Friday, March 4, 2011

Gaddafi: It only took me 20 years to look it up

I took a year of Arabic in college. I'm not sure why. I didn't have much educational guidance up to that point, or education, for that matter. I had dropped out of school without completing the ninth grade. So by the time I found my way onto a college campus, I was just sort of running around pell-mell looking at every educational opportunity as unbelievably neato.

What's more, I'd never had a chance to learn about much about the world outside of my beach bum community in central Florida and, as a result, tore through the class catalog like an Adirondack lottery winner tearing through a Sharper Image catalog.

Anyone with even the slightest interest in the Arabic language knows Moammar Gaddafi as the quintessential example of confusing transliteration. It's been spelled with a G, a Kh, and a Q, with variations in the subsequent letters as well.

In the class I took, we followed a transliteration system that used Q to denote the Arabic letter "qof," which has no direct English translation because it requires a throat clucking we don't make except, perhaps, after a regrettable trip to Taco Bell. We used Kh to indicate the letter "kha," which is a throat-rasping K sound that seems to be a little more iconic to the language, at least among Americans. G we reserved for the letter "ghain," which sound almost as if it begins with an R and was described to us as the French R (voice a good, rich "au revoir" and that's the sound we were taught to make). And that's the closest to an English G as you'll find in Modern Standard Arabic.

I knew Gaddafi started with qof, so when I saw it spelled Khaddafi, I figured it was just some alternate transliteration system.

But then at one point, the media started leaning away from the Khaddafi and toward a version that started with a G. I was baffled. Why on earth, in an age where everyone follows the Q-for-qof system when writing Al Qaeda, wouldn't they use a Q for Gaddafi as well?

Finally, I looked it up. According to this article, it's a dialect thing. In Gaddafi's Libya, the qof sounds a lot like our G, so we write it that way. Ironically, finally finding an answer left me just as baffled as I'd been before. Here's why: The first thing they taught us in Arabic class was that different countries and groups have different dialects, but they all speak and understand a universal language, Modern Standard Arabic, which was the language used by the media. To claim to "know" Arabic, you had to know the universal media kind plus at least one dialect. And some dialects varied greatly from Modern Standard Arabic.

And that leads me to wonder why, if the Arab-speaking world can have a whole language that's universal and a perfect fit for mass media, why can't English-speaking outlets take a similarly universal approach to just the Arabic alphabet? If Al Jazeera broadcasts to Libyan viewers in something other than Libyan dialect, can't we all just qof alike?



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2 comments:

8'FED said...

A long time ago, for no particular reason (I do a lot of whims), I looked up Arabic boys' names on a popular baby names website, and picked some that I liked the sound of. Particularly in poetic first-name second-name pairs.

Which of the following three do you like best for, say, an Arabic character in a book?

1. Rafiq Faruq (first name meaning gentle friend and second name meaning one who distinguishes right from wrong.)

2. Shihab Rashad (first name meaning meteor and second name meaning good guidance.)

3. Suhayl Amal (first name meaning the star Canopus and second name meaning aspiration.)

June Casagrande said...

Rafiq Faruq is really beautiful. But to me character names are best when they hint at destiny/story.

Gentle friends who distinguish right from wrong don't lend themselves to much drama unless they're victim of ironic injustice -- i.e. victim of slashing by violent sociopath.

Shihab Rashad an aweseome name for a sage person who burns himself out shooting for the stars (and similar to your third name).

Of the three, I like Rafiq Faruq the best. But nice guys like that tend to have bad things happen to them in fiction.

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