It's not about the house.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Don’t Borrow Trouble

I want to get off-topic for a bit today (as if bitching about my husband for two months counts as “on-topic” in any real sense of the word) because I need to get something off my chest that’s been bugging me for quite a while. Since 1979, to be precise. When I was ten.

The grudge I've been holding for thirty years is about Momar Gaddafi. Though it wasn't really him that bugged me so much as his name. Momar. Mohammar. Or Muammar. Or Gaddafi with a Kh and one d. Or with no h. Or a Q.

I was ten (as I may have mentioned), and a pretty solid reader for my age, but all this shit just threw me for a loop. I knew then and I know now that written English -- just like life -- has all sorts of nasty, sneaky tricks. Maybe that's why I love playing with it so. I remember, at around this time, reading “apostrophe” as "app-o-strofe" -- and I can describe the book and chair and room and everything that I was in when I found out the truth. But also as in life, I maintain that when there are real and definable rules, they should be followed. I still think, for example, I should have been right about the apostrophe thing. And I'd stand on my Funk & Wagnalls, then or now, and tell old Mummar himself that G and Kh just don’t sound the same. Never have, never will, no matter how old or experienced or Libyan you are.

“Yes, dear,” my elders told me then. “But ‘Qaddafi,' you see, isn't English.”

Well, I bought it. It didn’t really explain why one man had twelve different spellings for his name, but I was still, remember, only ten. (Not to mention, ahem, that in English there is always, but always, a u after a q. There simply is. Cashmere-like undercoats of musk-oxes be damned.) I accepted the explanations of those with more life experience under their belts than I, and dashed out to the schoolyard to run around it really-really fast.

And then I think I forgot the whole thing till 9/11. I was 32 then, and the missing u this time still bothered me, but at least there was a general consensus on how al-Qaeda should be spelled (give or take an appostrofe here and there). No, this time what nobody could agree on was how to say it.

Was it ahl-kay-da? Ahl-kai-da? Ahl-kai-ee-da? Ahl-ki-da? All-kah-uh-dah? Every one of these and more were being tossed around the newsrooms of networks with real authority. Sometimes a handful of correspondents would each stubbornly stick to their own pronunciations for the distracting entirety of their on-air back-and-forth, until you wanted to knock their talking heads together. Come on, people!

When it comes to English pronunciations of foreign words and names, we've always had two choices: say it the way the natives say it, or say it the English way. And when we’re talking about words from languages that use the Roman alphabet, the second choice is always the safer bet.

We say pair-iss, for example, not pah-rhee -- and anyone who goes native on Nicaragua earns his or herself a punch in the throat. Sometimes we rearrange the native spelling until it makes better sense; lop the silent start and finish off Oostende, say, so's we don’t go around calling it oo-stend-ee and embarrassing ourselves at UN cocktail parties. And if englishing a foreign word proves just too difficult, well, then, we've been known to implement our own. Deutschland, Sverige, and Den Haag become Germany, Sweden, and The Hague. Although that last one's not really such a great improvement, after all. And, honestly, we don’t do this sort of thing much anymore, since it was itself redefined as diplomatically uncouth.

But when it comes to words from languages that don't use the Roman alphabet, it ought to be no problem. Listen to how the native-speakers say it, then spell it out phonetically like that. Rite? E-Z! And if we don’t have the correct sounds in our alphabet, then chances are we don’t have them in our throats, so we should just approximate and standardize, diplomatic couth be damned. To hell with stringing together random letters just to impress other linguists with the delicacy of a vainly well-tuned ear: "I hear gh with just a hint of ui, grown on the western slopes of o'a, with slight qi overtones and a finish of bhanf."


My “r” doesn’t sound anything like a Franchman’s (oh, man, that was a typo but I just can’t bring myself to fix it, what with the context I'm working in and all), and a Chinese person’s “r” does not sound very much like mine. But I trust the Chinese aren't insensitively trying to distort my language, and I'd similarly hope the Franchman thinks no less of me (although he probably does, but that’s a faux pas for another time).

If nothing else, my plan would solve the malaprop-Q problem: If it sounds like a K and it kacks like a K, then let’s just call it a goddamn K and carry on. Life’s too short to be memorizing new grammar rules every time there's an international incident, don’t you agree?

All of which is an excruciatingly long-winded way of coming round to this:

Uighur? Uyghur? Uygur? Uigher? Uigur?


Give me a phluyqun break.


Robert said...

OK, that strangely spelled word in your last sentence? I know how to pronounce that one. Although apparently I've been misspelling it since before Momar Gaddafi was born.

Sashimi said...

heh heh entire rant on spellings? :-)'s another one - "The houseandi lady - she's "Amrikan", lives in "Amrika".
Just can't make the mouth get off its a** and put in the "e" betwixt "m" and "r"

ege said...

Robert -- Ah, so you have been reincarnated (er, I was going to say "Grasshopper" there, but suddenly that just seems so inappropriate. Ew.)

Sashimi -- Amrika? I lik it!

braveheart said...

Enjoyed this one. The feckin' associated press is to blame for the blasted rubbish spelling of foreign names. Where do they get off standardizing spelling of a name in an utterly incomprehensible way? You are SO RIGHT that non-Roman names should be spelled in English using definitive, not exceptional, English rules if they are to be pronounced and comprehended in English. Momar Cadafie and Elcaida work for me. And, for the life of me I could not identify the Weegers I was hearing about on NPR with the Uighhurs on the TV. LOL