Many English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed. For though English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes we use them occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic. But what the heck does the apostrophe do for pronouncing “the Qur’an”?
My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. The Arabic sounds are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions thus leading to several common spelling permutations. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is the new popular spelling. With this has come a change of pronunciation. The “o” is now pronounced like a “u” and the “a” is no longer the “a” in apple but the one in father. But the “a” in apples actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). But though the K became a Q, the letter is still pronounced like the English K while the sound is actually a lingual-glottal. I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.
The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled or has a long mark over it. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q or the glottal stop in the word “Qur’an” least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at. So our new English spelling tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?
Actually, the pronunciation of al-Qur’an even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”. Listed by number of speakers, here are the top dialects:
- Egyptian – 50 million
- Algerian – 22 million
- Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
- Sudanese – 19 million
- Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
- North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
- Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
- Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria
With these varieties of spellings, what is the right way to spell, the Qur’an in English? Well, like definitions, spellings change. You can arbitrarily choose momentary prescriptions of language “authorities”: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook. But even those will change over time.
The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place democracy rules.