How Do You Spell ‘Gaddafi?’ The Linguistics Behind Libya’s Leader

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REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Better hope you don’t get stuck with this one in your next spelling bee.

You may have noticed reading the news recently, that there is no agreed upon way to spell the name of the current Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. The controversy is well illustrated by a May 1986 letter to Minnesota second graders; the leader signed his name in English “Moammar El-Gadhafi.” The AP reported the event, “Second-Graders Get Letter From Khadafy.” In 2009, ABC News listed 112 different ways to spell Gaddafi, which have appeared in various news outlets. The leader’s name was even the topic of a 1981 Saturday Night Live sketch, offering the most creative spelling a one-way ticket to Tripoli.

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The explanation, you may have read, is due to discrepancies transliterating Arabic. While true, this is not the whole story. Gaddafi (Google’s most frequent spelling) is spelled القذافي in Arabic. The first letter “ق,” qoph, is pronounced as a “k” sound and usually transliterated as a “q.” Likewise, the second letter of his name, thal,ذ,” is pronounced as a deep “d” or “th” (“the” not “with”) and transliterated “dh.” Given these standardized spellings, the Libyan leader’s name should be spelled “Qadhafi.”

The reason the most common spelling of Gaddafi begins with a “g” is due to the Libyan dialect, which pronounces qoph like a “g” sound. English translations of Arabic leaders names generally are consistent with their local dialects, rather than standard translation. The best example of this would be late Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser. His first name beginning with a jim “‫ج‬” would be traditionally transliterated Jamal. Instead, the Egyptian pronunciation of his name is the norm for English transliteration.

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So, while the Libyan dialect certainly isn’t as widely spoken as the Egyptian, there should at least be a standardization of the first letter of the leader’s last name. As for the “dh” versus “dd,” “i” versus “y,” including an “el” or an “al,” and spelling “Muammar”, we’ll have to save that for the next time NewsFeed writes about linguistics.