Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hyperforeign spelling alert

If you see this McClatchyism headed for print, go remonstrate gently with your wire editors:

It's no irony that Palestinians refer to the establishment of Israel as "al naqba" — the catastrophe.

Aside from the complete lack of any relationship between "irony" and the subsequent concept, our writer has the wrong word here. "Q" and "K" are commonly used to represent two different consonants in Arabic, and -- surprise -- the words that result aren't interchangeable when it comes to meaning. The word for "catastrophe" is "nakba." If the 1976 edition of the Wehr-Cowan dictionary is a good guide,* "naqba" is something like excavation or perforation.

Why does this sort of thing happen? You have to admit, "q" looks a lot more bizarre than "k" -- especially in the middle, without a friendly "u" to help it out. It's sort of an orthographic version of hyperforeignization: spelling a word wrong to make sure that it looks strange enough. And this one's actually going in the wrong direction. Two decades ago, "nakba" was far and away the dominant spelling in AP texts. By the early 200s, things were reversed: "naqba" was about 10-1 over the more accurate "nakba."

In the great grand scheme of things, the q-for-k swap here isn't one to start the revolution over (not that originating editors are prone to appreciating, oh, technical arguments about consonants and meaning and stuff). It's far from the worst mistake of its kind -- not in spelling, certainly not in translation. But if we have to speak other people's languages, it'd be nice if we could sort of start trying to tone down the ambient fear level, one consonant at a time.

One more thing:
Even if Israel and the Palestinians do agree on their borders, few realists think that a deal would assuage extremists who refuse to accept the idea of a Jewish nation in the Middle East.

Let's not get our concepts confused. That's not a primary concern of realists. Realists care about whether extremists know who's on which side of a proposition like "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." Don't get realists confused with "pessimists."

* Long story short, this W&C doesn't list either "naqba" or "nakba," but "naqb" (excavation) and "nakb" (catastrophe) are the transliterations of the first nouns after the roundup of the respective verb forms.

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Blogger Denise said...

If Q and K are two distinct sounds in Arabic, why can't news orgs agree whether it's Koran or Quran?

12:20 PM, May 08, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Mmmm, procrastination! First, I'd suggest that there's more agreement than you might think -- more than there was six or eight years ago, less than there was three decades ago, but things seem to be falling back into alignment.

But the fun part is the presence of two distinct questions: how to handle consonants your language doesn't have and how quickly or slowly (and in response to what) to solve the social inclusiveness equation. Most transliteration choices are pretty apolitical; the thing about Koran/Quran is that it ventures into the terrain of asking people what they like to be called, rather than deciding for them.

So there's going to be more variation, for more reasons, than there was in Gorbachev/Gorbachov. And the variation is going to look more like the debates over -- oh, courtesy titles for women, "black" vs. "African American," or "Hispanic" vs. "Latino" than most debates over spelling. In this case, matters are compounded by the Foxoid fear factor: It's not just Those Uppity [insert slur here], it's a surging green fundamentalist tide that's going to erase all of Western Civ and make our kids wear burkas. At a guess, that's why Fox goes to the trouble of changing AP copy back to "Koran"; it's a sign they aren't going to give in to the barbarian horde.

I have no idea why the NYT sticks with "Koran" (NYT style decisions are an entire realm of amusement all their own). I'm pretty certain that if the NYT ever adopts "Quran," the right-wing yipposphere would be alive with proclamations that the East Coast had gone under at last.

11:39 PM, May 08, 2008  
Blogger Language said...

Actually, Wehr/Cowan does have nakba; the entry you refer to goes (omitting the Arabic writing): "nakb pl. nuqūb and nakba pl. nakabāt misfortune, calamity; disaster, catastrophe." In other words, nakb and nakba are alternate forms of the same word (or, if you prefer, synonyms).

9:45 PM, May 16, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Is that you, Hat? I stand corrected. Didn't read far enough in the NKB entry. Need a new W&C, new glasses, or a second magnifying light down here in the missile silo.

11:34 PM, May 16, 2008  

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