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Fascinating: The Definitive Explanation of Why Gaddafi's Name Is Spelled So Many Ways

Spelling the Libyan dictator's name is complicated by a "perfect storm" of linguistic issues.

So is it Gaddafi, Qaddafi, or Kadafi, or none of those—Qadhafi perhaps? Usually this is something you could ignore, but with the Libyan dictator—we write "Gaddafi" around these parts—currently going to war with rebel forces in his country, it's become downright confusing to read several versions of the name of one brutal man every day. What the hell is up with all those different spellings?

Today, the Associated Press’s Middle East Regional Enterprise Editor Lee Keath gives what should come to be know as the definitive answer to that question:

[T]he spelling is complicated by a perfect storm of issues: Arabic letters or sounds that don't exist in English, differences in pronunciation between formal Arabic and dialects, and differences between transliteration systems.

Let’s look at it Arabic letter by Arabic letter:

His name’s first letter is the Qaf, representing a sound that does not exist in English. It’s sort of like a K but sounded from the back of the palate. (And no, it’s NOT the rough “kh” or German “ch” sound — that’s yet a different letter.)

Usually this letter is transliterated with a Q, as in Quran and Qatar and Iraq. An outdated but still seen transliteration is K, as in Koran.

However, the letter is pronounced differently in different Arabic dialects. In Libya, it’s often pronounced as a G, so that’s the letter the AP and some others use.

The next letter is the Dhal. Its sound exists in English, but not as one letter: In formal Arabic, the Dhal is pronounced like the soft “th” in “then” or “those.” It’s often transliterated as “dh,” to distinguish it from a separate letter that’s pronounced like the ”th” in “thick” or “thorn” or “throw.”

In dialect, the Dhal is often pronounced by Libyans and other Arabs as either a D or a Z — much like in English dialects where you might say “doze guys.” Thus some agencies spell Gadhafi’s name with a D or Z in the middle.

To complicate matters, the middle dhal in Gadhafi’s name is doubled – in other words, you draw it out some in pronunciation. That’s why you see Qazzafi, or Qaddafi, or the more bizarre looking Qadhdhafi or Qaththafi.

The third letter is a Fa, which is simply an F. In some spellings of Gadhafi’s name, you’ll see it doubled ‘ff’ but there’s no reason to do that, and it may just be a snarky way to slip ‘daffy’ into the eccentric Libyan leader’s name.

The last letter is a Yaa, which is simply an “ee” sound, as in “tree.” That’s why you see either a Y or an I.

How does Gadhafi himself pronounce it? That’s easy since he refers to himself in third person quite often. He tends to say “Gath-thafi” with the middle letter pronounced like the soft “th” in “either.”

But since writing it like that reads as if that middle letter is pronounced like the “th” in “ether” or “Matthew” we use “dh.” And if people read that as a D, that’s fine — it’s closer to correct than the wrong type of “th,” and many Libyans pronounce it as a D.

And doubling the “dh” looks bizarre, without changing the pronunciation much, so we just write it once.


And there you have it. Click here if you'd like to find out how a series of Gaddafi's letters to schoolchildren led the AP to decide on "Gadhafi" as the correct spelling.

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