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Summary Details

Query:   Pronounciation of bin Laden
Author:  Mark L. Louden
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Phonology

Summary:   Folks,

About a dozen of you responded to my query about the pronunciation of the
first vowel in Osama's patronymic ''(bin) L-X-den''. Here's a summary of
what came up in these very helpful responses.

1. Some were unsure as to what vowel I was referring to with ''bin
L[au]den''. What I meant was the diphthong as in ''loud'' and ''crowd'', hence
the homophony between this mispronunciation and my surname. Some thought I
was referring to the long, back rounded vowel found in some English
varieties in words such as ''laud'' and ''bawdy''. Maybe rendering [au] as
[aw] would have been clearer.

2. It was interesting to note that those who could attest to this creative
pronunciation of a diphthong heard it produced by North Americans only
(both Canadians and US Americans; Gary Coen [] used
to work in Saudi Arabia and reports that American expats produced ''bin
L[au]den'' in the name of the family construction concern frequently).
Respondents from the UK had not come across this.

3. Several pointed out the fact that the vowel in question in Arabic would
be somewhat fronter in any case, namely akin to English [ae] as in ''lad''.
This brings up an important point: the mispronunciation has really nothing
to say about Arabic phonology, rather the English (loan) phonology of these

I think Dave Holsinger's ( explanation is on the
right track. He points out that long or tense vowels in most varieties of
North American English typically end with an offglide. For the nonfront
vowel [o:], the offglide is [u]-like. Because of the lack of a regular
distinction between [a] and [a:] in the English of most North Americans*,
the [a:] in ''bin L[a:]den'' is apparently perceived as longer than the [a]
in words like ''father''; [a:] is therefore produced like the other tense
vowels, i.e., with an offglide associated the nearest nonfront vowel, [o:].
The relatively greater phonetic distance between the first element, [a],
and the second, the offglide [u], yields a clearly perceptible
[au]-diphthong. One could also argue for the systemic support of this
mispronunciation from the perspective of loan phonology: the ''foreign'' [a:]
is substituted with its nearest ''native'' (North American English)
equivalent, [au] (or [aw]).

[*Only certain nonrhotic speakers of English make this distinction, e.g.,
''cot'' [kat] vs. ''cart'' [ka:t].]

4. Another phenomenon people commented on was the pronunciation by English
speakers (both in the UK and North America) of the first and third vowels
in proper names such as ''Taliban'' and ''Pakistan'', specifically the
uncertainty as to whether one should produce [ae] or [a(:)]. Roger
Billerey-Mosier ( had this to say:

'' My general line of thinking is that low back [a] is preferred over low
front [ae] in words with more than one stressed vowel or words with a
stress clash. Those words sound especially foreign to American ears, used
to relatively regular stressed-unstressed (reduced) rhythms, and the use of
extra-loud, extra-long [a] (low back) reinforces the perceived exoticism by
making a vowel that would be reduced to schwa in
English as long and loud as the language will allow, certainly longer and
possibly louder (more sonorous) than low front [ae].''

Many thanks to all who responded!

Mark L.

LL Issue: 12.2391
Date Posted: 26-Sep-2001
Original Query: Read original query


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