Sunday, August 3, 2008

Language Peeve

I'm currently reading Three Cups of Tea, a book which has been recommended to me again and again, and which is pretty much living up to its reviews. The spirit of Midwestern do-gooderism struggling to build schools in the cold shadow of K2 is pure Olaf, really, and it warms my heart a bit to read. What doesn't warm my heart, however, is shoddy transliteration of Muslim (originally Arabic) names, which brings me to today's peeve. Fairly early in the story, we meet a character named Abdul. Popular conception would seem to suggest that the Muslim world is full of men named Abdul; indeed, I'm guessing if you started asking Americans to list five tradition Muslim names, Abdul would be on many if not most of those lists. One problem: no such name is possible in the Arabic language, whence traditional Muslim names around the world derive. The word abd means "servant" or "slave", and while it can be a name in and of itself, it is generally part of a compound name, as in the familiar name Abdullah, abd-Allah, "servant of God". This construction is the source of innumerable Muslim names such as Abdulrahman "servant of the Merciful", Abdulrahim "servant of the Beneficent", Abdulqadir "servant of the All-Capable", Abdulzahrah "servant of the Flower", Abdulrazzaq "servant of the Provider", Abdulaziz "servant of the Powerful". Indeed, any of the ninety-nine names of God could be made into names by this construction. While these phrasal names are separate words in Arabic, the traditional transliterations divide them in the wrong place (i.e. Abdul Rahman), leading to the misconception that there exists such a name as Abdul. This is rather like an Arab noting the vast number of northern Europeans bearing the last name of Son. Correct yourselves, friends, and please correct others. If a space is necessary, it should go before the article al- (i.e. Abd al-Rahman), but since the space just tempts us to read one name as two, let's just agree to leave it out entirely.

Someday I'll dive into my rant on pronunciation of Arabic names and place names. My opinion may surprise you. But today is not that day.

4 comments:

Thursday's Child said...

Shukran ktir! I'm thinking I may need to link to your post.

BTW, on pronunciation, which you haven't addressed yet, I'm a little embarrassed to say that I was married almost 10 years before I could correctly pronounce my last name. I was making a funny baby sound with the twins one day and realized that it sounded a lot like the sound my name begins with. I've been able to say it (almost)ever since. lol

elephantschild said...

Can feminine names start with abd or is there a feminine version of the same word?

Evan said...

Well, I suppose a female servant would just be abdah, but it's not used to make names like that. I can't think that I've ever come across that word in any context, actually. The only word I've seen, khadimah, specifically connotes a domestic servant, and that one is used as a name. In general, though, feminine Arabic names parallel European languages in tending to the poetic: Laylah "night", Zahrah "flower, Zaynah "adornment", Mahasin "many blessings". Also, Koranic names like Miriam (Mary) are predictably popular.

elephantschild said...

I knew a girl at ACS in Monrovia whose name was Khadi. Her brother was Hussien.

I also had in my class a guy named Jihad. :) Thursday's Child - I went to school with LOTS of Lebanese!

I didn't know that Miriam was a form of Mary.