Gaddafi? Qaddafi? Kaddafi? Let’s call the whole thing off!

Posted on 21 February 2011


Media outlets have apparently used 37 different spellings of Gaddafi

Have you ever been lost in transliteration? You’re not alone. And you don’t need to tell me about it.

Russian’s 33 letters do not fit perfectly into English’s 26. Arabic fits even more awkwardly. Chinese can be fun, too.

Why? Well, for one – alphabets don’t match because the underlying sound systems don’t match. We have sounds in English that the average French-speaker can’t hope to pronounce, and the same is true about Arabic or Chinese for English-speakers.

For most languages there is a ‘standard’ way to transliterate. Actually, no… there are a few different standards: literary, academic, mainstream media… Hopeful, right?

Transliterations can be the bane of a journalist’s life. Now more than ever.

We now need to settle not only on a spelling that’s “correct” (whatever that means – the best anglicisation, the closest to the original pronunciation…), but also one that’s going to be searched for through Google et al. with the ever-growing need for Search Engine Optimization. Sigh.

Why Libya’s Col Gaddafi is even more complicated is that you don’t just have to transliterate the Arabic letters into their English standard equivalents, but some people want to render the Libyan dialect too.

Gaddafi is written in Standard Arabic like this: القذافي, al-Qaḏḏāfī.

When you see a ‘q’ in an Arabic word – in Iraq, for example – it’s for the Arabic letter qāf, ق‎, which represents a sound we don’t have in English, which they use a ‘q’ for in IPA (listen).

First, us English-speakers strip of the definite article (‘al’) inconsistently – we say Riyadh (not er-Riyadh) and Gaddafi (not al-Gaddafi), but we say al-Qaeda, Sharm el-Sheikh, Dar es-Salaam.

Second, Gaddafi doesn’t pronounce his name Qaḏḏāfī, [-qaðˈða:fi] anyway. This is the ‘standard Arabic pronunciation’ that, helpfully, no one except some newsreaders use.

Gaddafi would pronounce it more like: [ɡædˈdæ:fi] and would have probably omitted the al-, as is common there.

So what the BBC, most of the British press and English al-Jazeera use, Gaddafi, looks like it’s the closest to the original pronunciation, but the spelling of the Arabic word is largely ignored.

So what do we do? Follow standard transliteration, or push the boat out and go for something closer to how the man himself says it?

This is what the various news agencies and official states went for:

  • Qaddafi – The New Republic
  • Gaddafi  – BBC (+ British press), al-Jazeera, Time
  • Gadhafi – AP, CNN, Fox
  • Qaddhafi – The New York Review of Books
  • Kaddafi – Newsweek
  • Khaddafi – Xinhua
  • Qadhafi – U.S. State Dept, World Report:
  • Qadaffi – Business Week
  • Gadaffi – World Press Review

At least the Libyan flag isn't a cause of confusion...

But, that’s not all of them! According to an article in the London Evening Standard, there are “a total of 37 spellings of his name”. Useful!

English does tend to get a bit het-up about these things.

But it’s worth noting that a lot of languages, especially those whose alphabets correspond more closely to words’ pronunciation, go for what they hear.

  • Kaddafi – Russian, Polish, Turkish
  • Kad(h)afi – French, Kinyarwandan
  • Gadafi – Spanish
  • Gaddafi – Portuguese, German, Vietnamese
  • Kazzafi – Mandarin Chinese

If we’re talking about names which are rare in the foreign language (Gaddafi probably qualifies for that if the audience is English-speaking, at least), then I suppose in some respects the best, most democratic way is to let the person decide him/herself.

Helpfully, in 1986, Gaddafi reportedly responded to an American school’s letter. In it, he signed off “El-Gadhafi“.

But then the title of his official homepage is

Thanks, Colonel. I suppose I’m sticking with Gaddafi.


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