I Say Madrassah, You Say Religious School

Wali Mohammed outside the madrassah, madrassa... well you know

Not often I get an email with the subject line “style advice”. On this occasion it could not be dealt with by a pithy “cowboy boots go with anything” sort of response. In fact it was from Telegraph HQ, from the poor chap who has to make sure that assorted correspondents around the world agree to use the same spelling for troublesome words – often proper names – such as Gadaffi, Koran and so on. The problem is those languages that simply refuse to use the Latin alphabet. Transliteration gives a range of options. All could be considered correct. But which is the best one to use?

It can even vary from place to place. In Libya, for example, it may be that Gadaffi is pronounced with more of a K sound, so it could be spelled with a Q or a K.

The issue for news organisations is consistency. There may be no correct answer, but for reasons of neatness a single spelling is preferred. Different spellings will be a distraction to the reader.

And so it was that my story this week on the madrassah in Karachi seems to have sparked a bit of a debate, hence the email asking whether I have much of a preference. The options are…

  • Madrassah – this is the current preferred choice, according to the 2010 style guide edited by Simon Heffer. But it looks a little archaic to my eye
  • Madrasahone discussion suggests this may be the best spelling according to the Pakistani Urdu pronunciation
  • Madrassa – this was my favourite. But that was based on my lousy English pronunciation of an Arabic word. So probably not a great guide
  • Madrasa -preferred by The Guardian and it seems to be the most widely used online. That shouldn’t really matter, but these days with SEO and so on you don’t want readers missing your site because they are using a different spelling variant to search the web

Anyway, enough of my wittering. Just wondered if there were any proper linguists who could tell me the best spelling? And everyone else can lodge their vote on the poll below…


10 thoughts on “I Say Madrassah, You Say Religious School

  1. I think the double letters are a matter of taste. The ‘h’ at the end has a bit more background to it and I think that it shows the regional origin of the word and of similar words.

  2. The best version is prob madrassa. I have no idea why the ‘h’ always gets added. I guess because people see the ‘he’ letter at the end in Dari/Urdu texts and assume that it’s an actual ‘he’ rather than a vestigial ‘ta marbuta’ from the Arabic pronounced silently. So the ‘H’ is out.

    No reason to have a double ‘D’, either. No idea where that comes from.

    The double S is there, I assume, in order that the word stress can be figured out from the transliteration. If you know Arabic you know where the stress should go, but a spelling of ‘madrasa’ won’t allow you to figure out where the stress should go in the word.

  3. Yep, I’d agree with Damocles. All work, and it would depend on which area of the Arabic speaking world you’re in.

    So, as someone who grew up in Saudi Arabia, I would say Madrassa would be my preferred option, with the emphasis on the d and s. The h at the end is just wrong…

  4. Listen to how YOU pronounce it. If it’s pronounced like Sana’a, then it would be madrassa’a. But convention here is to substitute a final independent aspirated consonant for an aspirated vowel.

    Devanagari, which has strong similarities to Urdu, has more aspirated consonants than either independent or dependent vowels. Urdu script, with its similarities to Arabic, is even more biased in favor of aspirated consonants over vowels.

    The aspirated consonant in madrassah is pronounced similarly to ‘the decider’ in Arabic: fatah. Madrassah should therefore be spelled with the aspirated ‘h’ rather than ending in a vowel.

    The ‘s’ sound in Madrassah is pronounced with an extended double ‘s’ unless the speaker is from America’s upper Midwest, where it would be pronounced with a penultimate, extended and highly nasalized ‘a,’ as someone from Michigan would accentuate the ‘a’ in pronouncing Chicago as shee’caago.

    The association between the ‘h’ in Madrassah and fatah is the most salient justification for ‘madrassah.’ Unless you intend to nasalize the penultimate ‘a’ then ‘ss’ should be used. Madrassah it is.

    1. I fear I may not pronounce the word quite as authentically as you. My pronunciation is a bit lazier. But then the way I say it is notthe best guide. Should be someone who knows what they are talking about. Nice explanation

  5. I voted for Madrassa because that’s the name of the Madrassa Aid Project! We are trying to raise $5000 – a minuscule amount by any standards – to give direct support to little rural schools in Mauritania that are struggling under tremendous pressure and lack of funding. The reason it’s called Madrassa is because Mauritania is a muslim country, all schools are madrassas by definition but with a full curriculum, much broader than religious study alone.
    Find us on Twitter: @MadrassaAid

  6. I agree with Damocles.

    There is a german ‘expert’ on Pakistan who in one of his books takes it further and over a whole paragraph elaborates that only he knows about madrassas because he actually calls them by their correct plural form, madaris. He may be right on it linguistically, but when one takes that ‘foreign word usage’ so far as to split hairs to put oneself further up on the ‘expert ladder’ (equally as throwing around with ‘desi’ words (there you have it) just to add ‘local flavor/expertise’ to the story) I start to become suspicious. I rather read a text with substance that calls madrassa by any spelling (correct or wrong), but actually knows what that word/term may encompass.

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