P is for Falastin

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Sometimes it's P and sometimes it's B, depending on transliteration. And while we're having an Arabic lesson, how about that G in Gaza?

Everyone has unfortunately heard of at least one ridiculous argument used against Palestinians: since no letter in Arabic makes the “p” sound, Palestinians couldn’t pronounce “Palestine”, proving Palestine never existed. Despite Palestine being pronounced as Falastin in Arabic, it turns out there sort of is a “p” letter in Arabic, and it’s used almost exclusively in Israel.

(screenshot: Twitter)

Officially, there is no “p” letter in Levantine Arabic and most other Arabic dialects. As a result, when it comes to transliterating words that contain a “p”-sound from other languages, it is substituted with the second letter of the Arabic alphabet, ب (ba). This is likely the main reason for the stereotypical Israeli belief that Arabs pronounce “p” as “b”.

When it came to street signs, Israel adopted the letter پ  for the “p”-sound in transliterated place names. This adaptation has origins in many other languages such as Kazakh, Persian, and Urdu, which use the Arabic script and do have a “p”-sound. While not widely used, it can also be found in other dialects of Arabic such as Hijazi Arabic.

(screenshot: Google Maps)

The rich 28-letter Arabic alphabet is still missing some other letters that can be found in both Hebrew and English, such as “g”. You may, as a result, be wondering how there can be a majority-Arab area with a name that starts with a “g” — Gaza. The answer is that in Arabic, the name of the area is actually spelt “غزة” using the غ (ghayn) letter and is pronounced as “Ghaza”; the closest equivalent sound known to most English speakers is the French guttural “r”, as in Paris. In fact, غ (ghayn) — the nineteenth letter of the Arabic language — is frequently used as the substitute when transliterating names containing “g” into Arabic; for example “Ben-Gurion” is spelt “بن غوريون”, and while it is pronounced identically, it could be read as “Ben Ghurion” without knowing the context.

Once again, Israel adopted a foreign letter for street signs, though it wasn’t غ (ghayn). Instead, the چ letter acts as a “g” sound. The چ is an unofficially modified version of the fifth letter in the Arabic alphabet,  ج‎ (jim), to make a “g” sound, while Hebrew unofficially does the reverse and modifies the ג (gimmel) with an apostrophe (‘ג) to make a “j” sound. The “g”-sounding چ letter has its origins in Ottoman Turkish, and has seen use in many other Arabic script languages, but does not have the same pronunciation in them.

Lastly, the letter “v” is missing in Arabic. When transliterating words containing a “v” sound, the letter ف (fa) is usually used, but that didn’t prevent whoever set the standard for Israel’s street signs from using something else. While not completely official, the letter ڤ (ve), a modified ف (fa), does have some wider use in Egyptian and Hijazi Arabic, as well as other languages such as Kurdish and Malay. Israel adopted this letter to transliterate any “v” sounds in street names.

(screenshot: Google Maps)

There are definitely some mixed opinions regarding the use of these “letters” amongst the Arabs I have spoken to. Some say it is a good modernization, while others say that it’s incorrect and that, to some extent, it bugs them. The good news for them is that so far this is only used on street signs and not in any official documents, where the standard method of transliteration is used.

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian made Aliyah from London in 2005. He served in the IDF and is currently residing in Be'er Sheva as a B.A student of Communications and Middle Eastern Studies.

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