My Particular Ignorance

I prefer, of course, the definition of the term “ignorant” which states, “unaware because of a lack of relevant information or knowledge”.  I’m willing to learn.

So I’m eating breakfast and reading National Geographic, an article by Matthew Teague entitled “The Other Tibet”.  I come across the following paragraph:  “… So the Chinese government had sent tens of thousands of security forces into the city, the capital of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, to restore order between the Han and the Uygurs.  The Han dominate Chinese society, but the Uygurs (pronounced wee-gurs)…”

“Whuffuk!”  or some other unlikely exclamation.  UYGURS is pronounced WEE-GURS?

Why not just spell it WEEGURS, for fussake?

Now, in English, we spell things quite strangely, or so it seems.  Anyone who thinks otherwise has only to read this twice:  “Even though I was coughing I went through the dough trough, and I thought, ‘enough’ and thoroughly laughed.”

Since when did the letters u,g, and h get to be so pliant?  The answer of course is that those words – actually, all words in English – have been incorporated and modified from other languages.

For instance, my Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (Unabridged) – a large tome, rather like an informative tree stump – states that trough is from the Middle English trogh, trough; and the Anglo Saxon trog, troh.  Okay, yes, it’s a mess, but we inherited it, and where have I heard that before?


It is unlikely that the Uygurs use our alphabet – they very likely use Chinese characters.  There is no historical precedent, therefore, to spell that word in any particular fashion.

So, what convoluted imagination spells it “Uygurs” and tells me, in the same breath, to pronounce it “WEE-GURS”.  Why not just spell it Weegurs, or Wheeghurs, or some damned way in the first place?  Why would anyone, anywhere, do a fool thing like that?

I suppose I didn’t pay enough attention during the season I spent in Africa, with the ‘Tchlghou-gropoprobamungafrallalacka (pronounced, “ZUM”) tribe.

One runs into this sort of thing in certain language phrasebooks.  I ask my Farsi-speaking patients, “Dard dahree?” – “do you have any pain” – and probably sound like a retarded talking marmocet due to my poor pronunciation.  But they understand and respond.  A phrasebook which tells me to pronounce the same sentence as “DaHrDlegarblemarble (inhale) DAHkalaka (whisper) reeeeeeeeeeeeee” might very well be more correct and precise, but hardly more useful.

And so it may be with this article.  “Uygurs” perhaps should be pronounced “oooWEEgerse”, or something.  But if you, Mr. National Geographic Editor Chris Johns and Yes I Looked It Up, tell me it’s “pronounced WEE-gurs” then bloody spell it “WEEGURS”.

What is wrong with me today that this is important?


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