May I pick your native-speaking brain?

ENLingo was a translation. My new book, provisionally called Babel, will be written directly in English. That’s a thrilling and very gratifying thing to do, but every once in a while, I run into the limits of my vocabulary.

This page is an experimental work-around, the idea being that you, as a native or highly proficient English speaker, can solve certain problems or express certain things better than I can. If you enjoy feeling both competent and helpful, just see if you can answer any of the questions below. You can either send me an email or add to the comments section. I’m looking forward to your replies, and will be grateful for every attempt to contribute!

Once a question has been answered to my satisfaction, I will take it off this page, to prevent it getting cluttered.

Problems, questions, issues

Since several of the languages discussed in Babel are predominantly spoken by Muslims, the names of their prophet and their holy book will repeatedly occur. I wonder how to spell them.
To my mind, there are two options: either according to the Western tradition, which would give us Mohammed and Koran, or transliterating the Arabic names, which results in Muhammad and Qu’ran (or Qu’rân).
Personally I prefer the traditional spellings, simply because to my mind that’s how most English-speakers pronounce these names. I suppose the Arabic spellings have spread in English because there are now millions of English-speaking Muslims, who would be familiar with the original forms. Perhaps they even consider the originals more respectful – I’m not sure of that.
Personally, I’m not too keen on tinkering with names, unless they really have changed. When Trudy decides that from now on she’s Sarah, I will call her Sarah. As the city of Madras has changed its name to Chennai, I’ll call it that as best I can. But obviously, this is not what has happened to the names of the prophet and the holy book.
When English-speaking Christians call their redeemer Jesus rather than Yeshua’, the name to which he himself would have answered, they don’t mean disrespect. When Islamic Arabs refer to this same person as Îsâ, they don’t mean disrespect either. In the same vein, when non-Islamic English speakers call Muhammad Mohammed and the Qu’rân Koran, they are not being disrespectful. These are simply pronunciations and spellings with centuries of tradition behind them.
That’s my private view. But as a writer, I wouldn’t like to estrange thousands of readers. If Mohammed and Koran really are outdated spellings in English, I won’t use them. Just like I wouldn’t use the word Mohammedan, a seemingly innocuous word that was, however, much disliked by Muslims for reasons that make sense in theological terms.
Please let me know what you think. You may tweet your position to @languagewriter or use the comments option below.

12 thoughts on “May I pick your native-speaking brain?

  1. The impression I get (and it is only an impression, I’m by no means a student of these matters) is that Qu’ran is now more common than Koran but that Mohammed is more, or at least as, common as Muhammed.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your question is interesting because as I thought about it, I found it difficult to seperate the actual word which could be used from a word reflecting my own judgement of someone who would talk the way you describe.
    The words that come up are braggart (adjectief; deels interessantdoener en deels snoever), aggrandization (noun; doesn’t really reflect the motive: to be perceived as interesting), but most specially, to vaunt.


  3. You could also say that someone who talks like this is ‘casually dropping something into conversation’ or ‘name dropping’ which go partway to capturing the examples you give. I like ‘grandstanding’ from the examples you give above. It wouldn’t be a terribly well-known expression, and is fairly new, but it’s quite self explanatory.


  4. I think the expression ‘self-aggrandising’ more or less describes the tiresome habit among the terminally self-absorbed of constantly drawing attention to themselves. However, it is perhaps a little formal and the behaviour you’re describing might also be characterised as ‘humble bragging’ (I’m not sure if this is one or two words). As far as I’m aware, this is a fairly recent coinage but one which seems, to me at least, to capture the mixture of faux humility and self-promotion that you describe above.


  5. I’d use the word ‘tainted’ to describe the cross-over of food aromas in a fridge; and it’s something to be avoided as it implies corruption. On the other hand, we talk of ‘fusion’ with respect to types of wildly different cuisine served in expensive restaurants. But maybe that goes too far in implying merger?

    Perhaps ‘assimilated’?


    • ‘Tainted’ is a great word that I wouldn’t have thought of, but as you say, it doesn’t go well with the language part of the sentence. But ‘assimilate’ I can work with. I think I’ll go with:
      These two languages have coexisted for hundreds of years, so inevitably they have influenced one another, just like two fragrant food products (or: foods) will assimilate one another’s aroma after several days in the same fridge.
      Thank you!


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