With the recent (as in, since I started reading newspapers and watching the news) media focus on the Middle East, a number of print media have translated foreign words and names into English and used the apostrophe within these words.

In English, the apostrophe is used to take the place of one or more letters that are left out of a word or phrase in order to shorten it and write it as it sounds phonetically. Words like this are called contractions. For example, in the word "doesn’t" the apostrophe takes the place of the "o" from the phrase "does not". Spelling it with the apostrophe allows it to appear in print in the same manner as it is spoken (i.e. the "o" sound is not pronounced).

Recently, some newspapers and online media have printed names such as the "Ba’ath party" (incidentally, it’s not Party), using an apostrophe in the name. Following the rules of the English language, I’m forced to ask myself what letter or letters are being replaced by the apostrophe in this instance, and how would the complete name be spelled?

Turning to another example and upon digging deeper I find that the word "Ha'aretz" is actually two words in Hebrew: "ha" being equivalent to "the" and "aretz" meaning "land". English translations usually print this phrase as a single word: "haaretz", "ha’aretz" or "ha-aretz".

Words that are translated and published using a hyphen or apostrophe are done so in order to make it easier for the (assumed uneducated) reader to understand that what they are reading is a foreign word or phrase. If the publisher printed "ha aretz" perhaps the caffeine deficient commuter with his morning paper might think the editor let "ha" slip where "the" should have been.

Update: I've been recently informed that the apostrophe is also used to indicated a glottal stop. If you don't want to read that exhaustive node on it, here's the nutshell version: The glottal stop is a guttural sound that is made when the glottal folds (see glottis, the space between the vocal cords in the throat) are pressed together. For example, the sound made when saying "uh uh". Most of the time English language writers leave this out, as it could appear in many common words. Therefore, my theory that editors leave it in to denote a foreign word still stands, I think.


Transliterating from English to the Semitic languages and vice versa is a tricky business, one that requires either gross approximations or arcane notations on both sides. For linguists, the choice is simple. There are dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of diacritical marks and established conventions that can tell a trained reader exactly how to pronounce a word in any language. For the uninitiated, however, it’s all about approximation. The average Westerner neither knows or wants to know how to properly pronounce an ayin/ain, any more than a farmer in Iraq knows how to spell Connecticut in English, or why there is a silent C and an extra N in it.

The end result is that when transliteration is done for a mainstream audience (i.e., one with no linguistic training), it does not generally conform to the strict rules, and uses simplified pronunciation symbols instead. The apostrophe is one of the most common of these, and is widely used to indicate a glottal stop. The Hebrew word Ha’aretz could also be written Ha-aretz or Haaretz. A lot of people do use Haaretz, but in my opinion Ha’aretz is a better alternative, because it indicates that there are three syllables in the word, instead of two.

(By the way, Ha’aretz is Hebrew, not Arabic. The Arabic word for “the” is Al, as in Al-Quds, Al-Aqsa and Al-Jazeera. And it is important to note that Ha’aretz is indeed one word, even though it translates into “The Land” in English. Articles in Hebrew are not at all like articles in English; “Ha” is not a word, but a prefix.)

The Ba’ath party could be written Baath party, but would the pronunciation of the word be clear in that form? I doubt it. In fact, when the Ba’ath party first started to be mentioned in the news, I distinctly remember that almost every American I heard using the word (including the reporters) called it “the Bath Party”. So you slide an apostrophe in there, and instantly your average Euro/American reader understands that there are two syllables in the word. This isn’t “telling you that this is a foreign word” - it’s telling you how to pronounce that certain foreign word.

Of course this doesn’t conform to the rules of English. That’s because it isn’t English. The word Ha’aretz isn’t a translation into English, it’s a transliteration. And it does indeed conform to the generally accepted rules of transliteration (for mainstream audiences, anyway. Technically, Ha’aretz ought to be Ha?aretz - but how many copies of the New York Post would that sell?)

Finally, it may please you to learn that it does work both ways. There are sounds in English that don’t exist in the official Hebrew alphabet, but have to be used anyway. Soft G is one, and the “ch” in “church” is another. Not a problem when you stick to Hebrew words and names, but when you have to write news articles about George Bush, or historical essays about Winston Churchill, you can’t just write Gorg Bush and Vinston Tzertzil and assume that people will understand.

So diacriticals are inserted, little slash marks above the gimel or the tzadik that modify the sounds. These markings don’t follow the official Hebrew rules at all. But everybody knows them and uses them. It's just one of those things.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.