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(PSA#3) So how do you spell Gaddafi's surname, anyway?

25th March 2011 (21:50)
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There, that was easy. :-) Or Qððāfī, if you want to be annoyingly uber-geeky. Spelling it as قذافي, while technically correct, is just cheating.

More seriously, I was curious as to why there are so many different versions of his name, and which one could be considered correct; so I did some research. Turns out there are two separate problems making it hard to get an accurate transcription.

The first problem, of course, is that 'Gaddafi' is an Arabic name, and the letters of the arabic alphabet don't all correspond directly to single letters in the roman alphabet, nor vice-versa. There are systems for transcribing one to the other, of course, but these have changed over time and not everybody follows them.

Secondly is the issue of what to do if you're transcribing a word from a language with quirky and non-phonetic spelling. For example, take the English expression 'tough guy' The same letter, G, appears in both words; but in the first, it's actually pronounced as if it were an F. So if you were writing out 'tough guy' in another alphabet like Russian or Greek, should you use that language's equivalent of G? Or F? There are arguments for either. Spelling it exactly as in English is more technically accurate; but anybody who isn't an expert in English spelling already would assume that the phrase was pronounced "tug guy". Which could be unfortunate if it were someone's name. :)

So, breaking down Gaddafi's name letter by letter, this is what we get.


The first letter in his name is the Arabic qaf. This represents a sound that doesn't exist in English, which is our first complication. Qaf does sound a little bit like the English letter K, however, so old-fashioned books simply used a K. Others used KH, just to show that the letter wasn't pronounced exactly like a K. More modern writers use the English letter Q instead, again to show that the sound isn't quite a K. Hence why the Muslim holy book was once called the Koran but nowadays is more often referred to as the Qu'ran.

So, the first letter in Gaddafi's name can be represented by a K, a KH, or a Q. Where does the G come from, then? Because in the Libyan dialect of Arabic, the letter qaf is not pronounced the way it is in standard Arabic... it's pronounced like the English letter G instead. In other words, the technically correct spelling according to the rules of Arabic would be Qaddafi, but the phonetic spelling is Gaddafi. That's how he actually pronounces his name.

(missing letter 'A')

in Arabic, unstressed vowels are normally omitted when writing out words. The technically correct spelling would jump straight from the Q to the d with nothing in between. In English, however, we do write out all the vowels. Gaddafi's name is pronounced as if an A were between the first two consonants, so that's how it's normally spelled in English.


The Arabic letter dhal comes next, doubled - which in Arabic is shown by putting a diacritic over the letter, but in English by repeating the letter. This is another letter that has a different sound in Standard Arabic and Libyan Arabic - and while it's a sound that does exist in English (although not in several other European languages), there's no longer a single letter to replace it.

Dhal represents the sound TH found in words such as this and that and the other. Six hundred years ago, that was written in English using the character thorn, or ð, but nowadays only linguists (especially the cunning ones) are familiar with it. Instead, the sound is sometimes written as TH, but also sometimes as DH to distinguish it from the softer, unvoiced TH sound found in words like thin and mathematics. Middle Earth fans will recognise the latter convention: Tolkien used the letters DH to represent the voiced TH sound in his languages, in words such as Caradhras or Fanuidhol or Caras Galadhon.

So, one way to spell Gaddafi's name would be Gaððafi - but only for people willing to use an obsolete Anglo-Saxon letter. Tolkien fans could instead spell his name as Gadhdhafi, which is a spelling I've actually seen used. Because that doubled 'DHDH' is such a mouthful, some people instead only write it once, spelling the name Gadhafi.

Except, of course, it's more complicated than that. In Libyan Arabic, the letter dhal is pronounced as a D, not a DH/TH. So the man himself pronounces his own name as Gaddafi, and that's the phonetic spelling.


The second vowel in his name is a long A sound, which is stressed. For this reason, the Arabic spelling of his name includes a character for the A, unlike the first vowel.


This is an F. It's pronounced exactly like the English letter F, and spelled as an F. It's the only non-controversial letter of his entire name. \o/


And finally, this letter is pronounced as a long I sound ("ee"). The only complication here is that a final I sound in English words is normally written with the letter Y, which would make the spelling Gaddafy. There's nothing actually wrong with that, but for some reason the spelling of foreign words normally stays with the final I instead.

And there it is. The BBC, and most other British news media I've seen, always use the phonetic spelling Gaddafi, which is pronounced just how it's written. But other versions include Khaddafy, Kadafi, Qudhdhafi, Gadhafy, and who knows what else. If in doubt, you could always cut and paste قذافي.

Any Arabic scholars who spot a mistake in what I've just written, please tell me.


Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 25th March 2011 23:00 (UTC)
Writing is hard! by missmurchison


(I have myself wondered at all the weird spellings. Hurrah for the BBC!\o/)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 12:25 (UTC)

Thank you! :-)

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 25th March 2011 23:06 (UTC)

Good to know. Of course, I keep thinking of Leo McGarry from The West Wing:

Leo: Margaret! Please call the editor of the New York Times crossword and tell them that Khaddafi is spelled with an “H” and two “D’s” and isn’t a seven letter word for anything.
Margaret: Is this for real? Or is this just funny?
Leo: Apparently it’s neither.

