Your news services suck at Arabic

So do most transliterators for public consumption. One side effect of taking an Arabic community ed class is that it refreshes all my thirty-years-gone memories of just how bad the media are at this. Of course, thirty years ago I didn’t have a handy reference to look up the Arabic spellings of words. We’ll work with place and people names you’ve heard a lot of from those news entertainment cretins at CNN.

Riyadh (capital of Saudi Arabia): it’s actually ‘the Riyadh,’ but I’m going to leave off the definite article ‘el’ (and yes, that’s where it got into Spanish). The final ‘dh’ is actually the Arabic deep D. It should just be ‘Ri-YAD,’ since there is no English phonetic for deep letters. If you want to try and get it right, pronounce the D with your tongue pulled back.

Dhahran (coastal city in Saudi Arabia): again the ‘dh’ is misused. That first consonant is actually a deep and hard TH (as in ‘that’ but with tongue pulled back). DTHAH-ran is fine, though in the Gulf dialect it’s actually a deep Z sound: ZAH-ran.

Abu Dhabi (capital of the United Arab Emirates): has the same letter and the same issue. AH-bu DTHAH-bee, but locally they speak the Gulf dialect: AH-bu ZAH-bee.

Umm Qasr (Iraqi city fought over in first Gulf War): when you see double letters in Arabic, that’s not a long/short vowel cue. That means to pronounce it twice, like the double K in ‘bookkeeping.’ OOM-M KAHSS-r, not that idiotic ‘oom ka-SAR.’ The Q is a deep K sound (represented thus because the Latin characters happen to have a second K sound letter), and the S is the deep S, so the whole second word goes back into the throat. ‘Umm Qasr’ is thus actually a fair approximation. Every time they said ‘oom ka-SAR,’ a news anchor should have been kicked in the kidneys.

Gaddafi (our old pal): probably one of the most abused names in the Arab world for more than one reason. Dialects vary, but for starters, that G is actually the Q (deep K). The double D is fine except it’s really a front hard TH as in ‘that,’ which we could render as DH except that, as you can see, that is abused. The short version is that the news have no idea what the hell any of it means and think you neither know nor care. It’s doubled, so you’d render it kadth-DTHAF-ee, hauling that K back in the throat.

Benghazi (winner of the Libyan ‘most popular city in dumbass US news shows’ award): they are actually close here, but what you should know is that the Arabic GH is a gargled G. As in, you should sound as if you have a throat issue. bin-GHAH-zee.

Baghdad (it used to sound so mystical and romantic, didn’t it, not so long ago): again, they’re not so far off, just lazy. In Arabic, BAGH-dad, gargling your GH and rhyming its vowels with ‘straw pod.’

If you’ve ever heard Arabic spoken, and thought it sounded guttural, what you are hearing is those deep letters. There is a front A and a deep A, a front G/J and the deep GH, a front T and a deep T, front S and deep S, and so on. I think it affects perception, because in a masculine voice, the language can sound harsh to our ears, just as French sounds indistinct due to its intonation and many varieties in vowel pronunciation. Language can shape how we think of a culture, and the challenge is to move past that. So here are some more of the key differences:

Arabic has a ‘letter’ that is a glottal stop. This means a break in sound. When you hear it spoken, and there seem to be abrupt brief halts, sometimes that is the reason.

Arabic has a diacritical mark that doubles the letter, as we saw in a couple examples above. It’s pretty common, so when you hear a speaker, you hear an example pretty quickly. It’s in the name of God in Arabic, which is articulated ‘al-LAH.’

Does it look like a line of bean sprouts to you in writing? It still does, to me, and I can at least make out the letters. Here’s what I’m up against. First, and very important, all those dots you see above or below letters are integral parts of the letters. Second, Arabic is a Semitic language written from right to left, and all the letters in a word are connected–all Arabic is like English cursive that way. Except: six letters cannot be connected to a following letter, ever. Thus, all but six letters have four forms: initial, medial, final, and alone. The initial and medial forms tend to look very alike; the final and isolated forms are generally very similar. Those six, since they cannot connect to a following letter, do not need medial or initial forms. They are always in final form, or isolated form. So you can be looking at a word full of spaces, and it’s all one word.

In reality, there are only about half as many shapes as there are letters, since many look exactly alike except for the dots. For example, the B, front T, and front soft TH are precisely the same, except the B has one dot below, T has two above, and TH three above. The Y and N resemble them closely (two below, one above respectively) except in final form. Nearly half the abjad (alphabet) is like this; an R shape with no dot above is an R, and the same letter with one dot above is a Z, etc. Thus, it is not as hard as it looks. Fortunately.

When you see it written with the vowels, those are the little angular slashes high or low, a little loop above, or a little circle (which means no sound between consonants). The doubling mark looks like a little W. The vowels really heighten the bean sprout effect.

How come a lot of places in Arabic start with ‘El-‘ or ‘Al-‘? That’s ‘the’ in Arabic, which is where the Spaniards got it while the Moors camped out in Spain for about 750 years, building mosques and failing to teach the Spaniards to make a decent hummus. A lot of place names require the definite article in Arabic, so for example one says ‘The Iraq.’ It’s also how one does adjectival use, so ‘the big house’ reads as ‘house, the big.’ Sometimes you see a different consonant than L, such as in El-Arabiya As-Saudiya (Saudi Arabia; literally ‘the Arabia the Saudi’). That’s grammar. The actual letter is still L, but in some cases its articulation matches the start of the word it refers to.

Arabic has no P. That’s why Palestine, in Arabic, is ‘el-Falestin.’ What it does have is dialects, as you might expect of a language spoken in daily life from Morocco to Oman. Then there’s Quranic Arabic, which is not commonly spoken but is read and at least somewhat understood by many of the world’s Muslims. We are used to two grammatical numbers, singular and plural. Arabic has a third: dual.

The world’s largest Muslim populations in order are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Only about 20% of the world’s Muslims live in Arab countries. So if you want ISIL’s ass kicked, the most logical way is to have the rich Gulf oil states (who stand to lose the most) bankroll a multinational effort by those four. Of course, given how India and Pakistan get along, and that Muslims are a minority in India, probably count India out. Let Egypt and Turkey step up instead–they are populous, well-armed, closer, and can always use the money. If Turkey ever decides it’s time for ISIL to be over, ISIL will be over.

By the way, people are Muslim; objects and concepts are Islamic. ‘Muslim’ can only refer to one who follows Islam (literally, ‘one who submits’). Doesn’t attract me, but if as a country we’re going to jump to conclusions about it and go on crusades, maybe we ought to understand a bit about its followers. Oh, and the news people are screwing up ‘Taliban’ as well. That is a plural term. So, that odd dude from California who joined the Taliban, seriously limiting his career options, wasn’t an ‘American Taliban.’ That would be at least three people, since you’d use the dual for just two of them. Singular is ‘Talib’ (student).

You may now commence throwing things at your TV, cussing news anchors up and down the floor, and generally showing news entertainment the respect it merits. Make sure to flip them off with your left hand, as that’s much worse in the Islamic world.


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