Spelling Proper Names in Central Asia

I have a dilemma that one of the readers of this blog  brought to my attention. How should I spell the various proper names I've been discussing.

Is it Ahal-tekke or Akhal teke or akhal te-ke? Pishpek, Bishkek or Bishpek? Khyrgystan or Kyrgystan?

I've seen these names spelled in all of these variations. Why so many spellings? Which ones should I use for this blog?

Inconsistent spellings of foreign proper names occur when people attempt to translate the sounds of a language into the phonemics of their own language. This translation results in even more variations when the original language uses an alphabet that differs from the one into which it is being translated. Thus, Kyrgystan, pronounced phonetically in English as Kir-gi-stan, can be spelled Kyr or aspirated as Khyr. The spelling of the Akhal-teke horse as either Akha or Ahal depends on whether the translator hears the "k" sound when a native speaker pronounces the name using an aspirated "k."  In the Kyrgyz language, 'kh' is pronounced as a slight gutteral sound that comes out more like an "h" than a "k." Thus, the 'k" is often omitted as in the spelling variation for the name of the breed. Kyrgyz was originally written in Arabic but when the Russians took over the country in the mid nineteenth century, Cyrrllic was substituted. The maps and materials I read use the Roman alphabet. Thus, the spellings I read are second generation translations.

Foreign proper names provide a challenge to any journalist. Use one of several spellings and readers who have become used to another form believe the writer has misspelled the word, shown her ignorance and is not worthy of being read. One of my readers even attempted to revise my spellings, only to have spellcheck change them further.

So I shall follow the rule to which most journalists adhere. I will select one spelling and use it consistently throughout. If you, reader, disagree with my decision, please send in your choice of spelling.

Filed under: Central Asia


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  • Apparently not limited to Central Asia.

    Technically, it is Deutschland, not Germany or Allemagne. Based on stamps, it is Helvetia, not Switzerland. Basically, one can't trust Angocentrism for anything, but, as you point out, it becomes more difficult when the alphabet and phonics are different.

  • In reply to jack:

    Languages dont always copy the source language when referring to their geografical features. Here is a list of foreign spellings of "London":
    Londres (French, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Spanish); Londýn (Czech); Londen (Dutch); Lontoo (Finnish); Londain (Irish); Londra (Italian, Maltese, Romanian, Slovak, Turkish); Londona (Latvian); Londone (Lithuanian); Rānana (Maori); Londyn (Polish); Llundain (Welsh);

  • In reply to AllanJC:

    At least those are close to London.

    In addition to the two I mentioned above, it is Suomi; not Finland.

    Of course, there was all the respelling of Chinese cities, formerly Peking and Canton (the latter now Guangzhou).

  • In reply to jack:

    I always found this amazing. Where did these names come from? Somewhere in the past?

  • In reply to AllanJC:

    Thanks for adding to the list. I had no idea how many different spelling variations for London there were.

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