Arabic to English - Q?

Why is it when translating Arabic words to English, they often use the letter Q for the kuh sound? Qatar, Al-queada, Qaddafi, etc. I don’t think there’s a standard translation matrix for the two, and spellings are mostly phonetic. Witness the problem with names: Mohammed, Muhammed, Mohamet; Osama, Usama; Qaddafi, Khadafi; etc. But in English, the q has a very distinct pronunciation, and is almost exclusively appended with a u and pronounced “kw”. Seems to me a K is a more appropriate letter in the examples above. What gives?

The “Q” of “Qatar” emanates from deeper in the throat than does the “K” of “Kuwait”. See the linked page for other rules of transliteration:

Because the Qaf is distinct from the Kaf in Arabic, and it is helpful even for the non-Arabic specialist to be able to distinguish between certain words. The most amusing is the difference between Dog and Heart, where to the English ear the main difference is the difference between the Qaf and the Kaf.

There are several competing standards in English, not to mention other Western langauges. I personally learned a francophone based standard first then switched to English, which often leads me to have bizarre transliterations.

Mohamet is a Turkic form, for Arabic that is a straight out error.

The Kha in Qadhdhafi is an error. Qaf, perhaps Kaf if sloppy, G even if one is going for dialect, all would be ‘accurate’ - however the Kha is another sound entirely.

Actually the K in Q in most English pron. excluding the following w/u sound is reasonably close to Qaf. My constant objecting to people injecting the “u” after the Arabic Qaf in transliteration is to help avoid the error of making al-Qaeda into “al-kwaida.”

It’s not, for the reasons noted. The denotation of Qaf is useful even for the non-specialist, so as to distinguish various words. Sometimes there are real and crucial differences.

Irishman, a good way to grook the differnce between Arabic qaf and kaf is to pronounce the English ‘k’ sound with the jaw in an exaggerated open position.

First, pronounce the syllable “kah” normally. Then, open your mouth as wide as you can – now pronounce “kah” again, keeping your mouth as wide open as possible throughout.

Due to the jaw being so wide open, the back of your tongue will be unable to hit the exact spot on your palate it hits for an ordinary English “k”. Instead, the back of your tongue will almost certainly strike at or near your uvula (the hanging bit of flesh appended to the rear of the soft palate). Arabic “qaf” is a uvular stop consonant (aside from some dialectical differences), so the tongue contact you make in the uvular area will approximate a proper “qaf”.

Once you get used to striking the back of the tongue against your uvula, you can practice producing this same sound with a normal jaw set. Arabic speakers, of course, do not imitate howler monkeys when pronouncing “qaf”.

Since the uvula is a softer anatomical structure than the velum (which is where “k”/“kaf” is pronounced), uvular stops (i.e. “qaf”) feature some residual friction. This friction can make non-native Arabic speakers hear the “qaf” more as a “kh” (as in German Bach) – IOW as a velar fricative. The friction inherent in uvular stops also makes qaf-type sounds in human language somewhat unstable and prone to shift into a homorganic fricative. Indeed, the Arabic “qaf” has likely drifted into a uvular fricative in certain dialects (**Collounsbury?).

Indeed, Qaf changes in several dialects into

(a) a glottal stop (the hamza) – Urban Egyptian dialects, certain Shami dialects. Qulb (heart) becomes 'elb.

(b) the G as noted. Gaddafi in place of Qadhdhafi.

© Qaf as per standard Arabic pron. found mostly in North Africa and Yemen, tends to soften elsewhere - although there is a lot of variation.

Mind you, these are my personal obs, not from learned study of dialectal variation.

Your observations pretty much confirm the research of linguistic scholars that have time and time again demonstrated the instability of uvular consonants in human language.

The Libyan “gaf” for “qaf” probably moved historically from standard “qaf” to “qhaf” (“Qh” = “r” in French lettre) to “ghaf” (“gh” is voiced version of “kh”, cf. Dutch goed), finally to “gaf”.

BTW, Collounsbury, when you say that Qaf “softens elsewhere”, do you mean that it’s pronounced with a more fricative (c. “k, t” as a stop consonants, “kh, s” as a fricatives) quality elsewhere?

I don’t believe so. To my understanding the Gaf replacing Qaf is a feature of Bedouine dialects, and thought to be an old feature of the language. It is found in areas where historically Bedouine tribes from the Gulf area settled (thus one finds it in the Gulf, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Sudan). I doubt it went through a ghaf, if I understand this correctly.

To my ear, again subjective, the North Africans and Yemanis (among others) tend to hit the Qaf very hard indeed, deep back in the throat. Whereas in other areas, say the Sham for example, the Qaf migrates towards the front and becomes lighter, more k. Not KH, that affording too much confusion.

Thanks, this makes things much clearer. It’s not really so much as a transliteration to English as a transliteration to Roman letters, with special rules for pronunciation. There’s a sound in Arabic with no proper English equivalent (and thus corresponding letter), so another letter that isn’t used in Arabic is substituted. This helps me understand why in high school I could never understand the spelling rules for various names in the newspapers and such.

Collounsbury said:

See, that error was totally unintentional. I’m so used to the u rule in English that I didn’t even notice I had done it, and was wondering why that spelling didn’t look correct. I know the correct pronunciation, but the spelling got me.

“Grook?” Surely you mean “grok.”

Historically, the Roman alphabet we use is descended from ancient Levantine Semitic scripts, which were also the origin of the Arabic and Hebrew alphabets. You can see resemblance in the letter forms of Roman, Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew — all of them descend from a Phoenician original.

The Roman letter Q (as well as the obsolete Greek letter qoppa) originated in an ancient Semitic letter shaped like a circle with a line coming off the bottom of it. This letter was used to write the uvular stop consonant which is still pronounced in Standard Arabic, as described above by bordelond and Collounsbury. Although it dropped out of ancient Greek writing, it survived in the Etruscan and Roman alphabets.

Originally, ancient Latin distinguished three different stop phonemes, which in classical or post-classical Latin all collapsed into one phoneme, /k/. The early Romans used C for the palatal stop before I and E, K for the velar stop before A and O, and Q for the uvular stop before U.

Well, K dropped out of use (except in the word kalendae), and C became the default symbol for the velar stop. There was, after all, no real uvular stop in Latin anyway — but the ancient Roman phoneticians must have felt that U was more of a back vowel and so it was appropriate to use Q with it.

In any event, the correlation of Arabic qaf and Roman Q is historically on firm ground and perfectly accurate.

See, that error was totally unintentional. I’m so used to the u rule in English that I didn’t even notice I had done it, and was wondering why that spelling didn’t look correct. I know the correct pronunciation, but the spelling got me.

I guessed as much, however I have heard – to my deep irritation – introduce the al-Kwaida pronunciation. This leads me to make comments, and the conversation just goes downhill from there, much to my amusement.


(Hmmmmm … maybe I can save face somehow …)

Hey … I coined a new word!


Yup, Monty … preview is my friend. But I’m the one that never bothers to call or write.


Do you mean that qaf might have originally been gaf in Proto-Arabic? I have references at home that might could shed some light here. Maybe I can find something on the Net, too.

Not that this is an earth-shattering intellectual pursuit … just something to get the ol’ gears turning.

Excellent article on all matters Proto-Semitic.

Collounsbury, it seems you are on the money. The various pronunications of qaf in Modern Arabic all descend from what was an “emphatic” velar stop in Proto-Semitic (some scholars feel that the emphatic stops in P-S were, in fact, ejectives – cf. Modern Amharic).