‘Sheikh’: a spelling manifesto

Of all the battles over language in the Middle East, the proper spelling of the word ‘sheikh’ — rather than ‘sheik’ as the New York Times, Washington Post, and most other American media have it — may not be the most important but it is certainly among the least controversial and for that reason should be easy to rectify. Yet the archaic and inaccurate ‘sheik’ hangs on, though there is no reasonable argument to be made on its behalf and it leaves many pronouncing the word as if it sounds like ‘chic.’ This has always bothered me but with Hosni Mubarak currently holed up in the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and Al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed much in the news, there is just too much of this about to sit passively by.

Here, then, is the case for ‘sheikh’ (or, perhaps, ‘shaykh’ though that may be too great a leap to be made in one step) and a call for change. It is simple: in Arabic, the word is spelled شيخ with the final letter being a ‘kha’ (خ) which is usually transliterated as ‘kh’ and not a ‘qaf’ (ق‎) or a ‘kaf’ (ك‎) which are the letters usually transliterated as ‘k’ or, sometimes, ‘q’. The sound of the ‘kha’ is made more in the throat, closer to the ‘ch’ in German or Scottish.

That’s all: it’s a different letter, with a different pronunciation. So, why the controversy?

Most American media follow the Associated Press stylebook — the journalist’s bible for spelling and word usage — on these matters but ‘sheik’ doesn’t meet the guiding principles for Arabic words laid out by AP:

In general, use an English spelling that approximates the way a name sounds in Arabic. If an individual has a preferred spelling in English, use that. If usage has established a particular spelling, use that.

‘Sheik’ fails on all three counts, leading to much mispronunciation. Why is there even a debate about this? It’s time to change.

It is just not chic to be a sheikh.

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One Response to “‘Sheikh’: a spelling manifesto”

  1. shaikh says:

    NY times is a propaganda rag, sorry to tell you. i ant believe judith miler is til allowed to work as a journalist. or actually, considering most journos are either liars of useful idiots it makes perfect sense. i guess she’s just a cia asset anyway. why else would they have her on tv selling her OBVIOUS LIES.

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