How do you say Al Qaeda القاعدة ?

When the terrorist group "Al Qaeda" first became a household name no one knew how to pronounce its name. The same kind of thing happened with Osama and Usama. The second pronunciation is closer, but for some reason the first one stuck. Today on the news you'll hear mostly "al kayda". The news anchors will change the ق to a 'k' and the ع to a 'y'. This isn't really a problem though. In fact I actually view it as somewhat pretentious when someone switches to a foreign accent just to say one word, like when people say Pari instead of Paris when they are speaking English. So I don't hold it against people who pronounce this the American way, I just figured I'd make a video to show the correct way to say it because it is a confusing word when you read it in English.


Anonymous said...

Since I started learning Arabic, I've wondered how "al-Qaeda" was supposed to be pronounced. After hearing it on the radio, I thought there was a ي (rather than a ع) before the د, due to the exaggerated "ee" sound. Thanks for the video!

Linguist said...

-Al Qaeda- is an especially difficult word to say correctly - by which I mean, like a native speaker would say the word.

Not only does it have the difficult Qaf sound but it also has the astonishing 3yn sound.

I say astonishing because it is the most distinguishing sound in Arabic. When a non-native hears the 3yn, he is likely to say: “I’ll never be able to make that sound.” (And he probably won’t).

(I believe I've heard the 3yn sound in one other language. It was either SOMALI or ETHIOPIAN or another language spoken on the Eastern shores of Africa.)

(It's also interesting that Hebrew - Arabic's closest MAJOR language that's still spoken, does not have the 3yn.)

(I say MAJOR because ARAMAIC, the language most likely spoken by Jesus (!) is still spoken in a few villages in either Jordan or Syria. And that language is very close to Arabic, so it might have the 3yn).

And yet, the most difficult sounds in Arabic remain the ض ص ظ and ط first of all because they are so hard to actually hear pronounced and second because to say them, you have to use muscles in your mouth and tongue never used in English.

In fact, in Arabic dialects, these letters are often routinely pronounced like simple “s” or “t”.

This means 3 things:

1. even native speakers have difficulty using them without making an effort

2. they may eventually drop out of the language altogether and remain as interesting but no longer used linguistic fossils. (By eventually, I’m thinking centuries !).

3. Native Arabic speakers no longer pronounce these letters because THEY FIND THEM UNNECESSARY. In other words, the s or t or g sounds are sufficient because the MEANING of the word is determined by the context, not by the sound. (This is a common feature in language....things drop out when they are no longer necessary for one reason or another).

This is already happening to the Qaf. Many dialects no longer use it and have changed it to a “G” sound (like in the word “Good”) or, more often, have replaced it with a “glottolized stop”, a kind of “uh” sound (especially in Egyptian).

Yet, as usual when speaking of language, things aren’t as simple as first appears.

The Qaf sound remains REQUIRED in many words, dialect or MSA.

In such words as QURAN and AL—QAHIRA and IRAQ, the QAF sound is “de rigeuer”. It must be pronounced.

This is also true for today’s word AL-QAEDA. At least, I’ve never heard it spoken without a clear Qaf sound – even Egyptians would say AL-QAEDA.

The question is: why? Why is the Qaf sometimes used and sometimes not? Are there some kind of “rules” that would dictate when and under what circumstances the Qaf could be replaced or not?
I don’t know of any.

It probably has to do with things like religion, name of city, importance attached to a particular word, etc.

Would make an interesting PhD thesis.

The Arabic Student said...

I haven't heard القاعدة pronounced as الآعدة before, but some people might say it with a 'g'. I can't remember if I've heard alga'ida or not but I think I have. It seems to be with proper names that the ق stays a ق but it isn't always so.

It is interesting though how if a language is allowed to evolve and change all the stuff that isn't absolutely necessary goes away. It's just like natural selection where organisms keep getting more and more efficient and they lose unnecessary parts. Language becomes more efficient as well by dropping difficult sounds and combining words (like with contractions in English can't, don't, aren't).

Ben said...

If it's true that qaf is getting dropped because it is difficult to say, as well as other sounds, then how did these sounds ever enter the language? Did they used to be considered easier to pronounce or wasn't ease of pronunciation as important as some other factors? Loan words in Arabic from languages like Greek and Latin entered Arabic with qaf for example قاموس
(and other words which I don't recall right now) although Greek and Latin words would have had a more ك
like sound. So it would seem not too long ago, qaf was preferred to Arabs over kaf, but these days the transliteration in Arabic picks the softer kaf.

ع is still pronounced in Syriac, and I believe it's pronounced the same as the Arabic version.

I have to disagree about ص and ط being hard to pronounce. They're simply darker versions of sounds English speakers can already produce. Atlas almost has a ط if you were to write it in Arabic.

Linguist said...


**You may not want to publish my comments beginning with #3 below which begins: "The much more difficult question....". The ideas I present there are very often considered offensive to many native Arabic speakers**


Ben poses very interesting questions. It would take too long to do them justice here so I’ll try to keep my comments short and still make sense.

1. Other common foreign words that entered Arabic and written with the “hard” consonants are: Tawola (Egyptian: table, from Italian) QamiiS (Egyptian: shirt, from Spanish/Italian), Constantinople (ultimately, from Greek). القسطنطينية

2. Why these and many other foreign words ended up being written with Arabic hard consonants, I can’t say for sure. At least, I’ve never read anything in this regard. But I think the answer is sort of obvious.

They were written this way simply BECAUSE THEY WERE FOREIGN. I think it’s as simple as that. Very telling is the Arabic for Constantinople: القسطنطينية

not only is the Qaf used in this word, so is the Ta (twice), for no legitimate or linguistic reason other than it is a foreign word. And, the unknown P is completely dropped because it doesn’t exist in Arabic.

