Q/G/Kh/Kadhafi, or, Qadhdhafi

This blog has discussed Arabic transliteration before. In 2010:

This blog hardly ever agonizes over transliteration; there are more important things to consider. What matters is that the word can be easily recognized and pronounced, not that it follows anybody’s rules. Especially in the Maghreb the problems associated with transliteration are manifest: the French (phonetic) system or some haphazard English-phonetic system used by journalists and scholars are often predominant. It is on occasion the case that two individuals with the same (Arabic) name spell them in wildly different ways using Latin letters. Two acquaintances are Abd el-Rahmans (عبد الرحمن). One spells it Abdelrahmane the other usesAbderrahman. Another, with the same name uses Abdalraham. These are minute differences, and they can produce their own results in certain circumstances. Use of one or the other spelling may put one in common with a completely different individual. There are Khalids and Khaleds; Mohameds and Muhammads; Belkasems and Belgacems and Belkacems; nowadays such confusion can be especially erroneous in a number of directions.

Refer to this post for your blogger’s opinion on transliteration in general.

The case of the now gone Libyan leader’s name is irritating. It is a non-issue. There are more serious issues to discuss besides this mostly elite debate about how to spell his name, his wardrobe, the fact of his having lady guards and other inanities. For much of the last ten years these sorts fo things distracted from more hard-hitting subject matter related to Libya’s leadership: the sheer brutality of a dictatorship that successfully pointed many western journalists away from its crimes by playing the fool, dressing up in exotic garb and bizarre commentary (the father) and bow ties and plagiarized PhDs (the sons). Too much attention paid to the Qadhafites’ purposeful and natural obscurity and stupidity (we have ample evidence that the urbane and formerly well-liked [in the west] Seif-Islam al Qadhafi is a cheater and a dim wit both intellectually politically and that Khamis and Mu’atassim “the 52 countries of America — or is that Africa?” al-Qadhafi are similarly brutish). Many seemed to assume quite a lot of the young Qadhafis when they gave nothing aside from tailored suits to represent a “liberalizing” trend. This mirrors the equally bogus faith many put in other dictators’ sons like Jamal Mubarak and Bashar al-As’ad. Just now a lot of people seem to have discovered that these young men were not interested in reforming their fathers’ regime, at least not substantively. Such things will happen when the standard for appearing as a “reformer” is a business suit and a rudimentary command of English (Seif-Islam’s English quite poor, for the record).

Comrade Max Fisher writes at the Atlantic (full disclosure: this blogger is a big Fisher fan):

As Libyans flood Muammar Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya military compound in Tripoli, they’re making a number of interesting finds. Most recent is what appears to be the diplomatic passport of eldest son Mohammed Qaddafi. Video of someone leafing through the passport reveals an interesting discovery: the spelling of Qaddafi’s name. A much-circulated 2009 ABCNews.com story found 112 different ways to render the Libyan leader’s last name in the Latin alphabet, used in English and most other Western European languages. But, according to this passport, and presumably the Libyan man himself, the accurate Latinized spelling is one of the least commonly used of those 112: Gathafi. (The passport also shows Mohammed’s title as “Son of the Leader of the Revolution,” a reference to his father’s preferred title as head of state.)

The proper spelling of the Libyan leader’s name has long been a source of banter and argument among Western journalists and editors. Debates over the most accurate spelling of his name are so common that they were once featured in an episode of the TV series The West Wing. Some hobbyist linguists have even parsed the multiple spellings into computer code and a handy chart.

Seemingly every publication holds its own interpretations of how to best translate the name. The Los Angeles Times calls him “Kadafi,” the Washington Post “Gaddafi,” and the U.S. State Department “Qadhafi.” In March, a Denver-based blog caught the Denver Post using three different spellings in as many weeks. TheAtlantic.com International Channel uses “Qaddafi,” as does the New York Times, because the letter Q is typically used to render the glottal stop that is so common in Arabic and that begins Qaddafi’s name. TheAtlantic.com International Channel has never really understood why some publications add an H to the name.

Part of the reason his name’s spelling has remained so unclear is that Muammar Qaddafi has long refused to use any language other than Arabic in public, despite pervasive rumors that he is fluent in English and Italian. But while Qaddafi could conduct international diplomacy without using English, consular bureaucracy is far less accommodating. A diplomatic passport requires Latinized text, something even the self-described “King of African Kings” could not get around. But he could keep it secret, or at least until now.

