Friday, May 27, 2005

Quran or Koran?

OK, which is it — Koran or Quran? The New York Times vacillates, depending on which wire service they're picking up. If it's Reuters, the headline is "Guantanamo Probe Finds 5 Koran Mishandling Cases." If it's AP, the headline is "Inquiry Finds Some Quran 'Mishandling.' "

I'm not going to discuss the substance of these stories; I hope that all my readers will agree that the "mishandling" is deplorable, as well as counter-productive. But the question of popular transliteration interests me.

There seems to be an overall tendency these days to go with a stricter, more Arabically "correct" transliteration in the media. I notice muslim more often than moslem, Muhammad more often than Mohammed. The preference for quran or even qur'an over "Koran" is in line with this tendency.

Strictly speaking, a transliteration "Quran" seems at first glance linguistically correct. The root of the word is cognate to Hebrew קרא, and both roots refer to (among other things) reading or audible recitation. The qur'aan is the "reading," that which is read or recited (compare Hebrew מקרא, miqra, "that which is read," the Bible).

Nevertheless, the Arabic sound conventionally transliterated as "Q" indicates a phonemic contrast (to Arabic "K") that does not exist in English. In fact, in English, the grapheme QU always indicates the phonetic sequence /kw/, and English speakers are going to want to import that /kw/ pronunciation into the spelling "Quran," leading to the monstrosity /kwuran/ or the like.

Therefore, to better approximate the actual pronunciation of the word, I wish they would settle on the older standard spelling "Koran." In English, the Arabic /q/ and /k/ are both adequately signaled by English K. And after all, English is what we're speaking here, right? We don't refer to certain foreign capitals as Moskva, Yerushalayim, Bruxelles, or Roma. Nor should we adopt the spelling Quran for the Islamic scripture.

By the way, as far as I can tell, in German the spelling is still "Koran," and in French they prefer "Coran." In archaic English the preferred term was apparently "Alcoran," based on Arabic al-qur'aan "the Koran," occasionally leading to the solecism "the Alcoran."


Chris Weimer said...

Just a note Mr. Cook - you do actually see some atlases, especially here lately, use Muscovy, Yerushalayim, Bruxelles, and Roma. In fact, might I refer you to Essential Atlas of the World published by Barnes & Nobles in 2001 uses such spellings with the familiar terms in parentheses.

Chris Weimer

Anonymous said...

We are entering the beginning of a global society. Just as you would call Juan, "Juan", it is becmoing necessary to adopt spellings and pronunciations of other languages. It is an age of knowledge and understanding. I expect that all languages will be affected in a similar manner. I am surprised by the number of people that are unable to spell. I do not like the transitional period when a common spelling is not the correct one.


EMC said...

All spelling is a matter of convention; there is no such thing as a "correct" spelling. There are spellings that are helpful, and those that are less helpful.

Anonymous said...

Other nations shouldn't be offended if, to them, their cities and or names, etc are misspelled or misspoken. We speak english. English is butchered everyday everywhere in America and we seen to cater to it rather than be offended. It seems like the globe expects us to make allowances for everyone else and be walked on while they take offense at everything. Come on folks. Grow up!

kschweickhardt said...

FYI, BrarackObama sent a tweet today using 'Quran'.

Thanks for your interesting blog and analysis

cowboykarl53 said...

I would suggest that origins of the different spelling might in fact rest with when the speller learned the English languauge. The impact of whole language is at once both positive and negative. For those who were properly guided in the later grades, thw "holes" in whole language (grammar, spelling etc.) were fixed. Unfortunately, this seems to have been a small segment fo whole language learners.