Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab


I’ve been rather disappointed by the BBC since Christmas Day over the attempted bombing of an airliner approaching Detroit airport. For at least the first week, there was absolutely no consistency among even radio newsreaders in the pronunciation of the suspect’s name. Stress on the last element varied between Abdul’mutallab and Abdulmu’tallab.

Christmas Day is the worst day of the year for such a story to break, because there is noone in the Pronunciation Unit office, but for the uncertainty to last for a week is very unusual. There is a particular problem with this name, because although the individual names are Moslem ones, of Arabic origin, the bearer of them is a Nigerian, and so may not be a native Arabic speaker, although according to Wikipedia, he was a student of Arabic, and his mother is a Yemeni. The major language of the Moslem faith area of Nigeria is Hausa, but this may not be his first language either. The BBC does have a Hausa Section at Bush House who could be asked for information, and when I was the Pronunciation Adviser, my home telephone number was easily found throughout the Corporation in case of difficulty 24 hours a day (there was one occasion when I was rung at 3 am). I don’t imagine that any of the current members of the Unit have their numbers available in this way, and their manager, whose number may be accessible, would not be able to help, as he is not a linguist. I would have had to do some research to establish the best way to deal with the name, but the advantage of contacting me was that my advice would have been immediately available to the whole Corporation, whereas research by a newsreader, while it might well have been as good, would have been known to that newsreader’s immediate colleagues only, and not the wider broadcasting world.

Here is a plea by some American news people for a simplification of difficult names. Is that reasonable, or a cop out?


  1. Stress in Arabic is not stable: it varies from one colloquial variety to another.

    Here is a plea by some American news people for a simplification of difficult names. Is that reasonable, or a cop out?

    One of us (you or me) needs to turn on the irony detector. Check out the headlines in the right-hand sidebar.

  2. It would only be possible to make fun of the pronunciation if it was all over the place. Had American news organizations sorted it out – and in my experience, US fact checkers are far better than British ones, then this whole piece would have been redundant.
    The fact that stress in Arabic is not stable is irrelevant. This man’s family is not Arab, but the father at least is well enough known that his own pronunciation should be familiar to someone accessible to journalists. Similarly the English-language name Powell is pronounced in two ways, but each individual bearer of the name has his preference, and that is what should count.

  3. Questions of the form “How do you pronounce it?” are often met with “In which language?” or just with a shrug. My own father’s surname was re-pronounced by his high school football coach, and his siblings and their descendants have taken up the new pronunciation, though the older generation (now long dead) was supposely unaffected.

    But what I was talking about is that the so-called “plea by some American newspeople” is just GlossyNews taking the mickey out of its readers. Which is what it does. Asking if that’s reasonable or a cop-out is to miss the point.

  4. Well. Graham, Voice of America have helpfully supplied OH-mahr fahr-OOK ahb-duhl-moo-TAH-lahb which I shd think translates for British purposes mildly anglicised into /ˈəʊmɑː fəˈruːk ˈӕbdəl muˋtӕləb/ tho TAH suggests /tɑː/ which the VOA speaker makes so short it sounds like Arabic more than Americanised.
    It’s something you and I often dont see eye to eye about but I’ve not noticed anything that’s bothered me from any of the many speakers I’ve he’rd broadcasting in this country. This reminds me obliquely of a constant thaut I have. Seeing that the BBC is a national service funded by the tax payer why can’t we all have the telephone access the Corporation’s employees all have to the Units database. I’d love to think that a few people besides myself feel this.

  5. I’m glad somebody’s found a site that gives some advice on this pronunciation. I spent some time the other day trawling through Google with no success at all. The BBC’s Unit hasn’t put anything on the News blog that they were using for a time. I think the BBC would balk at giving away a service like this that has cost it so much time and effort to build up, when its main customers would be the ‘opposition’ – ITV and Sky. However, if they have the time (and with a staff of only three these days, time is something they probably haven’t got spare), then a short daily list of names, with explanations of the reasoning behind the recommendations, would be welcomed by linguists around the world (and I can just hear Catherine saying “yeah, sure!”)

  6. I don’t think the mere fact of spoofery justifies “Al-Jazzera” or “news commentators … has asked the FBI, CIA and other … to create shorter nicknames”.

    VoA’s guide is a close enough approximation to Arabic for plenty of Muslims, in Africa and elsewhere to have not much less difficulty with it!

  7. Thst news-story urging a simplification off certain names was a hoax — from a humor-site whose “news” consists entirely of similarly convincing hoaxes.

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