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Why so many different spellings for some Arabic terms?

Why does the Western media have so many different spellings for some Arabic terms?


1. hezbollah hesbollah hizbullah hizbollah hisbollah

2. ayatollah ayatullah

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Lets get the easy one out of the way first - Ayatollah is Persian, Ayatullah is Arabic,:

Persian: آيت‌الله‎ ayatollah from Arabic: آية الله‎, āyatu allah (Wikipedia)

As for the Lebanese group, though Wikipedia lists it as Hezbollah, the nearest transliteration would be Hizbullah:

حزب الله‎ Ḥizbu 'llāh

I know nothing about Arabic, but I imagine the o/u sound could be interpreted either way, and we know that S often has a Z sound in English. Also, there are regional variations of Arabic, so pronunciation no doubt differs from place to place, added to the fact that there is probably no official transliteration (as in Chinese) as many countries are involved.

At Ngram, Hezbollah is by far the most common, (but Hizbollah in British books, for some reeason - but I think that might be an aberration), not only in the English collections, but also in French, Spanish and Italian books. In German, however, Hisbollah is the most common.

In English books, Hizbullah and Hizbollah, get less than half of Hezbollah (but see British books, above). Hisbollah and Hesbollah hardly register. Incidentally Firefox red-lines all but Hezbollah.

At the BBC, Hezbollah is by far the most common. (541 -real hits), as it is at the Guardian, Independent, Times. But interestingly, at the Economist, Hizbullah gets 622 to only 237 for Hezbollah.

The next most common at the BBC is for Hizbullah (336),but it's nearly all from the BBC Turkish service, so that looks like the standard Turkish spelling.

Hizbollah gets 157

Hesbollah brings up the BBC Romanian service (63)

Hisbollah gets only 23 - many in Welsh, Portuguese and Spanish.

So if you want to go with the flow it looks like it's Hezbollah, but if you want to be more faithful to the original Arabic - Hizbullah.

Warsaw Will October 19, 2014, 12:14am

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Thanks Will. ;)

Hairy Scot October 19, 2014, 1:25pm

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My understanding is that Arabic is usually written without vowels, rthr lk ths.

jayles the unwoven October 19, 2014, 2:30pm

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Although Arabic is written without vowels but it has a unique pronunciation. The key point is that Persian language has very simple pronunciation and Arabic has very complex pronunciation hence none of them could be converted to English and people try to emulate the sound made by original language and since English has many variants of pronunciations and written types such as optimization and optimisation, many types of translation is emerged. English is similar to Arabic in complexity of pronunciation but Persian language is very simple so when converted to English, strange pronunciations are added to it like Shal (شال) that is very simple pronounced, converted to Shawl a more complex and English compatible form. Certainly Arabic pronunciation is different to English pronunciation so simply they can not be converted.

Amir72c February 23, 2015, 10:36am

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Lots of good answers here.

Another way of looking at this is to ask who has the authority to decide the "right" way to spell any of these words using the Roman alphabet - and the obvious answer is no-one. Hence lots of spellings.

Damien K April 13, 2015, 10:11am

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Yes     No