This “issue” has always struck this writer as basically beside the whole point. We know how to “spell” the debased Brother Leader’s name: معمر القذافي.  It is not a substantive or interesting “problem”; what it speaks to is the fact that many journalists remain unfamiliar with Arabic. This is a really troubling part of the whole “How do we spell Qadhdhafi?” thing. How can so many educated, intelligent English-speakers (and journalists are, by and large, an educated — if not over-educated — lot) be so ignorant about Arabic script and methods of transliteration, when many of the finest methods are freely available in library books and on the Internet? Consistant systems have been set up; and are often taught to undergraduate Arabic students. One should not write that:

. . . the letter Q is typically used to render the glottal stop that is so common in Arabic and that begins Qaddafi’s name.

Q is typically used to represent the letter ق which is typically a voiceless uvular plosive. The glottal stop in Arabic is ء. Egyptians tend to pronounce ق as glottal stop; this is one of the idiosyncrasies of their dialect (this is shared with much of Lebanese Arabic, too). But otherwise in standard and most dialects of Arabic this letter is not a glottal stop and certainly not in pronouncing Qadhafi’s name. Sometimes in Latin letters this is turned into a G or a K or Kh to reflect Bedouin and Libyan pronunciations in the case of G and K/Kh in the case of, well, laziness since both of those letters/combinations are usually used for ك (which corresponds directly to the English K) and خ  (which is like the ch in loch or as in Khaled). This is to say again that the problem in “spelling” Qadhafi’s name is not about his secretiveness or a conspiracy: it just reflects the lack of familiarity with Arabic and the Arabic alphabet in western countries.

Perhaps the best renderings, simply out of respect for any system of consistent transliteration would be (1) Qadhdhafi. Andrew Exum, a scholar and military mind, uses this transliteration, for example. Good on him. (2) Qadhafi which is usually used here and in many government publications. The Economist, the best magazine there is, unfortunately uses “Qaddafi.”


6 thoughts on “Q/G/Kh/Kadhafi, or, Qadhdhafi

    • Depending on their name, yes. This is usually written in Arabic but not always when transliterated into Latin letters — it gets morphed phonetically because it used French phonetic transliteration. For example there was the Tunisian writer Afif al-Akhdar and the Algerian militarist Mohamed al-Amari (or, Mohamed Lamari). Or someone like Issandr El-Amrani (Moroccan). Etc, etc.

  1. Agreed that translation is a non-issue. Non-Arabic speakers are only going to care about whether they can read and pronounce the name somewhat recognizably without having to learn a ton of rules and diacriticals first. And in the unlikely event that the Latin spelling is too difficult to figure out for an Arabic-speaker, then just add a footnote and be done with it.

    I’m always annoyed when reading all these books on the Arab world which start off by discussing the choice of transliteration system — WHO CARES? It’s just for showing off. T. E. Lawrence has the best such intro chapter of them all, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Can’t find it online, but there’s a short excerpt at the end of this piece: http://www.cjr.org/language_corner/you_spell_potato_i_spell_potat.php

    On the other hand, I don’t quite agree about Saif al-Islam. Of course he wasn’t a democrat, but he was a modest liberalizer of sorts, in that he attached himself to the liberal trend within the regime and gave it crucial support. Sure, that was probably only to improve his own chances to succeed Dad, but a less brutal and bizarre regime under Saif al-Islam didn’t seem like such a bad thing to hope for just a year ago. Step on the way, etc — it’s no coincidence that the NTC is no led by one of his former protégés, Mustafa Abduljelil.

    Same thing with Bashar al-Assad back in 1999-2000: the Assad clan’s legitimacy was already out the window, and who else was there to hope for at the time?

    The case for a Jamal succession strikes me as a lot weaker though. There were plenty of other young businessmen/technocrats in Egypt who could have played the role written for him. Egypt didn’t have to become a monarchy for an orderly transition to work, Jamal didn’t in fact seem to intend to do all that much liberalizing, and it’s quite possible his race to succeed daddy only added controversy and would have complicated the actual switc by producing a deeply illegitimate regime.

  2. I seldom leave a response, however i did a few searching and wound up here
    Q/G/Kh/Kadhafi, or, Qadhdhafi | The Moor Next Door.
    And I do have some questions for you if it’s allright.
    Could it be simply me or does it give the impression like some
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    😛 And, if you are posting on additional online sites, I’d
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