Q: I often hear President Obama pronounce the a’s in “Afghanistan” like the one in “cat,” but he pronounces the a’s in “Pakistan” like the one in “father.” Many commentators follow suit. Shouldn’t the a’s in both countries sound the same?
A: In American English, there are two standard pronunciations for “Pakistan.” Either both a‘s are sounded as in “cat,” or both are sounded like the one in “father.” The same is true of “Pakistani,” the adjective and the noun.
Whichever a you choose, the vowel sounds should match. And in all cases, the second vowel is like the i in “bit.”
Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) agree so far, but they differ somewhat over the pronunciation of “Afghanistan.”
American Heritage gives only one pronunciation for “Afghanistan,” with all three a‘s pronounced as in “cat.” The i sounds like the vowel in “bit.” (My 1956 copy of the big Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2d ed., also has only one pronunciation, the all-“cat” version.)
However, Merriam-Webster’s gives two pronunciations for “Afghanistan”: the first a is always pronounced as in “cat,” but the remaining a‘s can both be sounded as in “cat” or as in “father.” The i sounds like the vowel in “but.”
The two modern dictionaries agree on the pronunciations of the noun and adjective “Afghan” as well as the noun and adjective “Afghani.” (“Afghani” traditionally refers to the currency, but some dictionaries now say it can also refer to the people.)
Both words begin with a as in “cat.” The second a in “Afghan” can be rhymed with either “cat” or “cut.” The second a in “Afghani” can be sounded as in “cat” or “father.”
But here again, the old Web. 2 takes the easy route: the a‘s in “Afghan” and “Afghani” are all pronounced as in “cat.”
And here’s a happy ending: Everyone agrees that the final i in “Afghani,” like the final i in “Pakistani,” sounds like a long e, as in “beet.”
If you want my opinion, the “cat” pronunciation is the simplest (and probably the commonest) one for Americans to use for the a‘s in all these words.