ISIS v. ISIL: the definitive* answer

* DISCLAIMER: there is nothing in this piece that is definitive in any way, apart from the inclusion of some literal definitions of words.

I have resisted writing this for some reason. No, wait, now I remember why; because debating the semantics of the translation of a controversial Arab extremist groups name produces writing that is either trite or downright stupid. But there’s a learning opportunity in everything, and now that I’ve hopefully sucked everybody in with a clickbait-y headline, let’s look at the words that make up our new mortal* enemy’s Arabic name (الدولة الإسلامية or الدولة الإسلامية في العراق و الشام) for vocabulary purposes:

  • دَولة (dawlah): this is often translated as “state,” but that’s not the original meaning. The root, دول (D-W-L or D-U-L — و can sound like either u or w depending on the situation) actually means something like “taking turns” or “rotating,” and the older meaning of دولة is going to be “rotation” or “change.” Its use to represent the idea of a “state” goes back to its use to describe royal dynasties and reflects a sense that any dynasty, or state, is probably temporary, and that the rise of a new dynasty reflects a “change in fortune,” which just so happens to be another possible translation of دولة. The deeper implication of دولة, though it’s not meant in this sense now, is that it’s this particular crew’s turn to run things for a while.
  • إسلامية (Islāmīyah): I don’t have to translate this one, right?

Note that the full construction الدولة الإسلامية is better pronounced “ad-dawlat al-islaameeyah,” because the letter ة (“taa marbuta” is the name of the letter, which is the grammatical feminine marker and only appears at the end of a word) is usually unpronounced (and can be represented by a silent ‘h’ or left out altogether in English transliteration — I opt for the ‘h’) when it comes at the end of a grammatical construct, but when it occurs in the middle of a construct (like here, in a noun-adjective pairing, or like in a possessive), it usually takes a ‘t’ sound and is transliterated accordingly. So الدولة is al-dawlat here because it’s followed immediately by its adjective, but الإسلامية remains al-Islāmīyah because it ends the phrase.

Anyway, if we’re going by what the group calls itself, we can stop here, with “The Islamic State.” I tend to use this in another place because it’s easier and avoids the ambiguity we’re going to encounter in a couple more words, but I can understand why the government and most media haven’t adopted it, because calling it “The Islamic State” does bestow some added legitimacy on the group that they probably don’t deserve. So we continue: Continue reading

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