Spelling it out: burqua, burqa, burkha, burka? Bugger!

25 Feb

“…well they’re not burquas are they because the sleeves are wrong and that’s not even how you spell burqa! There’s no u in it!”

This comment overheard at the Armadale opening of my new show FundaMattel: If Barbie Wore a Burqua, suggests the title and images certainly got someone talking, if perhaps not quite thinking!

Spelling Nazis are about as pleasant as a fart in a burqu/a/kh/a! It would appear the pedants are out and about…and I wonder if they focus on things like “correct” spelling and hem lengths because they don’t want to consider the greater issues at hand. Shall we talk about constructions of femininity, race, cultural and religious identity, fundamentalism and consumerism or shall we talk about spelling? Alright, lets talk about spelling because its soooo interesting, no really, it is.

As a teacher of the English language and an examiner of the Cambridge University International English Language Testing System I’m supposed to care enormously about the spelling of words. Yet for me what is most important is a persons ability to communicate meaning most effectively.

The title of my latest show is a play on words and ideas and it uses one of four possible spellings (although i’m open to further possibilities!) of the word naming the article of clothing known as a buqua, burqa, burkha, burka. For me it is the ideas behind the words that are most important because it is these ideas that have so much power to affect women’s lives.

In case it has escaped some viewers, burqua is an Arabic word. This means it’s original written form is in Arabic script and not our own 26 letter alphabet, leaving English users with the task of translating the sounds of the Arabic word into English phonemes and from there into something representative in English script.

English grammar has rules, most of which we break. However, one rule we uphold without fail is that, in English all words using a q must follow the q with a u, why? Because that’s how we do it! It’s the rule! This may be why some people spell burqua with a qu, it would be an appropriate English spelling. However, as burka is an Arabic word, and Arabic has both qu and q alone sounds, one might also translate the sound of the word into the English characters burqa. Burkha and burka might also be considered to be phonemically correct.

Translating sounds between alphabets or character systems can be fraught. Exact correlations between the sounds we make with our mouths and the symbols we write on a page to represent these sounds are not always possible, but we can often get fairly close, close enough to communicate our meaning effectively.

Now, does anyone want to talk about constructions of femininity, race, cultural and religious identity or consumerism?

For the record, the title of the show when it appears at No Vacancy Project Space in the atrium at Federation Square in Melbourne (Fri March 16, 6-9pm) will omit the u as a gesture aimed at opening up the possibilities for spelling, thinking, acting, and communicating meaning!

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One Response to “Spelling it out: burqua, burqa, burkha, burka? Bugger!”

  1. arabexperience March 24, 2012 at 3:40 am #

    Great blog!

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