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Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Mon Jul 31, 2006 5:44 pm
by daverba
English-speaking officials and news broadcasters have a bad habit of incorrectly pronouncing the Arabic indefinite particle “al-”. Yet, I see the correct transliteration elsewhere (maps, etc). For example, the “al-Zarqawi” part of the name “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi” is really pronounced “az-Zarqawi”. And, the “Al-Jayousi” part of “Azmi Al-Jayousi” is really pronounced “Aj-Jayousi”.

These public speakers seem to bend over backwards in order to pronounce these words the hard/wrong way (which is why Arabic speakers changed the pronunciations in the first place).

They habitually/purposely refuse to follow the “sun letter” / “moon letter” convention and, at least to me, they sound like a bunch of ignoramuses in their various capacities (as the president of the only super-power, as anchor on the world-wide news, etc.) And do they really talk that way when not in the spotlight? I actually heard an internationally-known newscaster pronounce an Arabic name correctly, but quickly “corrected” himself by repeating the name using the incorrect “al-” pronunciation. How can they do that habitually without thinking, “Boy, I sound like such a rube!”

It’s “why they do it” that puzzles me.

Some ideas:
1. They started talking that way when they were ignorant and it’s become a western convention
2. They are still ignorant (and may want to remain that way)
3. They adopt the “French” (or sole super-power) position (“We talk as we do, so too bad for you.”)
4. They don’t want to bother with the convention or can’t remember it
5. They think that their listeners won’t understand them
6. They want to disenfranchise the Arab world further from the West
7. They think its “cool”
8. Their teleprompters can’t display from right to left (ha ha)

I favor #5. Remember that newspapers are written at the sixth-grade level. Of course, there’s no accounting for what comes out of our “nukuler” or “Yo Blair” president's mouth.

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Mon Jul 31, 2006 7:31 pm
by Erik_Kowal
Dave, see my remarks on this topic at Correct pronunciation of foreign names .

It would be interesting to get a first-hand account from one of the Arabic-speaking visitors to this website concerning his/her impressions of Arabic pronunciation in the Western media, and in particular the pronunciation of 'al'. I have heard native Arabic speakers refer to the TV station Al-Jazeera in accordance with the standard English spelling (in other words, they did not say Az-Jazeera or Aj-Jazeera).

I know that because of the geographic and cultural diversity of those who live in the Arabic-speaking parts of the world, there is actually considerable variation in the way Arabic is spoken. It seems quite possible to me that your preferred pronunciation of 'al' as 'az' or 'aj' is a regional variant, not the 'standard pronunciation' (assuming that there even is such a thing in Arabic). More generally, the question of how an Arabic word is best rendered in terms that are comprehensible to an English speaker is complicated by the inherent problems associated with transliterating Arabic script into the Roman alphabet.

I also feel that your overall view of how familiar Westerners -- even those who work in the media -- ought to be with the correct pronunciation of Arabic is not reasonable, considering how low the proportion is of Westerners who are either learning or have learned Arabic as a second language. I am assuming that your perspective is that of someone with a greater-than-the-average-Westerner's knowledge of Arabic; would you also hold the media to the same standard of linguistic competence in relation to Faroese, or Japanese, or Malayalam, or any of the other 7000 or so major and minor languages spoken around the world?

For the reasons I gave in the other Wordwizard posting, I consider such a position to be unrealistic at best. At its worst, it could become an irrelevant distraction that would be reminiscent of the absurdities of extreme PC-speak.

As far as I am concerned, the issue boils down to the fact that none of us can help being located in a particular social, linguistic and geographic setting that will affect our perceptions, possibilities and capacities in a manner that necessarily has a parochial dimension, however well-educated, well-intentioned or knowledgeable we may consider ourselves to be. Therefore we should be prepared to cut other people some slack even when they appear to be inexplicably or surprisingly ignorant about facts that we take for granted; we should also be able to expect other people to make similar allowances for us when the situation is reversed. For me that is, or should be, one of the benefits of living in a society that regards itself as being civilised.

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Thu Aug 03, 2006 10:10 pm
by aelnamer
I find, in my opinion that most reporters/journalists tend to closely pronounce, as best as they can, Arabic words. As Erik pointed out there are also many different variations of a similar word amongst Arabic speaking people. There are times when the pronunciation sounds awkward; such as when the word IRAQ is being pronounced by a non Arab. I think that it is a natural way of speaking; I do not think it is necessarily an issue of ignorance, or not wanting to understand the people or culture. I have never pronounced AL Jazeera as Az-Jazeera or Aj-Jazeera. In doing so, the speaker will lose the emphasis on the importance of the word, hence The Island (AL Jazeera). It would be the same for Arabs learning English, most have difficulty pronouncing English, and especially understanding the words because of the different definitions and usages. Take the letters P and B; these letters are difficult for Arabs to pronounce.
3rd of August, 2006

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Fri Aug 04, 2006 10:55 am
by tony h
a few years ago my wife commented that usually I address her as darling rather than by her name. She noticed this while we were on holiday in France and I was getting by in very poor French. But while speaking French I used her name. I moment's reflection found the explanation her name - Yvette - flows easily in a French converstaion but requires, while speaking English, for the speaker to stop; rearrange the mouth to say her name (correctly) and then return to an English oral assemblage.
I have since found that if I speak English in an outrageous French accent I again use her name. Other people pronounce her name in a distinctly Angllicized way.

PS I think she was joking when she said she had worried that darling was used just so I didn't confuse her name with any other!

PPS I know the BBC have a pronunciation unit which provides guidence on correct pronunciation of foreign name and words including Welsh - I must look up how to pronounce Bob

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Fri Aug 04, 2006 4:10 pm
by Erik_Kowal
I recall that in Blackadder, a BBC-produced show, Rowan Atkinson's character worked very hard in one episode to get the pronunciation of 'Bob' just right.

Eventually, he did.

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Fri Aug 04, 2006 10:56 pm
by Phil White

You raise an interesting point. It's often the case that when I'm speaking German and have to drop in an English word, particularly containing an "r", I'll pronounce the English word with a frightful German accent. Conversely, although I speak German with little or no trace of an English accent (I do have a pretty strong Bavarian accent), I can rarely deliver a German word cleanly when I am speaking English. It is not simply that different languages have different sounds that have to be learned, but that these sounds generally form a harmonious system (Black Country English is an exception to this) which permits clean transitions between the various individual sounds. Switching systems does indeed require a different "oral assemblage". What a nice expression. Thank you.

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Sat Aug 05, 2006 12:55 am
by Erik_Kowal
I favour 'buccal configuration' myself. ;-)

Troubles transliterating Arabic

Posted: Sun Aug 06, 2006 6:17 pm
by Bobinwales
In Welsh my name would be pronounced with o sound as in "goal". "Pob" means "all" in Welsh, and the first letter of some Welsh words sometimes mutate after certain letters, so "bob" (it cannot ever have a capital letter) does exisit. Bob, as a name is, well, Bob!