Omani Cities and the Nightmare of Inconsistent Spelling

As a follow-up to my previous post, I think it is important to address the problem of inconsistent spelling in Oman in general because Sohar is not the first or the last city name/brand to be harmed by arbitrary spelling changes. It only takes a day’s drive anywhere in Oman to notice the randomness of how names of Omani places are spelt. Spelling nightmares in Oman range from major cities such as Sohar, Seeb (as Sib, al-Seeb), and Matrah (Mutrah, Muttrah), to neighbourhoods in the heart of the capital such as Athaiba (Azaiba, Odaiba, Al-Athaiba) and Mabaila (Mabela).
In my opinion, this problem is caused by two distinct issues. Firstly, there is no authority in Oman that has the responsibility of setting the official English spelling of the names of places in Oman. In Arabic, the authority for setting the names of all governorates and major cities (i.e. Wilayat) and their spelling is His Majesty who issues royal decrees with these names. The most recent one was issued in 2011. If there was ever a dispute as to how the Arabic name of a city is spelt (e.g. is Haima spelt هيما or هيماء?), the dispute is resolved by referring to the royal decree that determined the official name of the city. In English, there is no document with the same legal authority that people can refer to when they need to figure out a disputed spelling.

To overcome this problem, the government basically needs to issue a simple one-page document that has the names of all major cities in Oman spelt in English. This would end once and for all any argument about how Sohar, Seeb, Matrah, or Bowshar should be spelt. This document must be legally binding on the whole government, especially the biggest spelling offenders whose work has a direct impact on spreading misspelt locations such as the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Muscat Municipality, the Ministry of Regional Municipalities and Water Resources, National Survey Authority, and Royal Oman Police. This document, therefore, must either be a royal decree issued by His Majesty, or a decision issued by the Council of Ministers. From a procedural point of view, a decision by the Council of Ministers is easier to issue and to update.

The second issue that causes this problem is the lack of a transliteration standard for the names of Omani places. I am not talking about a list of names, but a document that details the actual underlying rules for how Omani names should be written in Arabic. Even if a royal decree comes out with formal names of places, it will not be logical if that royal decree spells Seeb as ‘as Sib’, Rustaq as ‘Al-Rustaq’, and Buraimi as ‘al Buraimy’. Oman needs a document that sets the rules on how the names of Omani places should be spelt. This document should set, for example, how to deal with ‘Al’ in the name of a place. Should Seeb be spelt as ‘Seeb’, ‘Al-Seeb’, ‘Al Seeb’, ‘al-Seeb’, ‘al Seeb’, ‘As-Seeb’, or ‘as Seeb’. In my opinion, the obvious answer is ‘Seeb’ without the mess of ‘Al’ at all. This is already the standard used in the names of all major Arab cities. For example, Doha, Manama, Riyadh, and Sharja are not spelt ‘Al-Doha’, ‘Al-Manama’, ‘Al-Riyadh’, and ‘Al-Sharja’, even though the Arabic names of all these cities have ‘Al’. This is shorter, simpler, and overcomes the pointless attempt at trying to distinguish between the Qamari and Shamsi ‘Al’. We might also still need to have a rule for ‘Al’ for complex names (such as Al-Jabal Al-Akhdar) and must decide if we capitalise ‘Al’ or not and whether we have a hyphen or not in these special cases.

A translation standard can also cover issues such as the rules for transliterating specific letters. For example, it can state that the letter ‘thal‘ in Arabic (ذ) is always to be transliterated as ‘th‘ and not ‘d‘ or ‘z‘ as is the case of Athaiba. Similar rules can be adopted for all disputed letters such as (ظ), (ض) and (ق). Having a document that clearly sets the transliteration rules will not, on its own, guarantee that all the spellings will be consistent, but it will provide a standard point for ensuring that we all have the same understanding how these names should be written. This document could be as simple or detailed as the government wishes, and can extend to matters such as standard dictionary-word spelling style (e.g. does Oman use British or American spelling for words such as ‘Centre’?) and even unique rules to Oman (e.g. is ‘Oman’ a special words for the a/an articles? Is it ‘an Omani object’ or ‘a Omani object’? In my opinion, it should be ‘a’ if you pronounce the ‘3ain‘ (ع) sound, making Oman an exception to the ‘a/an’ rule in the same way that ‘a European object’ is an exception to that rule).

Oman needs to do something about the arbitrary spellings of the names of Omani places, especially if Oman is truly serious about developing the tourism sector as these names are vital, not only from a practical point of view to tourists who come to the country and struggle to know the names of the places they want to go to, but from a bigger branding point of view as having a consistent spelling for the name is a preliminary step in establishing a meaningful brand to any given location.