The debate over whether to write the current month of the Islamic calendar with a ‘d’ as in Ramadan or ‘z’ as in Ramzan continues to rage on Indian social media. The traditional spelling of the word in the Indian subcontinent has been Ramzan. However, Ramadan has lately become part of the linguistic repertoire of Muslims in the country.
Many wonder about the reasons for the shift in the spelling from ‘z’ to ‘d.’ Some describe it as a reflection of the Muslim elite’s desire to shun the composite Indian culture and align with the Saudi brand of Islam. For them, in the innocuous change in the spelling from ‘z’ to ‘d’ lies a larger ideological shift towards Wahhabism, an extremist version of Islam. Others have linked the shift specifically to the radicalism of Muslim tele-evangelists.
As a sociolinguist who has studied social meanings of language in general and Urdu in particular, I am shocked at such superficial explanations. Not only are they empirically incorrect, but they are also equally politically motivated. People with vested interests use such explanations to propel their own agenda to corner Muslims.
Letters and sounds
First, consider the linguistic aspect of the issue. The name of the month contains the letter ض, which is pronounced similar to ‘d’ in Arabic.
In both Persian and Urdu, into which the word was borrowed centuries ago, the original pronunciation didn’t survive. Instead, it was replaced with the sound ‘z’. Consequently, it was written as Ramzan. Such borrowings and the accompanying loss of pronunciation are common in many languages.
In Hindi, for example, the letter ष is written but not pronounced like it was in Sanskrit. In Hindi, the sound of this letter has merged with that of the letter श. My own name contains the same letter ض . It has two different pronunciations, both of which I use depending on the context. While talking to Arabs in Arabic, I introduce myself as Ridwan, for Urdu/Hindi speakers I am Rizwan.
Globalisation: Language on the move
The shift from Ramzan to Ramadan is a by-product of globalisation accompanied by extraordinary advances in science and technology. Globalisation has brought languages and people in contact with each other in ways that were not possible earlier. Today, more Indians are travelling overseas for work and leisure than they did in the past. Of all places, the Gulf countries continue to be a major attraction for Indians.
Having worked in the Gulf, Indians not only brought home foreign remittances but also some of its cultural and linguistic items. On special occasions, one can see some Muslims wearing a thawb, a long white robe worn by Arabs. As I have written before, the linguistic influence of the contact between Indian and Arabs is evident in the popular use of some Arabic words in Indian languages – for instance, khallas (finished). The word khallas has become a part of popular culture in India.
Like the word khallas, the Indian expats brought with them the original Arabic d-version of the word believing that the correct form was Ramadan. Given that the word is Arabic, it is not surprising that they accepted the Arabic spelling norms.
Globalisation and developments in communication also brought people from different parts of the world in conversation with each other. On Twitter, we notice this all the time. The name of the month outside of the Indian subcontinent, including the English-speaking world of the UK, US and Canada, has always been spelt Ramadan to reflect the d-like Arabic pronunciation in Arabic. Evidence of this can be seen in the frequency of use of the words Ramadan and Ramzan in English newspapers.
A quick search of the phrase “the month of Ramadan” on the database Lexis Nexis Academic for the New York Times alone returns 1,000 hits, whereas the same phrase with Ramzan returns only three documents, all written by a Pakistani writer. This writer interestingly adds a clarificatory note: ‘also known as Ramadan in the Middle East’.
With the rise of the electronic and social media, Indian readers — Muslims and Hindus alike — began to discover that their month of fasting is also spelt Ramadan not only by Arabs but the rest of English-speaking world as well. Faced with the two competing forms, Urdu speakers have chosen the newer form. The appeal for newness may partly be because of its proximity to Arabic.
The shift to Ramadan is similar to how many Indians who have lived in the US, on their return start pronouncing ‘r’ in words such as ‘car’ and ‘far’ in an American way. They use ‘movie’ instead of ‘film’. Another telling example of the globalisation of language is the adoption of American hip hop music in Indian films. A recent film, Gully Boy, shows the popularity of this Western genre being adopted into an Indian story.
However, we hardly see any debate about such foreign influence in Indian languages and films.
Finally, the Ramadan-Ramzan controversy is restricted mostly to the writing. Seldom do people use the d-like pronunciation in their verbal conversations, e.g. “Main agle ramadan mein tumse milunga (I will see you next year in Ramadan)”. They prefer the traditional z-spelling of Ramzan. For this reason, in Persian in which the word is actually pronounced with a ‘z’ sound, Ayatollah Khamenei, while tweeting in English, used the more prevalent d-spelling of the English-speaking world.
The media-propagated Ramadan-Ramzan controversy is not related to Wahhabism or radical Islam. Instead, it is the result of the globalisation of language and its use and meanings. We live in a world where our linguistic behaviours, like other social practices, are in flux due to mutual influences. The linguistic cross-fertilisation is giving birth to new linguistic forms. Ramadan is one of them.
The author is Associate Professor of Sociolinguistics, Department of English Literature and Linguistics, Qatar University, Doha. Views are personal.