It’s that time of the year again when Muslims around the world abstain from eating and drinking during the day for a month. This year, the southern hemisphere Muslims in places like New Zealand, South Africa, and parts of Australia have it easy due to the short Winter days. Meanwhile, everyone in Europe, Canada, and a lot of the USA have to endure the longer Summer days (Spare a thought for the handful of Muslims living in Iceland who get to enjoy over 20 hours of no food or drink). Everyone near the tropics (which is most of the Islamic world) is like “meh”.
In this post, rather than talking about religion or any of that, I’m going to talk about the way people say the name of the month of fasting.
What is its name?
It’s harder than you think it might be to come up with a definitive answer which is why I haven’t used the month’s name yet (as you may have noticed).
Some call it Ramadan, some say Ramazan, and yet others say Ramadhan (Apparently people say Ramathan as well, but I’ve never seen that).
So what’s with the inconsistency? Let’s start with the original language.
The letter which causes all the confusion is ض. In IPA, the original Arabic pronunciation of this letter is /dˤ/. Most books describe the sound it makes as an “emphatic d” (whatever that means). English speakers approximate this to a /d/, hence Ramadan.
So what’s with the Z?
Well, as it turns out, some Arabs pronounce this letter more like an “emphatic z”. This must have been the case when Islam first came to what is now Turkey and Iran. Speakers of those languages approximated the sound to /z/. Persian passed this on to Urdu and other Indian languages.
What’s interesting to note is that Persian and Urdu both retained the Arabic spelling for the word. This is because the script wasn’t changed much to suit the languages – only a few extra letters here and there – leaving it woefully inadequate for both of them.
Another language which uses the Arabic script is Uyghur, a Turkic language spoken in the north-west of China. In Uyghur, the /z/ sound is used. The Arabic script was changed much more for this language than it was for Persian and Urdu, and it matches the language better. For this reason, Uyghur does not use the original Arabic spelling for Ramadan. Instead, it is spelled رامازان .
So there you have it. The /d/ pronunciation is the most common, but in South and Central Asia, you are more likely to hear the /z/ pronunciation.
But Wait, There’s More!
The sound of the letter ض is unique to Arabic. In fact, Arabic is sometimes referred to as the “language of Daad” (Daad is the name of the letter…or is it “Zaad”?). Because of this unique sound, every language that Arabic came into contact with, dealt with it in different ways. We’ve looked at the /d/ approximation and the /z/ approximation. There’s one more approximation that’s less common.
Enter Tamil and Dhivehi.
The majority of Tamil speakers are not Muslim, so there was no special effort to accommodate the sound of ض. They simply stuck to the closest sound in Tamil which was /l/. Their word for Ramadan is ரமலான் where the ல makes the /l/ sound.
The same is true of Dhivehi – ض is pronounced /l/. However, since most Maldivians are Muslims, very rarely will it be spelled with ލ. Maldivians would prefer to use (the completely unnecessary) ޟ. Even so, they still pronounce it like ރަމްލޯން (Ramloan).
Even though Maldivians pronounce ض as /l/, they prefer to use the South Asian convention when spelling the word in English. This is why you see ads like this one on Dhivehi websites:
It kind of annoys me actually. I feel like they only do this because the letter z is “cool”.
Basically, the Arabic language had to be all hipster and have a sound that pretty much no other language in the world has, making it difficult for Muslims around the world to correctly pronounce the name of one of the most important months in their calendar.
ٍSo whether you pronounce it /d/, /z/, /l/, or anything else, I hope this month brings much joy, peace and happiness to all the Muslims out there!