Ask Matthew Alice

Yo Matt:

How come so many Arabic words with a "k" sound are spelled with a "q" instead? Qaddafi, Qatar, Iraq, al-Qaeda, etc. Since these are Anglicized spellings and not Arabic ones, who decides on these spellings?

-- Sqott, San Diego

As we learned from our friend Moammar-Muommar-Mohamar-Kadaffi-Qadaffi-Ghadaffi, there's more than one or two ways to spell some Arabic words, so it looks like lots of different people decide which is the correct way. For some languages, there is near-worldwide agreement on how it's to be done. Chinese, f'rinstance, has two standard forms developed by language scholars. Nobody has to use either of them, but it makes life easier for everybody if you do. But so far, for Arabic, there are many systems but no single standard.

The Arabic alphabet has more letters than English, and the letter sounds are not entirely equivalent. There is a hard "K" sound in Arabic, which is usually represented in the roman alphabet by a K. So when we get to the Arabic letter sound that's like a guttural K-- like a K that you say way back in your throat-- we need a different roman letter. That's usually Q, sometimes G, since the letter sound is somewhere between a Q and a G. The resulting spelling doesn't help us pronounce the word with the proper Arabic sounds, but that's probably too much to hope for between two such different languages.

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