Take a look at any news source today and you’ll see the name of Libya’s de facto leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi. Look a little closer and you’ll see a multitude of spellings for the notorious politician’s surname such as Gaddafi, Kadafi and Qaddafi. Why does a name that has been making headlines for decades have so many varied spellings?
Transliteration – the transcription of a word, or in this case a name, into corresponding letters of another alphabet – is the reason. The Arabic script is oftentimes unvocalized – in other words the vowels are rarely written out and must be furnished by a reader familiar with the language. As with Chinese and Hindi, the Arabic script contains a copious amount of diacritics – dots and accents added to a letter to change the sound. In addition, there seems to be an absence of any sort of authority for transliterating Arabic names.
The Arabic language is one of the most widely spoken Semitic languages in the world and the pronunciation of words varies with different across regions. Even among Arabic speakers, Arabic of North Africa is often incomprehensible to an Arabic speaker from the Gulf Region.
A famous roadblock for any Arabic to English translator is the Arabic q. Depending on the region, pronunciation varies so much that the first letter of Gaddafi can be replaced with a q, k or gh sound. This helps to explain the numerous interpretations for Gaddafi.
The variation of spelling may depend on what news source you choose to gather your information from. The Associated Press and CNN favor Gadhafi, the New York Times spells it el-Qaddafi and the Los Angeles Times uses Kadafi. Interestingly, Al Jazeera, which uses Gaddafi, does not use the el article in the name while the New York Times does.