Leo: [on the phone with the New York Times] 17 across. Yes, 17 across is wrong... You’re spelling his name wrong... What’s my name? My name doesn’t matter. I am just an ordinary citizen who relies on the Times crossword for stimulation. And I’m telling you that I met the man twice. And I recommended a pre-emptive Exocet missile strike against his air force, so I think I know how...
CJ: Leo.
Leo: They hang up on me every time.
CJ: That’s almost hard to believe.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 12:26 (UTC)

But he was wrong about the spelling! ;-)

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 28th March 2011 16:48 (UTC)

...or was he? Apparently, pretty much anything goes! :)

Posted by: Randall Randall (randallsquared)
Posted at: 25th March 2011 23:37 (UTC)

NPR spells it Gadhafi, since apparently he spelled it that way:


Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 13:22 (UTC)

But that was over 20 years ago; he might have changed his mind since. :) (I tried to look at the official Libyan government website, but for some odd reason it's currently offline...)

Posted by: Chani φ (frenchani)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 01:04 (UTC)

It's Kadhafi for us.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 12:54 (UTC)

See? This is why phonetic spelling is a better idea than attempting to reproduce the vagaries of another language's spelling quirks. ;-)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 12:52 (UTC)

So is that going for fidelity to the Arabic spelling rather than to the pronunciation? Or do you pronounce it differently as well?

Posted by: Chani φ (frenchani)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 14:15 (UTC)

Not sure.

With certain words we have different spellings though, for instance for a caliph we can write "un calife" or "un khalife".

Posted by: azdak (azdak)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 05:24 (UTC)

This is fascinating - thank you! Especially since I grew up with the spelling "Gaddafi", so it's nice to know that's justified by the way the Libyans actually pronounce it. I have a further minor transcription complication to throw into the mix. The diacritic over the D indicates a geminate consonant (one which is audibly longer than the short version), which English doesn't have. Doubling the letters doesn't indicate gemination in English, instead - as we all know - it indicates (usually) that the preceding vowel is long. So in the considering the competing virtues of Gaddafi versus Gadafi, my choice would be influenced by the quality of the unstressed vowel (I'd pick DD if it's a "hat"-like A and D if it's an "arse"-like A).

Italian does have geminate consonants, and English uses doubled consonants to transcribe them, but it's kind of non-information, because no-one who doesn't speak Italian can tell this from the spelling, and I think it's better not to try to convey pronunciations that don't exist in English (or at least not by using conventions that already have a different function in English). I've certainly never heard any Westerner pronounce the geminate /d/ in Gaddafi.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 13:00 (UTC)

Insteresting stuff... though I agree with you that if you're transcribing into English, it's better to give a version that 99% of English people will be able to read! (And mutatis mutandis for other languages, so I wouldn't necesarily expect to see a name written the same way in other countries). That's my problem with Pinyin; yes, it does its job; but its designed purpose is to represent the sounds of Chinese in the roman alphabet rather than to make the comprehensible to English-speaking people, which is why terms like 'Qing' and 'Xia' aren't pronounced anything like the way you'd expect...

Incidentally, I've just checked and it seems that al-Jazeera spell it "Gaddafi" as well on their English-language site.

Posted by: lusciousxander (lusciousxander)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 05:49 (UTC)

Arabic is my first language and I so loved this post. :D

Actually we use the Kh to give a different sound, not the "qaf" sound. It's a sound that occurs in the German language, check how the woman pronounces Christoph. It's similar to that except in Arabic it has a stronger and thicker pronunciation.


With the qaf we usually use K or Q and sometimes G, but I find K and Q more accurate.

With ذ I personally think using "th" is okay. Why use dh when you already have the sound. As you said, That is the correct sound.

We also have a letter with the sound "bath" which is ث the fourth letter in the Arabic alphabet.

I'd spell the name: Qathafi.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 13:19 (UTC)

Ooh. I didn't realise you were a native speaker of Arabic, and I'm glad you didn't see anything horribly wrong in my post. :) \o/ (So just how many languages do you speak fluently? I need to know how overawed I need to be... ;))

As far as ق goes, my understanding is that K or Q is the "more accurate" spelling in Arabic in general, but when you're talking about Libyan Arabic specifically, it's pronounced as a G. (From what I understand - and you might know this better than me - written Arabic is mostly the same all over the world, but spoken Arabic has dialects that are almost different languages.)

Posted by: lusciousxander (lusciousxander)
Posted at: 26th March 2011 14:21 (UTC)

Yeah, it depends on the dialects. I'm not familiar with the Libyan dialect, but watching the news with my parents I heard how they pronounced Al-Qathafi, it was exactly how you wrote it. I was taken aback, because I'm used to hearing his name from the Gulf news channels. In the Gulf region, they pronounce his name like I wrote it "Qathafi."

(So just how many languages do you speak fluently? I need to know how overawed I need to be... ;))

Three languages. Arabic, French and English. I'm half Lebanese/half French, but I consider myself an Arab because I grew up in Lebanon, hence the French, I studied Junior High in Saudi Arabia –my step-dad's country- and studied high school and college in Paris. I married a Saudi man four years ago and moved to Saudi Arabia. I haven't spoken French for a long time, I'm afraid I'm gonna forget it since I stopped using it all together.

Posted by: haxusloe (haxusloe)
Posted at: 8th April 2011 12:31 (UTC)

Thanks for the information. I think that you should wash your face at least 3 to 4 times a day. You’ll be surprised how much better your face will look.

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