Greater than 4 minutes, my friend!
When does prose become politics? While working on translating a Kazakh short story into English, I was recently asked by the author if we could change my spelling of Kazakhstan to Qazaqstan, and Kazakh to Qazaq.
Hmmm. Does he know that it is usually spelled Kazakhstan? I saved two recent examples from the Washington Post and the New York Times. But before responding, I reflected this past weekend on ‘romanization’ as related to transcribing Chinese.
Mind your P’s and Ps
The standard way to represent Chinese characters alphabetically used to be Wade Giles. From the late 1800s through at least the 1960s, this type of romanization was used. It was rather mysterious to the uninitiated. An apostrophe was used to indicate a ‘hard’ sound, so ch’ was the ch of church, while ch without the apostrophe was the j of jar. Likewise, a t’ was the t of tip while t without the apostrophe was the d of dip. And also p: the capital of China was known briefly during World War II as Peip’ing (a ‘b’ sound followed by a ‘p’ sound).
Thus the beloved panda Bao Bao, who was sent to her ancestral Chinese home from Washington DC’s National Zoo in 2017 , is actually spelled Pao Pao in Wade Giles. And in Wade-Giles lingo, Mao’s name was spelled ‘Mao Tse Tung’ and one form of martial art was spelled ‘T’ai chi’ (hard t followed by a soft j sound). During an interim from the 1940s to the 1980s, Yale romanization was used in many language textbooks. Yale dispensed with the apostrophes and denoted ‘d’ sounds with d; ‘j’ sounds with j; and ‘dz’ (which was tse in Wade Giles) was written dze.
Pinyin was created by Zhou Youguang in the 1950s. (Mr. Zhou, God bless him, lived to age 111 and passed away in January 2017. Linguists live longer!) The mainland Chinese government supported the development of Pinyin as an aid to teaching the many millions of Chinese citizens who could not read Chinese characters. Westerners persisted with the older forms of romanization, but eventually we all came around to the Chinese Pinyin system, and now Mao’s name is spelled Mao Zedong. And to this day I mispronounce Taiji. I say “tie chee.”
Aside: Pinyin uses ‘q’ in an unusual way — the q is a hard ‘ch’ sound, like ‘tch.’ So the Chinese yoga formerly known as Ch’i Kung is now Qigong.
If it quacks like a…
Not being very worldly, at least about the Russian and Kazakh side of the world, I initially thought favorably about using Qazaqstan instead of Kazakhstan for the simple reason that it seemed to be just like a Wade-Giles to Pinyin progression: Kazakh was the archaic way and Qazaq represented the modern way to spell things. I also thought of the q version of the Koran (Quran).
But until today I had no idea that the spelling of Kazakhstan as Qazaqstan has become a political issue, a symbol of freedom from Russian and Cyrillic dominance. A couple of articles from last year describe the situation:
The fight over the letter Q as the debate is known began in July 2004 after Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev met with former head of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaymiyev and said that Kazakhstan must shift the Kazakh language from a Cyrillic-based script to a Latin one” [“Fight over Kazakhstan or Qazaqstan (in English Transliteration) Heating Up” by Paul Goble]
The former prime minister of Kazakhstan, Kassym Jomart Tokayev, believes that “the English version ‘Qazaqstan’ more accurately reflects the essence of our state, rather than ‘Kazakhstan’.” [Kazakhstan или Qazaqstan? in Today.kz, November 3, 2016]
More than you want to know, unless you’re a philologist
A blog article about this goes into the philological-political views of Kazakhstan vs Qazakstan:
In Kazakh, the country name is “Қазақстан.” The first and fifth letter in the word is a “Қ“, a letter that exists in the modified Cyrillic script used to write Kazakh in Kazakhstan, but not in Russian Cyrillic. The closest Russian letter is a “К“, which looks pretty similar but lacks the small tail on the bottom right of the letter.
The Cyrillic “К” makes the same sound as a K in English. The “Қ” represents a sound that does not exist in either English or Russian. In Arabic that sound is represented by a Qaaf (ق) and when that Arabic sound is transliterated into English, it is usually transcribed with a “Q.” (A Qaaf, for example is the last letter in “Iraq” and the first letter in “Qur’an”). … The reason why we spell Kazakhstan like we do is because it is a direct transcription from Russian, that doesn’t have the “Қ” or a Q, so Russians just convert it to a “К.”
“But wait,” you say, “that doesn’t explain the ‘h’ in Kazakhstan.” The “h” in Kazakhstan comes from another transcription issue that further shows how much the English word “Kazakhstan” is the product of the Russian linguistic concerns.
In Russian, Kazakhstan is spelled “Казахстан.” You’ll note that the Russians only transcribed the first “Қ” as a “К.” The second “Қ” they turned into an “Х.” An “Х” in Russian (and Kazakh) makes a different sound from a “К.” It makes that sound that English-speakers associate with the middle-east. Hebrew words with that sound in it often get transcribed with a “ch.” Arabic words with that sound often get transcribed as an “kh.” But it is a single sound denoted by those letter pairings, like the “ch” in the Scottish “Loch” and denoted in Arabic as a Khaa (خ).
But anyway, why did the Russians stick an “Х” in there when they could have just gone with another “К“? Because the word “Казак” was already taken. In Russian, “Казак” means what we spell in English as “Cossack.” Thus they could not just substitute both “Қ”s with “К” without making every reference to Kazakhs look like a reference to Cossacks (and vice-versa). The purpose of the “Х” in the Russian spelling is to distinguish Казак from Казах (i.e. Cossack from Kazakh). “Казакстан” to a Russian-speaker would look like the country of the Cossacks, not the land of the Kazakhs.
[“Qazaqstan” on Rubber Hose blog, March 23, 2014]
Politically Correct Prose
I’m still on Q’s side. But now it’s more of a wish to be on the politically correct team. As Shakespeare’s Juliet said:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d.