“Al-Qaeda” or “Al-Qaida”? How about neither?

I do my best to restrict my political and current events (apart from holidays and other Nice Things) writing to my shrill and unserious blog, “and that’s the way it was,” to which I’m helpfully linking so you can easily block it or have a word with my complaints staff or whatever. I did clearly break this rule once, when I explained the etymology of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s first name, but only because it’s an interesting story if you’re in to languages (specifically, in this case, Arabic and Persian) and how they have related to one another historically, and also because I wanted to think about something other than the actual Boston bombing.

I’m sort of, but only sort of, breaking that rule again, because I read an AP article (via washingtonpost.com), on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, that went with “al-Qaida” rather than the far more commonly used “al-Qaeda.” I did not realize this, but “al-Qaida” is apparently what the AP’s stylebook requires. Obviously “al-Qaeda” is pretty ubiquitous in American media outside of the AP, although I think “al-Qaida” is used fairly often in the European press (at least more often than it’s used here). So who’s right; the AP and the damn Europeans or the bulk of the American media? As the title of this post already gave away, neither one, really.

The Arabic word in question is القاعِدة, which means things like “foundation,” “base,” “basis,” and “groundwork.” Anybody who has read my handy guide to Arabic transliteration (go ahead, I’ll wait) should know that if we wanted to be ultra-pedantic and exacting, the proper transliteration for this word is al-qāʿidah. The “h” is somewhat optional, although omitting it (in my opinion) doesn’t do full justice to the ة character that ends the word. But that “ʿ” character in the middle is really not optional, as leaving it out actually deletes part of the word’s triconsonantal root (in this case قَعَدَ, qaʿada, “to sit, stay, abide”) from the transliteration. Allowing for the fact that newspapers tend not to print macrons over long vowels and probably don’t have the ʿ character in their typeface, I’d expect a proper transliteration to look something like “al-qa’idah” or “al-qa’ida.” So “al-Qaida” is a little closer to being right than “al-Qaeda,” because it gets the short vowel sound a little more accurately (although in any case the American habit of pronouncing the word something like “alkayda” is completely wrong), but both versions are making the very serious error of leaving a letter from the original Arabic completely unrepresented in the transliteration.

For my own writing, I went with “al-qa’idah” or at least “al-qa’ida” for a while, nerd that I am, until I realized that the point of writing stuff was so that people could stumble upon it and hopefully read it. Great revelation there, yes? Anyway, search engines being what they are, I decided to sell out to Big Inaccuracy and go with “al-Qaeda.” I feel dirtier about it, but not that much.

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Notes on Arabic pronunciation and transliteration

The Arabic alphabet consists of 28 letters plus a handful of sounds represented by non-alphabetic characters (including short vowels, which are written as accents and, once you get past first-year Arabic and certainly into literature, are usually omitted altogether). It is written right-to-left (though numbers appear to us to be written left-to-right because in Arabic you read the smallest unit first and the largest unit last, like “six-and-thirty” instead of “thirty-six”). All letters connect at least to the preceding letter (on the right), and most connect on both sides. Each letter has multiple written forms depending on where it falls in the word (e.g., the way the “ba” character is written at the beginning of the word differs from how it is written in the middle of the word and both differ from how it is written at the end of the word). Rather than show all the forms of each letter, which out of context strikes me as useless and confusing, I only show the solitary form below. It will become clear what the other forms are as we proceed through the vocabulary. After the break, a table listing the Arabic letter, its name in plain Latin characters, an undoubtedly feeble attempt to describe its pronunciation, and the character(s) typically used to transliterate that sound into Latin script. Continue reading