Tripped by Phonetics of Arabic, Again

On Jan 4, 2010, The David Letterman show aired a video titled The Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab Mispronunciation Roundup, in which news anchors stumbled over the Christmas Day terrorist’s name. It was funny, made its point the way comedy does: lightly. But the Letterman writers couldn’t have known that they were onto something.

Three days later, the night before Obama was scheduled to reveal so-called shocking details about the Christmas Bomber fiasco, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow promised a revelation and actually delivered what Obama still has not: The reason Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name didn’t raise red flags at airports and immigration was a misspelling. Of only one letter.

The Arabic language has tripped us up before. When the FBI rounded up suspected terrorists after 9/11, they picked up some innocent men whose names resembled names on their lists. And though the error was based in unknowing sloppiness, the onus to prove that they were merely Muslims with Arabic names– not the terrorists they were accused of being—fell upon the arrested, who often didn’t know why they were being held.

Arabic words, including proper names, make their way to English largely phonetically by transcription, which means sounding the word and finding an approximate match in the Roman alphabet. The results, in the absence of an agreed upon standard for transliteration, are both inexact and various. And since Arabic writing, like Hebrew, uses the Phoenician alphabet, it presents particular difficulties: Only eight consonants correspond exactly to a Roman (English) one. In several cases, two Arabic consonants correspond to the same Roman letter. And Arabic letters that signify glottal stops don’t have corresponding Roman letters.
Without a standardized system in place, alphabetic listings of Arabic names complicate the task of databases and search engines. According to one website, there are 32 ways to spell Osama bin Ladin’s name. He might easily be listed under O (or U for Usama), B, or L. One of the most popular names in the world comes in four different spellings: Muhammed, Mohammed, Mohamed, and Mahomet. The Quran is also spelled as the Koran and the Qur’an. Al-Qaeda shows up as al-Qaida, al-Qa’ida, and Qa’eda. You get the point.
Many of these spelling variations were introduced in the days of early colonialism, and every transcription depended on the transcriber’s country of origin. A Frenchman transcribed the same Arabic word differently from an Englishman, and a native of Algeria, influenced as he was by the French, transcribed differently from an Egyptian Arab. Of course, the different regional dialects and pronunciations of Arabic spoken in different countries also affected transcription. T. E. Lawrence famously refused to change the inconsistent spellings of proper names in his manuscripts, arguing that “Arabic names won’t go into English exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district.”
So we are confronted with the kind of nuanced problem usually found in good spy novels, resolutions for which an agile, intuitive imagination is required rather than routine, machine-aided information processing. In other words, we’ll need the kind of smarts an underdog is better at providing than is an established power. To solve this problem, we might want to turn to minds not yet shaped by established institutions where a good day’s work means business as usual.

One suggestion: Last week was the deadline for NYC’s Better App contest, in which contestants were asked to make obscure government-gathered information stored in neglected databases transparent to citizens. Among the most popular entries was one called NYCBooks, in which users could enter a title and find the nearest public library that had it. My favorite was an app that provided information about every tree growing in NYC. By offering this challenge to individuals with know-how and playful ambition rather than giving a software company a fat contract, NYC saved both time and billions. Perhaps this can work on a federal level too: Let’s put our young best agile individuals to work.

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