Sunday, 4 November 2012

What else is in an Arabic name?

Following on from Saturday's post, Abu and Hamza - What's in a name, here is another interesting translation problem.

In Arabic names, both ibn and bin can be translated as "son of".

Osama bin Laden means "Osama, son of Laden." It's not uncommon for names to include references to three or four generations of ancestors, each offset with bin or ibn.

So, why do some names use bin while others use ibn?  The spelling of the word in Arabic changes depending on where it is in the sentence.  If it is at the beginning, it is written as alef-ba-nun, which we transliterate as 'ibn'. If the word appears in the middle of a name, the alef gets left off.  We write that as 'bin'.

Given this system, it's not entirely accurate to use "Bin Laden" when we refer to the man in shorthand. The Guardian's sentence "Bin Laden effusively praised the Jordanian-born militant." would more accurately be "Ibn Laden effusively praised the Jordanian-born militant" since in this case the "son of" is at the beginning of the name.

Bin and ibn are more likely to show up in places with strong connections to tribal culture, like Saudi Arabia. People who live in big cities tend to drop the connecting terms from their names—someone named Osama Bin Laden might end up just "Osama Laden." In North Africa, the bin tends to be spelt with an "e", as in the name of former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella.

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