Curious Name: Mālik
by Basil Dragonstrike

One somewhat troublesome name is Mālik particularly when macrons are not used. This is because "Malik" is the word for "king". Clearly, Mālik looks like it's related to Malik; but then, "Basil" is related to the Greek word Basileus, yet no-one denies it's a personal name.

There are two general ways to write Arabic: vocalic and non-vocalic. When something is written vocalically, someone who knows the rules can pick it up and read it out loud---that is, vocalize it---with no idea of the meaning, nor any familiarity with any of the words. This is not possible with non-vocalic writting, however. In fact, if the reader does not recognize the word, s/he will not know what is said. Please note that most things written in Arabic use non-vocalic writing; usually only learning materials, certain technical works, and the Qurʼān, are writting vocalically. As well, foreign and scientific/technical words may be written vocalically in a non-vocalic work.

The difference comes from the fact that vocalic writing uses tashkīl---diacritical marks--and non-vocalic doesn't. The tashkil include marks for the short vowels1, as well as some others, which don't concern us now.

Arabic, at least classic Arabic, has eight vowel sounds: the short "a" as in "pat", the short "u" as in "put", the short "i" as in "pit", the long "a" as in "father", the long "u" as in "rude", the long "i" as in "machine", and two diphthongs, which have the sound of "eye" and the sound of "ow". The diphthongs don't currently concern us, either.

In vocalic writing the three short vowels are shown by tashkīl put over the consonants they follow, while long vowels are shown by those same tashkīl, plus the consonant+tashkīl being followed by another letter. To be specific: long "i" is shown with the a tashkīl-on-consonant followed by "yāʼ", which otherwise has the sound of "y" in "yet". The long "u" is shown with the tashkīl/consonant combo followed by "waw" which otherwise is the "w" in "wet". And, the long "a" is the right tashkīl & consonant followed by "alif" which doesn't actually have a sound of its own. (NB: different tashkīl are used for different sounds.)2

So much for vocalic writing. In non-vocalic writting the tashkīl are, of course, dropped. However, the following letters, that indicate a long vowel, are not. So, in non-vocalic writing, the name Mālik does not have the tashkīl, but does have "alif"---and Malik (king) does not! That is, malik (king) in vocalic writing looks like
مَلِك
and in non-vocalic like
ملك
but Mālik (the name) in vocalic writing looks like
مَالِك
and in non-vocalic like
مالك
That is, malik and Mālik are, in non-vocalic writing, respectively
ملك  and  مالك

Thus, in Arabic "Mālik" and "Malik" cannot be confused. It is only in languages that use the other alphabets this confusion can occur, and only if macrons (or similar indicators) are not used.

So much for Mālik as a problem name!

Addendum: I recently came across a name that I'd spell Malīk; "a" as in "pat" and "i" as in "machine," with the emphasis on the second syllable. It's usually spelled "Maleek". In Arabic, it would be (vocalic) مَلِيك or (non-vocalic) مليك; these are both clearly diferent from (vocalic) مَالِك and (non-vocalic) مالك. Since the name seems to be moderately popular in some circles, I'm astonished I never heard of it. Note: it is not a period name; there is no trace of it before 1650. Based on research, I conclude it wasn't formed until the 20th century. Those who say it's the Arabic word for "king" are, as you realize by now, entirely erroneous.
BTW, malīk, as a word rather than a name, seems to be a rare synonym for mamlūk. That is, it means "slave".

Return to "Curious Names".


1 I am using "short" and "long," with regard to vowels, according to common usage, rather than the more technical way linguists use the terms.
2 Note that words beginning with a vowel use a varient on this system. Also note that there's another way to show long "a", but it's very rare and doesn't concern us.