Saturday, April 12, 2014

Who Gets To Decide Which Words And Spellings Are OK (Politically And Otherwise)?

Of course, this is an old problem as ongoing discussions about what the football team in Washington should be named and what people of African descent in the US should be called, and so on.  But lately I have seen other situations around the world where there seems to be confusion and also lots of regular insulting of people, with me not knowing how much of this is just ignorance and how much of it is politics, and even who it is who gets to decide these things.

My latest example is seeing the following names/spellings given for four prominent Ukrainian cities: Kiev, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Lviv.  The problem is that while the latter three are the Ukrainian spellings (or their standard English transliteration), the first one is the Russian one.  Ukrainians call it "Kyiv," while Russians call the latter three respectively "Kharkov, Lugansk, Lvov." How is it that we do not use a consistent set of spellings?  Just to really confuse things, I note that the the last one, the major city of western Ukraine, has also been spelled like the Russian way but with the "L" having a slash through it that makes it pronounced "W" more or less, which is the Polish spelling, the Poles having ruled it between the world wars, and before WW I, when it was part of the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was named "Lemberg," obviously German.  The changes for this city's name all reflected who ruled it, but why is Kyiv still being called the Russian "Kiev"?

Here are some other ones that I think that most people simply do not know about, but which involve the people who are called by these names feeling insulted.  One is "Shi'ite."  This is considered insulting by those who follow that tradition of Muslim belief.  It is preferable to refer to such an individual person as a "Shi'i," and collectively as "Shi'a," which one does occasionally see in the media.  Most academic writings get this right, but somehow the insulting "Shi'ite" and "Shi'ites" has become entrenched in our media, although I think that most of those using it do not realize that it is insulting.

Unsurprisingly, there are several more of these in the Middle East.  So, Saudi Muslims do not like being identified as being "Wahhabis" or slightly more correct, "Wah'habis."  Technically indeed their beliefs do follow doctrines established by one Muhammed ibn Wah'hab, who in 1740 converted Muhammed ibn Sa'ud, the founder of the Saudi royal family, that the very strict Hanbali Sunni shari'a is the code that all good Muslims should follow, and ever since the family has followed this doctrine, with it not entirely unreasonable to identify the doctrine with its founder.  However, they consider this insulting.  They prefer to call their beliefs by an Arab word that is usually translated as "Unitarian," however given that this word in English refers to a very liberal religious group and their beliefs are about as strict and conservative as any within the Muslim world, this would be very confusing.  I also note that the Wah'habis are often confused with the Salafis, and they share some views, but the are not identical and disagree on quite a few things, with Salafism being a 19th century doctrine that originated in Egypt.

Finally, I note that some groups manage to get others to stop using insulting names for them, as we have seen sometimes in the US.  So, the religious group that is dominant in western Ukraine may have become winners in more ways than one as a result of recent events involving their nation.  In the past, this religious group were generally called "Uniates," a term that they always considered insulting.  This group adheres to the Catholic Church, and has done so since a long period of  Polish rule in the past.  But they have long been allowed to use Orthodox liturgies and follow certain other Orthodox practices, such as allowing priests to marry.  In this way they are like the Maronites of Lebanon.  In any case, they have  long preferred to be called "Greek Catholics," and lo and behold in recent weeks I have seen press stories talking about priests in Ukraine whom are described as being just that, "Greek Catholics," not "Uniates."  So, maybe something good is coming out of all this mess yet, although I remain unclear who is really in charge of all this.

Barkley Rosser


Bruce Webb said...

Barkley not to be unduly snarkish but the answer may be as simple as 'Chicken Kiev'

Certain world cities have gained a level of recognition among English speakers that it seems perverse to use their 'native' names. Nobody would seriously ask journalists writing in English (or American) to call 'Rome' 'Roma' or 'Milan' 'Milano'. Nor closer to the issue at hand is there any serious effort to deploy "Moskva" for "Moscow". Now there are important exceptions to prove the rule bit it wasn't without serious resistance that we now say Beijing and Mumbai.

But except for these limited examples mostly folk take the road of lest resistance. I mean who cares about Jakarta vs Djakarta when probably less than 1% of Americans could put it on the right island of Indonesia and not many more could find that country on a globe (prior to the disappearance of the plane). On the other hand it will be a cold day in Hell before you are likely to see a print reference in a English language paper to Al-Iskandar. To the west it will always be Alexandria. Even as most would probably say 'No Shit!' If you informed them that modern Istambul was last centuries Stambol which was just a shortened version of the historic Constant-in-ople. Oh THAT is where that City went!

People know from Chicken Kiev just like they do for Peking Chicken and the towers and art of Florence. Let's just say don't hold your breath until English speaking journalists start calling it Fiorenza. said...

Point well taken, Bruce, and indeed I almost made the post longer to deal with a lot of such cases.

I shall only note that in the case of "al-Iskander" that is not correct. Yes, Iskander and variations of that are widely used for the Hellennic conquerer in the ME in the Turkish and Arab worlds. But, the original version of his name was "Alexandros." Nuff said.

Bruce Webb said...

Barkley 'al-Iskandar is a back formation. To Arabic speakers it was heard as 'The' 'Axendar', I suppose as if it were a title like Persia's 'The King of Kings'

Just as I'm English we have it going the other way with hardly anyone aware that all kinds of 'English' words just have Arabic pre-particles incorporated. Like Algebra and Admiral which latter translates literally I (I think) to The "Emir' Of (with a sea name appended).

Should we insist on scrupulous attention to history and etymology and start calling that branch of math 'al-Gebra'? Or that bright star 'al-Tair'?

Then again the only reason people don't call me 'pedantic' is that I don"t have a teaching position and so strictly don"t qualify. said...

Right. "Al" in Arabic is "the."