Mercy! How do you spell the name of this Egyptian leader?
Lately Egypt and especially Morsi, the former Egyptian president, continue to be a focus of international news articles and broadcasts.
It seems that one can’t avoid reading the name of the man considered to be the first democratically elected president of Egypt. Well, he only held office for just over one year. But still, this name, in various representations, appears frequently on the Internet and in the press; most often the name is spelled as Morsi or Mursi, with the occasional spelling Morsy. In Arabic script his name is written with three consonants M-R-S ending in the vowel that is pronounced “ee” in English (which is usually transliterated “i” or “y”).
Although all Arabic natives write the name with the same little character between the M and R that conventionally represents an “o” or “u” (or “ou” or “ow”), the pronunciation varies from region to region, and even from country to country. Hence the confusion in transliterating the vowels.
So let’s say that we agree to use one letter to represent this vowel sound, randomly choosing the “o”. Now we have solved that problem. We have Morsi – or Morsy. But for the sake of consistency, let’s choose the first, Morsi. OK, but we haven’t quite solved the problem. Now we have to consider the first name too – Mohammed, Mohamed, Mohammad, Muhammed, Muhamad, Muhammad (by the way, there are claims it is the most frequent male name in the world.)
Considerable variation occurs because Arabic is spoken in about 25 countries with about 250-300 million native speakers and approximately 17 written variants (according to the standard spell checker on most people’s PCs). In addition, Arabic is the liturgical language of over one billion Muslims (or Moslems) around the world. Primarily it is the great variety in pronunciation among Arabic speakers that creates this orthographic chaos when transliterated into English.
And all those dots in the photo at the top of this page, they differentiate an f from a q or an s from a sh … and then there are other “letters” (ones that sort of look like mini apostrophes or w’s or o’s), those little marks make a difference in reading Arabic. They represent the short vowels or the doubling of consonants, among other things. But advanced readers of Arabic (and also Farsi, aka Persian) don’t need the vowels. They are usually reserved for use in children’s books and the fantastically beautiful and decorative calligraphy that bedecks so many books and buildings and paintings or just about any surface that lacks ornamentation in Middle Eastern culture.
But moving eastward, and another name in the news lately. Another election, another dilemma (from our point of view, an orthographic one). Rohani, Rouhani, Rowhani and occasionally Ruhani. And then there is Hassan or Hasan …
So how do we handle these names at Tansa? Basically we follow the respective stylebook, such as The Associated Press, the Canadian Press or The New York Times. For other publications we begin with the basic default spelling that has been adopted by each individual – when it is available. If not, we use the most prevalent and widely accepted form.
In these two instances we have adopted Mohammed Morsi (which in AP you will only find in the Pronunciation section, not as a main entry) and Hassan Rouhani, which is only noted in the Ask the Editor section. Previously AP specified Rowhani but recently made the switch to Rouhani. Of course, if you don’t agree, please use your AD to override our choices. With the plethora of Arabic names in the news, you can imagine how many search-replace strings have to be written – for each and every name.
Fortunately both Morsi and Rouhani are composed of letters that basically have a direct correspondence to something in the English alphabet. But what about those names that include letters (really, sounds) not in English. Arabic is full of individual sounds that need to be transliterated, and of course, everyone writes them differently – all those q’s and gh’s and kh’s and even apostrophes. For example, the glottal stop is used frequently in Arabic. The International Phonetic Association uses the symbol ʔ (which looks like the top part of a question mark). But that’s not very easy to type so we typically employ the apostrophe, hence the variant spellings al Qa’eda and al Qa’ida, Al-Qa’eda, Al-Qa’ida … and so forth. Actually in informal American English we do use a glottal stop, in fact I think I always use it in words such as ‘button” (pronounced buʔen). Try it. There’s no distinct “t” sound; the glottal stop is produced by simply closing the glottis at the back of your throat. Note, our British cousins usually articulate this word more clearly, distinctly pronouncing the “t”.
Now, shall we discuss all possible spellings of the former leader of Libya, Moammar Gadhafi (this is the spelling specified in the Pronunciation section and under the heading Arabic Names in AP’s stylebook) – Gaddhafi, Gaddafi, Ghaddafi, Ghadafi? Click here for an article where ABC News discusses the 112 variations of this name.
But back to the initial question. As a point of departure, in our Tansa dictionaries we have added the spelling of the former Egyptian president as Morsi. Of course, your opinion is valuable and we always welcome your feedback. Just let us know.
To read this article in Spanish, click here.