The problem with anglicisation of scholar names

Posted on Sat 06 March 2021 in Islam

If you have an interest in early Middle Eastern history or Islamic history, you will come across lots of names of renowned people who shaped history during their time on earth.

In a previous article, I listed the names of early Islamic scholars who learned from each other

I copied the names from a book verbatim. As an unaware reader, you might assume this is the only way that these names are spelled. However, this is definitely not the case.

Anglicisation is defined from Wikipedia as:

Linguistic anglicisation (or anglicization, occasionally anglification, anglifying, or Englishing) is the practice of modifying foreign words, names, and phrases to make them easier to spell, pronounce, or understand in English.

There are some efforts at standardizing found here Romanization of Arabic but this is just a letter-to-letter matching of Arabic-English and does not cover an actual standard.

What does a standard mean?

Here is a simple example:

Is it Abu Haneefa, Abu Hanifa, Aboo Haneefa or Aboo Hanifa? (ra)

While 'Abu' is self-standardized, Haneefa is not.

Here is another example. A famous scholar had the name: Wakee bin Jarraa(ra). According to Wikipedia, his page title is Waki ibn al-Jarrah, his introductory name is Abū Sufyān Wakīʿ ibn al-Jarrāḥ ibn Malīḥ al-Ruʾāsī al-Kilābī al-Kufī (the part we are looking for is: Wakīʿ ibn al-Jarrāḥ) and the Arabic is وكيع بن الجرّاح

Is this even a problem?

You may be asking yourself why this even matters? For academics and even people just casually browsing, it matters for many reasons:

  • A different spelling could link to a completely different individual
  • Different spellings not correctly linking to websites that have relevant information(would Waki ibn al-Jarrah give more results than Wakee bin Jarraa or the other way around?)

Why does the problem exist?

My theory is that it is because of a lack of standard, different people spell out Arabic words according to how they hear it(differently), Arabic-English does not have a clear 1-1 for many letters and the addition of diacritics impacts the different spelling options too.

How would ح be spelled in English? If the answer is simple and is: 'ha' let's make it more challenging. How would حَ or حَا be spelled?

Following the Romanization linked to above, a few other issues creep up like the usage of symbols on the English words: wāw/ṣād or capitalization of certain letters to differentiate(ح = Ha and ه = ha). None of these can work in the real world because nobody will follow the conventions of where to capitalize and even fewer people will use the symbols to spell in English.

Towards a standard?

I don't actually have a solution. Programmers know all about standards too, see below:

Standards

For Arabic speakers, this isn't necessary because there is only 1 spelling(I'll exclude the fact that sometimes different Arabs assign different titles to famous scholars). For everyone else, some type of standard should exist that at least conforms to an Arabic-English of names(the standard could apply to all Arabic names or just the famous scholars).

This isn't a technical challenge though. I can quickly develop my own solution of what a standard should look like, but adoption and cooperation is more important than solutions. Cooperation between Arabic-speaking countries and non-Arabic speaking countries could lead to some standard. Academics should also be encouraged to adopt the standard, which could be made simpler through online spell-checkers and Arabic-English transliteration tools.

Conclusion

While I don't expect anything to come of this, I felt it worthwhile to discuss the matter as I morph into a language-geek.

Yours truly, كنطوسث