A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Language Questions: ISIS or ISIL? And is Peshmerga One Word or Two, Capitalized or Not?

When things develop rapidly, the news media does not always know how to handle it. During the Vietnam war, South Viet Nam spelled the country's name with two words,  North Vietnam with one. That spelling dispute was also settled on the battlefield. A couple of questions about English renderings in the present Iraq Crisis have arisen:


الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Iraq wa'l-Sham,  literally means "The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham," and that is how this blog has been translating it when we use the full form. "Al-Sham" is the traditional Arabic word for "Greater Syria," Syria/Lebanon/Palestine/Jordan, roughly equivalent to the French-English term "Levant." Some therefore translate as "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant," while others gloss the explanation as "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria." Since both the "al-Sham" and "Syria" versions yield "ISIS" as an acronym, while "Levant" yields "ISIL," both have been used by various media outlets in English. ISIS seems to be dominating at the moment (since it can stand for two of the three possible translations), but President Obama has used ISIL. I prefer ISIS because "al-Sham" is the actual place name used, and "ISIS" is easy to pronounce, sounding like the Egyptian goddess, while ISIL, at least to me, sounds like some kind of medicine. I opt for ISIS for this blog.

The Washington Post, commenting on this, notes, "In any case, neither ISIS nor ISIL are as accurate as 'DAIISH,' the Arabic shorthand for the group that no one in the English-language press seems to use."  Technically true, but not gonna happen. Andrew Sullivan has also weighed in, and opted for ISIS for many of the reasons I do,

Peshmerga, peshmerga, Pesh Merga, or pesh merga?

This question is purely orthographic in English and thus not one of translation.  The linguists at Language Log have raised the issue about the many ways of spelling (in English) the name of the Kurdish armed fighters, whose name everyone agrees means "those who confront death."

To some extent, it's a matter of preference. Like all languages written in versions of Arabic/Persian script, Kurdish has no capital letters. The Kurdish spelling is:

The peculiarities of Kurdish vowel marking make this look to an Arabic or Persian speaker like the division is Peshme Rga, but I'm sure that's not how Kurds see it. (I know no Kurdish.)

However, the Kurdistan Regional Government has a Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs:

and the KRG's English website always spells it Peshmerga. Henceforth, at least, that will the style I use here.

There may be other linguistic issues to emerge from current events. Already I am hearing the military acronym "Charlie Foxtrot" used more frequently. (Hint: it does not stand for "Coalition Forces.")


Anonymous said...

Question: ISIS or whatever we should call it in English has said that it will punish anyone who uses the acronym in Arabic :Da'ash. Is this an objection to acronyms in general or something about the sound or alternative meaning for Da'ash?

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Anonymous: I don't know. I'll try to find out.

David Mack said...

Good communication should be the object. When I am speaking Arabic, I use da'ash or the full name. When speaking or writing English, I use ISIS, most of the time. If I want to help someone understand what is involved, I translate the words, using "Syria." What is most to be avoided in ISIL. Good English style should avoid using acronyms, especially acronyms that include a French word and reveal a Eurocentric bias. Would we talk about "The Setting" and then include it in an acronym for The Maghreb? I hope to never see ISIL in the pages of the MEJ.