Monday, December 27, 2004

Who Put the Bin in Osama Bin Laden?

My knowledge of Arabic is, regrettably, rudimentary, consisting of one semester of formal study, supplemented by unsystematic factoids acquired along the way in a career devoted mainly to other Semitic languages. However, I do know that the Arabic word for "son," at least in its dictionary form, is "ibn." Therefore why is it "Osama Bin Laden," and not "Osama Ibn Laden"? (Actually you can find via Google a few hundred cases of "Osama Ibn Laden," far outnumbered by the million or so for the "bin" form.)

I thought I had this figured out. Here's what I was thinking: In Arabic the consonant (glottal stop) that carries the sound /i/ in "ibn," is the "hamzatul wasl," which is not etymologically original to the word. It disappears when preceded by a vowel. You can see the hamza disappear in another famous Arabic name, wherein "Abdu al-Jabbar" (Servant of the Almighty) becomes "Abdu-l-Jabbar." In the instance of OBL, the expected "Osama Ibn" becomes "Osama Bn," which by the additional process of anaptyxis (i.e., insertion of a helping vowel; see previous post on The Joys of Anaptyxis) becomes "Osama Bin." Ta-da!

But then I read here:
In colloquial Arabic in the Persian Gulf, the word meaning “son of” is pronounced “bin,” not “ibn,” when it refers to a family name. Hence, the popular Romanization conveys the pronunciation “bin,” and not “ibn.”
All right, that makes sense. The Arabic vernaculars are often pretty different from the Standard Arabic that I was semi-educated in, so I have to accept this. Still, wouldn't the Evil One wish to be known by a Standard or Hocharabisch name, and not by a colloquial form? Or do the colloquial and standard simply merge in this case?

At this point we reach an abrupt end of my Arabic knowledge. If any of my readers can give me an authoritative opinion, I would be very grateful: Who put the Bin in Osama Bin Laden? (My wife told me, "Honey, I can't imagine anyone being interested in this." C'mon, folks, prove her wrong!)


Dierk van den Berg said...

In Arabic there is only one spelling, but the transcription into Latin letters knows variants like Ben Laden, Bin Ladin, bin Ladin, bin Laden and BinLaden. His first name, Usama, is easily pronounced by Americans as Yusama, therefore Arabs often write Osama. Originally, BinLaden was a Yemenite clan name, forwarded by his fertile father Muhammad BinLadin over the Arab Penisula (Al-Jazirah) of the Saud clan. However, acc. to Arab custom he is called AbuMuhammad Usama binMuhammad BinLadin - Father of Muhammad, Usama, son of Muhammad of the "sons of Ladin". I recall the War Scroll 1QM and need a cup of coffee now. Would you also care for a cup of coffee now?

tot ziens,
KU Nijmegen (NL)

EMC said...

That's good information, but it doesn't answer my question. Let me put it a different way: In OBL's dialect, is "bin" used regardless of the phonetic environment? Would one indeed say, for instance, "Muhammad Bin Laden" or "Muhammad Ibn Laden"?

(Personally, I drink coffee around the clock.)

Dierk van den Berg said...

In the declined form 'ibn' apparently turns to 'bn/u', which has been polished to 'bin', the only form adopted by and thus familiar to the Western media. So the family-clan name ibnLadin (cf. ibnSaud) has turned into binLadin (some argue for the terror era that followed after the assassination of his teacher 'Abdullah 'Azzam in Peshawar 1989).