Lingo 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!
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 If Mohammed and Koran really are outdated spellings in English, I won’t use them.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.