Thursday, March 3, 2011

Hosni prefers "Hosny" in transliterated attire

Rachel Maddow et al. discovered a delicious gem fit for the annals of transliteration. Namely, how to write a specific Arabic name in the Roman alphabet (what we English speakers like to call "regular spelling"). She (and her staff) reported that Hosni Mubarak attended a head-of-state meeting in Albania a couple years ago wearing the world's most narcissistic pinstriped suit*, where the pin stripes were actually composed of lines of his name written in Roman alphabetic transliteration (this man really knows how to live the life of a tyrant, am I right?):


It is a troublesome fact of human language that writing the damned thing down is never easy. It's difficult enough to construct a writing system that is consistent for a single language, more difficult still to take a linguistic term (like a person's name) and write it down in a script which was not designed for that particular language. So when English language writers (like journalists) have to write down Arabic names in "regular spelling" they inevitably face difficult choices about which letters to use to represent particular sounds. Vowels are particularly difficult creatures to pin down with alphabetic rope (e.g., the whole and sometimes y fiasco).

The act of writing a linguistic term in a foreign script is called transliteration, and it's troublesome enough to have spawned a cottage industry sub-field within computational linguistics. For example, if you wanted to Google information about the currently exiled president of Egypt, you would be wise to Google the term "Hosni Mubarak." That is by far the most common spelling of the man's name on the internet (by a better than 20-1 margin, at least according to Google hit counts). Even if you choose the "Hosny" variant, you're basically just redirected to the "Honsi" results anyway. Yet the tyrant himself, ever the maverick, prefers the road less traveled.

Sadly, there's not much more to say about this than to emphasize the simple fact that transliteration is largely arbitrary and disputes about guidelines are largely trivial. Just flip a coin and move on ... (I just seriously pissed off the world's four transliteration experts).

...and in closing I'd like to repeat my assertion that Hosni/y Mubarak looks suspiciously like The Face of Bo**:
*FYI, I have no independent verification of the truth of this story. If Maddow's staff got punk'd, their bad.
**Damn you Captain Jack!!

1 comment:

Carol said...

In the same realm, there's also Gaddafi/Khaddafi/you name it.

A linguist asks some questions about word vectors

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