Saturday, June 15, 2013

Bashar al-Assad: Orthography and Orthoëpy

As regards the current controversy over the actions of the Syrian President:  In the absence of capacity  materially to affect the direction of political debate (for which see our own poor efforts here), we can at least advise the instruction-hungry public  how to spell and say his name.   In this, we echo the immortal observation of Professor Henry Higgins, who in his learnèd treatise  Bella Damma Mea  observed:   “The French don’t care what they do actually, so long as they pronounce it properly.”

In a nutshell:  In Arabic, the sibilant in Assad is actually pronounced as single, and thus in principle should be so written.  The ‘shibilant’ in Bashar is, by contrast, a phonetically long (morphophonemically doubled) consonant, and ideally would be so transcribed.  In short, the usual spelling in English transcription has it exactly bassackwards.

[We intend to explain all this in more principled structural detail  after we have had time to consume our morning coffee, and to listen to the birds chirp, and to surf the online press  to scan the latest foibles and follies of humankind.]

[2 B Continued, if we are spared.  In the meantime, scroll down for a panoply of ludic and erudite delicacies, or click on the Label links for more about Arabic, pronunciation, or morphology.]

~ Celebrity Endorsement ~
“To distract my mind from current troubles,
I like to dig into a gritty mystery,
starring those tough-talking, two-fisted Private Eyes,
the lovable Murphy Brothers."
(My name is Bashar al-Assad, and I approved this message.)

[Update, Saturday 10 a.m. 
Well, the birds are still chirping, and Lazycat is still lazily sunning himself; but the vivifying java has at last seeped sufficiently through the organism to tickle the tissues into some semblance of sentience.  And our Webbrowsing has not been without issue.  For a remarkable development in the whole Syrian-chemical-weapons charade,  a choice morsel for devotees of political rhetoric, check out the final paragraph of the essay  referenced above,
            Chemical Weapons  hide-and-go-seek  ]

[Resuming, Saturday evening.]

If you really wanted to be exact about it, you would transcribe Baššâr al-Asad. 
The given-name is not itself a dictionary word, but is an emphatic/frequentive form based on a root meaning “rejoice, good news”.  The surname means ‘lion’, and, in the Arabic context, connotes nobility and bravery.

As for the pronunciation:  bash-SHAR al-AH-sad (capitals representing stressed syllables).   Now, what do you immediately notice?
Unlike French or Turkish or Persian or many other languages -- and pace some American radio announcers -- Arabic wordstress is not fixed upon a given-positioned syllable (counting either from the front or from the rear).  Superficially, Arabic is like English or Russian, allowing free contrastive stress.  But in fact (speaking only of Classical Arabic here), it is instead like Latin:  the wordstress is predictable given knowledge of the sequence of long versus short syllables. Baššâr has a long vowel in the final syllable, and hence is oxytone; Asad, a short, and hence is a troche.


  1. But Bashshar al-Aßad fails to follow English spelling rules and is therefore unreadable Hey, why not Baʃʃar? Why not just spell it in Arabic in the middle of an English paragraph?

  2. The "s" in "al-Asad" is the basic 's', much like that of English and other languages; no need to complicate with “al-Aßad”. Arabic, like Biblical Hebrew, distinguishes this simple ‘s’, from the emphatic or pharyngealized version, for which transcriptional graphemes lie ready to hand : either in German es-zet, as you instance (“ß”) or, more simply in terms of readily available keyboards, c-cedilla (ç), as in French.
    As for the surname: The “Baʃʃar” you suggest (which is in any case incorrect, as regards vowel-length) requires the IPA (btw: This is the first time in months that I have used that acronym in the sense “International Phonetic Alphabet” rather than “India Pale Ale”), and hence is beyond the abilities of most typesetters, and far beyond the abilities of readers. Indeed, in a certain Agency of which I have heard tell, the official Names Reference for transcriptions says, in cases like this: “Bashar (technically Bashshar)”.