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    Olam Qatan: Articles

    Articles No 2 : Why There Is a ‘Q’ in Olam Qatan 

    We got used to using the letter ‘k’ to represent the Hebrew letter quf as well as the Hebrew letter kaf, because in modern Hebrew pronunciation the difference in pronunciation between these two letters is getting lost – even though modern Hebrew is supposed to follow the Sephardic (“Spanish” which really means Muslim Spanish, or Arabic) tradition. For an Arabic speaker, replacing a q’ with a ‘k’ is as big a mistake. It would be as confusing as it is for an English speaker to hear someone Japanese mix up their ‘r’s and ‘l’s. They are two distinct letters, and whether they are pronounced the same or not in Hebrew today (actually, the ‘q’ should hit further back in the throat, with a bit of a clicking sound), they certainly have different Hebrew meanings.  (In Hebrew, letters have meanings – which go to make words!)

                You might then ask, why do we commonly spell the word “Kabbalah” with a ‘k’ and not with a ‘q’, since the Hebrew letter is quf? The answer, it seems to me, has to do with the great modern scholar of Kabbalah, Professor Gershom Scholem, having been a yekke – a Jew of German extraction. There’s no letter ‘Q’ in German, so when Scholem translated Hebrew terms into German (which was later translated into English) of course it was with a ‘K’. On the other hand, non-Jews in Europe who became interested in Kabbalah, and who were sensitive to the importance and meaning of the Hebrew alphbet, were correct in spelling it Qabbalah (or Qabbala). But because the people who insisted on the ‘Q’ spelling of “Qabbala” were usually more interested in the application of these teachings to magical and even pagan traditions than in their original Jewish context, the ‘Q’ spelling became suspect in the eyes of many Jewish people.

                So when talking about the Jewish mystical tradition, I too spell the word as Kabbalah with a ‘K’. In this case, the convention is too well established to go against the current. (The doubling of the ‘b’ and the ‘h’ at the end correspond to elements of the Hebrew.) But when it came to choosing the name for my bookstore, it was important to me to place us in the context of our Arabic surroundings, rather than holding onto something German. Spelling Olam Qatan (literally meaning “World Small”) with a Q locates us where we are, in the Hebreo-Arabic or Judeo-Islamic milieu of the Middle East.  It emphasizes the Hebrew letter ק, which actually looks like the mirror image of a ‘Q’ or a ‘q’. That’s because, while the English language is not based on Hebrew, the way of writing some Enlgish letters was originally based on Hebrew – and quf is one of them. Since the letter ‘q’ comes from Hebrew, it’s a pity not to use it to represent a Hebrew quf!

                Purists will argue that in this case, I should be spelling Olam Qatan as ‘Olam Qatan, to show that it doesn’t start with the neutral letter aleph, but with the more guttural sound of the letter ‘ayin. What can I say? Technically, this is correct. That’s why I spell my name Ya’qub ibn Yusuf not only with a ‘q’, but with an apostrophe – to indicate the letter ‘ayin (it is, after all, a name I received in Arabic from my Sufi Sheikh). But introducing an apostrophe into the name of a business you want people to remember – that goes on to become a website address – looks too complicated to me. So in the interest of simplicity, I settled on Olam Qatan.

    Of course, there is no ‘u’ after the letter ‘q’. “Olam Quatan” is incorrect. Always following the letter ‘q’ with a ‘u’ is an English affectation, which we took over, like many things, from the French.


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