Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Even the (alleged) good guys apparently can't help it:

"Allah akhbar," called out Ali Mohammed, a contractor who works at the Pentagon, raising his hands to his face as he chanted the call to prayer.

Bet he didn't. Bet he said "Allah akbar," but somebody (writer or editor) at the Post didn't think it looked foreign enough, so out comes the "kh."

That's unfortunate. They don't just look different and sound different (yeah, the "kh" is usually supposed to be a fricative, while poor "k" is just another stop along the road), they end up producing words with entirely different meanings. "Akbar" is a degree of an adjective. "Akhbar" is the plural of the noun "khabar." It means "news," as in the newspaper name Akhbar Al-Khaleej.

To add a bit on to what some commenters were suggesting here a few days ago, there are few perfect solutions When Alphabets Collide -- especially, as is painfully evident these days, when a fairly large political faction is eager to turn any such differences into a political billy club. As Fowler put it a century ago in arguing the various transliterations of Muhammad, we want one name for the one man -- but coming up with the right answer to what that one man should be called has never been as easy as Fowler wanted to make it look.

It's easy to make the case that the AP* ought to simply send out a memo declaring Feisal Abdul Rauf's family name to be "Abdul Rauf" from here on out, but nobody -- no journalists I know of, and few if any academics -- would decree at this point that we ought to do the same for Gamal Abdel Nasser. (Think of the indexes that would have to be rewritten.) Some of the audience will be confused by such a change, some won't, and many, perhaps most, won't be paying attention at all. The loud and stupid ones will complain that you're a willing tool of the coming Muslim takeover, but they're probably still annoyed that you went to "Muslim" rather than "Moslem" in the first place. If they've never heard the sound of a dial telephone  being slammed down into its cradle -- well, perhaps some wise youngster will ensure that there's an app for that.

Meanwhile, journalists ought to do what they can to tamp down the hyperforeignizing, by way of keeping idle hands off the panic button. I don't know what the current Post style guide says, but even the AP has caught up with the simple idea that the best way to spell "akbar" is -- you know, "akbar." We have all the consonants we need already.

* Don't want the NYT getting a big head here; it has a long track record of carelessness and obtuseness in this department as well. Though it was actually USA Today that coined the phrase "fatwa on the bunny."



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