Wednesday, June 22, 2016

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, 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.

If you really wanted to be exact about it, you would transcribe the name (if diacritics are available) as  Baššâr al-Asad.  Or, in our usual alphabet, Bashshar...

 And indeed, it appears that the State Department does indeed use the Asad style (while suppressing the al-).  From the "Dissent Channel" memo  published today in the New York Times:

(SBU) Secondly, a more assertive U.S. role to protect and preserve opposition-held communities, by defending them from Asad’s air force and artillery, presents the best chance for defeating Da’esh in Syria. The prospects for rolling back Da’esh’s hold on territory are bleak without the Sunni Arabs, who the regime continues to bomb and starve. A de facto alliance with the regime against Da’esh would not guarantee success: Asad’s military is undermanned and exhausted.

  [Acronym note:  SBU means:  You won't be prosecuted for sharing this (a good thing, too, since I just did), but do not disseminate beyond the circle of your very closest BFFs on Facebook.]

The given-name بشار  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.

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