Tuesday, February 22, 2011

How do you spell that?

If you have been following the news recently you may be wondering how exactly you're supposed to spell the name of Libya's dictator, Muammar el-Qaddafi. In addition to Muammar el-Qaddafi, you will find Muammar al-Gaddafi, Moammar Kadafi, Moammar Gadhafi, Muammar Kaddafi and many others. So how can there be so many ways of spelling one name?

The answer to this question may prove helpful in your own genealogical research. For people who only have Western European ancestry it will not be much of an issue. The alphabet found in most Western European languages have their origins in the Latin alphabet, although extra symbols and letters have sometimes been added. In French, a symbol called a cedilla can be placed under a c to indicate that it is pronounced like an [s], for example in the name François. In German, vowels are can have two dots placed above it as in the surname Müller which changes how it is pronounced. Small changes may occur when a name is anglicized. Three different things may happen:
  1. The name may stay the same dropping the special symbols (Jaroš becomes Jaros)
  2. The name substitutes the English sounds that better reflect the original language (Schöndorf becomes Shoendorf, because German sch is the sames as English sh.
  3. The original name is replaced with a name in English which is similar of a translation (Müller becomes Miller)
However, if the language has a different writing system, things can be much more complicated. In Arabic, as with the name al-Qaddhafi, the name is originally written in Arabic script:


This adds an extra layer to the name. First, it has to be transliterated in to the Latin alphabet. For there to be any consistency there has to be an agreed upon standard. With Chinese, this standard is pinyin. However, this has not always been the standard. Thus, we now have Beijing, but this used to be transliterated as Peking. It's the same name just a different way of representing it.

To make things even more complicated, the way a letter is pronounced may depend on the dialect. So with a name like al-Qaddhafi, there a number of ways to approach the issue of putting the name into our alphabet. First, you can render the name using conventions for Standard Arabic. In this case /q/ is used, a letter which represents a sound not found in English but which is produced a little farther back in the throat than our /k/. Second, you can use the closest sound in English. In this case, the English /k/ will do. Finally, you can represent how it is actually pronounced in the region. In this case, it is represented with /g/.

You want to know three things about a letter in a language in a different script.

  1. How is it typically rendered in English? Is there a single widely used system?
  2. Will the letter be produced differently in different places?
  3. What does it sound like? Does it have an English equivalent? What is it closest to in English?
These questions may help you track your name if it comes from a language like Russian, Hebrew, Greek, Hindi or Arabic which is written using a different script.