for the interpretation of Tim’s transliteration sAmar~A’, see this table]. According to Tim’s answer, the correct formal pronunciation in Modern Standard Arabic would have final-syllable stress (which neither NPR announcer used), whereas the colloquial pronunciation (at least in the Levantine Arabic that Tim knows best) would have initial-syllable stress, as in Carl Kasell’s pronunciation. If I understand the transliteration right, the vowel quality would also be closer to American English cat than cot .

So my question is, does anybody out there know how the word is said in Iraqi Arabic? No educated guesses, please; we have one of those from an actual Arabist above.

While we’re on the subject of Iraqi place names, I find it strange that all European languages have /o/ in the first syllable of Mosul when the Arabic name has /u/—or so I thought, but a Google search suggests that it has /i/ (“MEE-sul”). Anybody know what they say in Iraq?

Update. I just heard Mishal Husain, who grew up in the Middle East and generally seems to pronounce Arabic names authentically, say [s@m’ar@]. She’s not Iraqi, so I’m not accepting it as definitive, but it’s certainly suggestive.

Further update. Mark has contacted an actual Iraqi and posted the results; apparently the stress is on the last syllable. Furthermore, it seems the traditional etymology from /sarra man ra?a:/ ‘delights/cheers (he/she) who sees [it]’ is wrong; the short form Samarra is based on the pre-Arabic toponym represented by Latin Sumere and Syriac Sumra, and “Surra Man Ra’a, a verbal form of name unusual in Arabic which recalls earlier Akkadian and Sumerian practices, is a word-play invented at the Caliph’s court,” which fits better with how I understand these things to work. (I’m still hoping to hear about Mosul, though.)


  1. Omar from Iraq says that the stress is final.
    See this for more details…

  2. Excellent! Many thanks.

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