In other words, there is no good reason that I can see that the hard consonants are used when writing these foreign words. It could be that using the Qaf , Ta, etc. gives the imported word a sort of “authenticity” and “gravitas”…something like that.

Strangely, it appears that this is no longer happening in contemporary Arabic. The huge number of especially technical and scientific words that are coming into Arabic from English are all written simply as they sound in English. (computer, tape, mouse, technical, quiz, course), and countless others are hardly ever written with the hard letters that I can see.

3. The much more difficult question asked by Ben is: IF the “difficult” sounds in Arabic are being dropped because they are difficult to pronounce, WHY did they ever enter Arabic in the first place?

Can it be, as Ben asks, that people in the past could pronounce these difficult sounds easier than modern people can?

I’ll simply say this:

My guess is that these “difficult” sounds NEVER WERE USED IN COMMON SPEECH AT ANY TIME past or present.

That is to say, these sounds represented the”elevated” phonology of an idealized, constructed, almost mythological FUSHA that was never really used in daily life, even in pre-Islamic times.

In other words, the FUSHA - with its "difficult" sounds - has always been a “literary” formal and nearly abstract variety of Arabic used for formal occasions and similar situations.

It was never used as the speech of daily life.

To believe this, as I do, you must first accept the idea that the “DIALECTS” existed before the FUSHA.

Most native Arabic speakers, of course, will disagree with this notion. To them, the dialects are a corrupted form of an “original” FUSHA.

But this is completely unrealistic. The dialects – or at least some specific dialect - must necessarily have come first.

Like every other language on earth, Arabic must have been SPOKEN LONG BEFORE IT WAS WRITTEN and it's very hard to believe that when Arabic was first spoken, it was the highly technical, involved and nearly algebraic FUSHA that was being used.

Linguistically speaking, this couldn't possibly have been the case.

The Arabic Student said...

"it's very hard to believe that when Arabic was first spoken, it was the highly technical, involved and nearly algebraic FUSHA that was being used. "

I don't know how you came up with this idea, but it makes sense. It seems unlikely that fusHa just arose like other languages. It just isn't efficient enough to have done so. Can anyone really believe that people said ما استطيع (5 syllables) to express "I can't"?

Chris said...

Very late on this topic judging by previous post dates but I'll post anyway. Interesting to hear discussion on the letter ق and especially the post referring to how certain letters are dropped or change depending on country.
I live in the UAE (Dubai specifically), and one of our closest Emirates is Sharjah. Sharjah is pronounced exactly as it is written in English, but is spelled الشارقه.
Therefore one would think the pronunciation would be Sharqa or thereabouts. However many Emiratis pronounce ق as a 'j' and therefore الشارقه is pronounced as Sharjah.
Any info or comments on this? I may be wrong as I'm English and have very little knowledge on the Arabic language.

Ben said...


I've wondered about how Sharjah came to be spelt with a "j" too. I'm interested to here other opinions but here's my best guess -

in the gulf the ق is often pronounced as a G, I'm not aware of it ever being pronounced J as this would confuse it with ج which is a letter that is never dropped or substituted - it's only ever a "dj" as in a French j or a j, as in English.

However, when the g and j sounds are transcribed to English they are sometimes written as g or j. I think Shargah is the more correct spelling and pronunciation.

Anonymous said...

Someone said above that the word for t-shirt comes from Spanish, but as far as I know it is the word camisa in Spanish that came from Arabic... Could anyone clarify the issue?

GenevaChristie said...

Thank you for a good, helpful video pronunciation. Will I be able, as a native speaker of English, be able to say it completely correctly? No, I fear I can't. But it helps to have knowledge of how it would sound in fluent Arabic.

English, both American English and UK/international English, mispronounce words often. Sometimes the more correct pronunciations, better matching how it's pronounced in and where its language comes from, does overcome the mispronunciations, but not always.
Cuba - In the US, it's almost always said KYOO-buh but I've never heard a Cuban say it any other way than as KOO-buh. No "kyu" sound at all.
Mexico - Spanish pronounciation is more like an "h" sound than like the "x" sound of tax, max, facts. MEH-he-koh rather than MECKS-ih-ko.
Ebola fever - the first syllable is ee, not ih
Neanderthal - English speakers used the "th" sound as in thick or thug but in German languages, that "h" is silent. It's named after the Neander valley region. The final syllable is pronounced like tall, or the "t" sound in taught.
Iraq - how did something closer to ih-rock get morphed to eye-rack? Was it the same ignorance that used to mispronounce Italian as eye-talian?
And many differences coexist, such as vase being vahz in the UK but usually vayss (sounding like place, mace, trace) in the US.

NJ GardenGirl said...

Non-linguists, don't bother reading this unless you want a big headache! ;-)
Great demo of the word, thank you. However, I respectfully disagree w/ regard to the statement that the spelling "Usama" is closer to the correct pronunciation than "Osama". First of all, the widespread change to this spelling resulted in the nearly-agonising mass pronunciation by Western reporters/newscasters as "Oosama" (fingernails on a blackboard!); and secondly, even though the waw which is the first letter of his name has the dhamma (vowel sign indicating an "oo") over it, depending on the word - esp. when stress is on a different syllable than the one with dhamma - this often comes out as an "uh" more than an "oo" (e.g., Muhammed);and in numerous other words, the pronunciation really is closer to a long O than an oo. E.g., 'Omar. Again, the first syllable has dhamma, but sounds more like a long O. [(Advil, anyone?]
Thank you.