Ten simple things every Westerner should know about Arabic


Fed up with repeated mispronunciation of Arabic names and words in Western media, I offer this simple primer of ten things that every Westerner (esp. broadcasters) should know about Arabic names and terms:

  1. There are only three vowel sounds in written Arabic:
    /a/ (as in Panama)
    /i/ (as in pizza), and
    /u/  (as in Lulu)
    Although some names and terms may look or sound as though they contain the sounds /e/ (as in edge) or /o/ (as in oar), these are in fact aural illusions of the /ai/ (as in Aye, Captain) and /u/ sounds.
    Thus, Hussein is actually written Huss-AYE-n); Hosni Mubarak is in fact Husni MuBArak; Mohammed is actually Muhammad. Similarly, the prefix El- is in fact Al- (means “the”—hence, the Spanish definite article El).
  2. Speaking of the prefix Al, certain letters—specifically, D, N, R, S,  Sh T, TH (sh and th are single letters in Arabic)—are deemed to sound awkward when they immediately follow, so in those cases the l in Al- falls silent, and (to compensate) the following letter is doubled (stressed). Thus:
    Al-Shabbab is pronounced “ASH-SHabbab”
    Al-Ra’is (“the President) is “AR-Ra’is”
    Al-Sisi (current President of Egypt)—”AS-Sisi”
    Al-Sharq (“the East”, as in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat – “The Middle East”—also the name of a major Arabic newspaper) – “AS-SHark”
    Al-Thani (“the Second”)—”ATH-THani
  3. The word ‘abd means “servant” or “slave”—hence Abdullah  (Abd-Allah) means “Servant of God” (much like the Gaelic “Gilchrist”  = “servant of Christ”). The English spelling “Abdullah” is meant to indicate that the “u” is short “u” (“uh”) sound in English, to simulate the Arabic /a/—NOT to indicate “AbDOOllah”.
  4. There is no such name as Abdul: it is always “Abd al-something”—e.g., Abd Al-Kader, Abd Al-Malik, etc.  Abdul, therefore, means “Servant of the”—something is missing.
  5. Abu means “Father of” and often serves either as an honorific (e.g. Abu Hassan = “Father of Hassan”), a revolutionary moniker (Abu Mazen – Mahmud Abbas’s name within the PLO), or actual surname (e.g. Abu Baqer). It can also have the meaning of “Possessor of”, or “He of the…”, as in Abu-l-banaat = “The father of [only] daughters”.
  6. The female equivalent Umm-  is more usually used in literal sense of “Mother of.”
  7. Ibn or bin means “son”, or “son of”. Hence, Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi (famous medieval Muslim teacher), and (most infamous modern example in the West) Osama bin Laden = Osama son of Laden.  Also used in swearing—e.g.
    ibn kalb = “son of a dog” (i.e., a bastard)
    ibn ḥmaar (“son of an ass”, i.e. of a donkey). The female equivalent is bint (or the rare form, ibna)—hence the British English slang reference to a girl or young woman.
  8. In Egyptian Arabic, unlike all others, the letter g is pronounced hard (as in go)—everywhere else in the Arab world, the g is soft, as in giraffe.
  9. The present Syrian president’s name is BaSHAR al-AHSSad, not BASHer al-AsSAHD. In the grand scheme of the horrors of the Syrian war, this may seem to be a triviality—but it’s not, because it’s indicative of ignorance and—worse—lack of respect. If you’re reporting on an Arab country and mispronounce the president’s name—be it Assad in Syria, As-Sissi (not Al-Sissi) in Egypt, or Mo’amar (not Moe-mar) Ghaddafi in Libya—that’s a sign that you not only don’t speak the language, but that you’re not even speaking to English-speaking locals, but merely reading the name from secondhand English-language sources. If nothing else, then, proper pronunciation gives you greater credibility.
  10. The name Mo’amar (as in Moamar Khaddafi) is pronounced “Mo-AM-mar” – not “MOE-Mar”.

Most Hebrew-speaking Israelis know these things as a matter of course, but these rules should be part and parcel of everyone’s education—especially of all newsreaders and reporters on the Middle East, as a matter of basic courtesy for foreign countries and cultures of all sorts, and as a mark of basic familiarity with world current affairs.   If you’re a Western broadcaster or reporter, please take note, as it will gain you greater respect and goodwill among Arabic speakers. If you know someone who is, please pass it on. Shuqran (“Thank you”).

5 thoughts on “Ten simple things every Westerner should know about Arabic

  1. Believe it or not, Egyptian is entirely dependent on the subdialect. For instance, because Egyptian is a grouping and not a dialect a Sa’idi speaker would usually pronounce ج as /ɟ/ like a speaker of most Sudanese dialects. A Cairene speaker would use /g/ of course but those speaking Egyptian Bedawa dialects would use /ʒ/ like in the Levant and Hijaz. I speak Sana’ani Arabic and I pronounce ج the same as a Sa’idi would, but if you go a little further to the Tihama plain or Aden it will be pronounced the same as in the Hijaz. A lot of the time dialectology of Arabic gets minimized into these simple to follow but misleading groups — especially in the Arabian peninsula.


  2. Pingback: Ten simple things every Westerner should know about Arabic — יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav Notes by Autumn Light | Talmidimblogging

  3. Doesn’t rule 1 vary by geography?
    Osama/Usama, Mecca/Makka, etc
    I’ve always understood that the same vowel is pronounced slightly differently in different places, is that inaccurate?


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