Khadafy, Gadhafi, el-Qaddafi (oh my!)

posted by Sandeep

It looks like the civil war in Libya is winding down, with the rebels now established in Tripoli and moving to capture other government strongholds. Although the rebels have a long way to go toward building a new government, several Libyans are hopeful that their ex-Dear Leader, Moammar Gadhafi, will soon be on his way out.

Hang on– spelled that wrong. Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi. Or is it Qaddafi? Qadhafi? Khadafy? el-Qaddafi?

Maybe the West Wing can shed light on this issue (as it so often does):

Okay, that didn’t clear much up. Sorry.

So why the confusion? The different spellings of the about-to-be-ex-leader of Libya (112, according to one estimate) stem from the difficulty in transferring the sounds of other languages (in this case, the Libyan dialect of Arabic) into the English (based on the Latin) alphabet.

The limits of the English alphabet

English has 26 letters, but surprise! we have many more sounds in our language than we have letters.

Consider the sound [ð] (a voiced dental fricative, in linguistics parlance), which corresponds to the consonant sound in “the.” Although we use the very common sound [ð] in English every day, we don’t have a separate letter for it. We have to use two letters, “th” together, to do so. This wasn’t always the case: earlier forms of English did have a single letter for this sound, called eth, and represented with the symbol ð.

Another example of a sound we use in English without having a separate letter for it is [ʃ], which is the consonant sound in “she.” [ʃ] is represented many different ways in English, including “s” (sugar), “sh” (ship), “ti” (edition), “ch” (charade), and others.

It can be pretty confusing to think that the English alphabet doesn’t cover all of our linguistic bases. We’ve been taught since we were little to consider the alphabet exhaustive and finite.

I think a better way to describe the English alphabet is: a good try, and mostly useful, but seriously deficient.

Other languages may have more, or less, and often different sounds than English. There are a couple of examples that you might be familiar with: the sound represented by R in French, [ʁ] (a uvular fricative), is unknown in standard English. Indian languages, from Hindi to Kannada to Bengali, have a set of retroflex consonants like [ʈ] and [ɖ], which are formed by curling the tongue back and striking the palate. When many Indians speak English, those retroflex consonants may be used in place of English’s dental consonants [t] and [d] because they are perceived as only slightly different. To a large extent, those consonants are responsible for the distinctive “Indian accent.” There are hundreds of examples of unfamiliar sounds like these from all across the world.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was designed to provide a standardized way to show how a word is pronounced. While it has its critics (not to mention the terror it strikes in the hearts of Linguistics 101 students), the IPA has proved to be an incredibly valuable tool to describe the variety in human language sounds.

Transliterating that guy’s name

Libya’s leader’s name is represented in IPA by [muˈʔammar alqaðˈðaːfi] in Literary Arabic, a standardized form of the language. In his local Libyan Arabic, it might be pronounced [muˈʔæmmɑrˤ əlɡædˈdæːfi].

There are several sounds in his name that don’t exist in the English alphabet: the glottal stop [ʔ]*, sometimes represented with an apostrophe ‘ in English. We have that sound at the hyphen in the exclamation “uh-oh!”

Another sound, the uvular* plosive [q] is common in Arabic but completely unknown in English. It’s usually represented with the letter Q in English, but in Libyan Arabic, the sound is sometimes reduced to a simple [g], which we do have in English.

The voiced dental fricative [ð], which I discussed above as the consonant in “the,” is also present in the Literary Arabic pronunciation of his name. It is doubled (“geminated”), meaning the consonant gets twice the amount of time being pronounced than it usually would have. In Libyan Arabic, this sound is reduced to a voiced plosive [d], which is the same as English D. In addition, sometimes this letter is aspirated (meaning it has an extra puff of breath added).

Finally, not a pronunciation point but a semantic one: sometimes the prefix “al-” is added to his name, and sometimes it’s not.

All of these discrepancies combine to make one very unclear transliteration. Moammar Gadhafi, Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, Muammar Qaddafi, etc.

So, Hanukkah or Chanuka?

We can’t always exactly transfer the sounds of another language into our own script. This phenomenon is extremely common when we borrow words from languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. That’s why we get different spellings in holidays (Hanukkah, Hanukah, Chanukah), names (Sandeep, Sundeep, Sandip), places (Bangalore, Bengaluru, Bengalooru), and sometimes technical or religious terms, too (brahmin, brahman, brahmana). We just have to make our best-faith effort to replicate another language’s sounds in a way that’ll help people familiar with English phonology pronounce foreign words.

So is it Qaddafi or Gadhafi or any of the other possible spellings? Well, it’s all of them and none. The important part isn’t how you spell it; it’s how you pronounce it. The English alphabet might be limited, but our pronunciation capabilities aren’t.

So as long as you can combine that unvoiced uvular plosive and those geminated voiced dental fricatives–…. you know what, just forget it. It’s Muammar Gaddafi. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

(* denotes corrections made since publication)