Remembering 9/11/2001

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Like almost everyone else, I was happy to learn that Osama bin Laden is now an ex-terrorist; and I was mildly surprised to learn that he had been holed up in a large and luxurious compound located less than a mile by road from PMA Kakul, Pakistan's equivalent of West Point.

And last night's announcement made me think about where I was on September 11, 2001. By coincidence, I happened to be on a train entering the outskirts of Washington D.C. just as American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. Along with Martha Palmer and Chris Cieri, I was headed for a meeting in Arlington VA about plans for a DARPA project called TIDES ("Translingual Information Detection, Extraction, and Summarization"), whose stated goal was to "to revolutionize the way that information is obtained from human language by enabling people to find and interpret needed information, quickly and effectively, regardless of language or medium".

Our train was held up for a while just outside Union Station, and then we were let off and told to evacuate the station immediately. Among the thousands of people milling around outside, all sorts of rumors were circulating: truck bombs at the State Department, gas attacks in the Metro. The crowd carried us along towards the U.S. Capitol building, which is visible from the area outside the station, but it occurred to us that the capitol area might not be the wisest choice of destination at that particular moment. And anyhow, we were supposed to get to Arlington for our meeting.

Obviously there were no cabs available, and the Metro station was closed, and it wasn't clear what public transit might be available when, so we started walking west towards our destination. After a while, we found a station from which the Orange line was running towards Virginia — I think it might have been the Foggy Bottom station — and at some point we'd managed to get through to George Doddington or someone else at DARPA by phone, so we made it to the meeting location only somewhat late.

The morning's events changed the agenda of our discussions that day, and also charged our work over the next weeks and months, just as they did for many other people.

In researching this post, I stumbled across a document that I wrote in March of 2000, summarizing the resources then available for the first year of the TIDES project — and you'll notice that the featured languages are Mandarin, Korean, and Spanish. After our all-day meeting on 9/11/2001, we began working seriously on resources for Arabic-language technology development, including Arabic news text, Arabic/English parallel text, Arabic lexicons and morph analyzers, Arabic broadcast and conversational speech,  Arabic "treebanks", and so on.


  1. Rob P. said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 10:43 am

    I was in a deposition outside of Boston, scheduled to fly home to DC from Logan later that day. As the morning went on, we got bits and pieces of what was being reported, but were pretty well isolated from the initial news at the beginning. Once it was clear that it was a major tragedy and that nobody was flying anywhere for a while, we wrapped it up and my colleague and I took our rental car (which couldn't be returned to the closed Logan in any event) and drove down empty highways from Boston to Washington. On the way, we could see the smoke from the fallen towers as we passed NYC and we drove right past the Pentagon on arrival in Virginia. The whole thing was very surreal.

  2. David Donnell said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    I watched the WTC towers go down from a neighbor's roof here in Brooklyn, then spent the next year re-watching the footage on TV. I can't afford to keep replaying those images in my mind, it took such a toll. And I feel a bit numb today. But enough first person narcissism… Ding-dong, the witch is dead!

  3. C Thornett said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    I was working as an ESOL teacher in a largely Muslim neighbourhood of Birmingham UK. I heard the news at home at lunchtime and then watched in horror on television. When I went in the next day to help with registration, everyone was shocked; no one spoke about it until I had something, as they felt it was my place to speak first. At the end of the week my Muslim manager proposed prayers–Muslim, Sikh Hindu and Christian as representing our staff. The only person who said anything anti-American during the week, to my knowledge, was a Hindu, and the Muslims within hearing were angry with her. My Muslim colleagues, mainly of Pakistani birth, were horrified that such a thing should be done in the name of their religion.

    I have had many Pakistani students over the years, and classroom discussions have sometimes become so heated when they got onto Pakistani politics that I have had to stop them, even if people were still speaking English.

    To add a further language note, there are deep language divisions within Pakistan–the decision to declare Urdu rather than Panjabi the official language was a political one, my students have told me–along with cultural, relgious, tribal and political divisions.

    [(myl) More on the language landscape in Pakistan is here.]

  4. Mark Dunan said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    I'll never forget that day… just started work; on a PATH train to the office in Jersey City and the train stopped. We get out, come up to street level, and what had looked like a fire on one of the upper floors was in fact a major disaster. People were staring across the river, watching the smoke come out, until — almost totally hidden by smoke — one of the towers collapsed.

    Got on a bus, made for my father's office, and we went home (the Jersey Shore) and got the good news that my uncle, on the 84th floor, had gotten down safely.

    While, in retrospect, I and everyone on the Jersey side of the Hudson were perfectly safe, it was still the scariest day I'd had until that time. Now it's second only to the 3/11 earthquake which felt like it was going to bring my Tokyo apartment building down.

  5. John Cowan said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Abimael Guzman, the leader of the Peruvian terrorist group Shining Path (which, according to a possibly biased government report, was responsible for more than 30,000 deaths and disappearances), was found under similar circumstances in an apartment above a dance studio in the Surquillo district of Lima. I note that it was not thought necessary to do anything to him other than sentence him to life imprisonment, a sentence he is still serving. Though Shining Path still exists, after the arrest of Guzman and other leaders, it lost most of its power and influence.

  6. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

    I would ask the gleeful to ask themselves why killing this man makes you happy, whether you are proud of this, and if this is the sort of trait you wish others to think of you by.

  7. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

    What I remember most about that day was telling my preschool daughter about it in the evening. We've always been very open with her about everything, but we did pause to think about this one. Then it occurred to me that if kids at the preschool were talking about it the next day, she might feel betrayed that we'd hidden something of such magnitude from her.

    I don't know how much she understood of what we're saying, and I don't think we let her see any TV footage.

    Not one kid mentioned it the next day or seemed to know what had happened. I have no idea if they were also baffled by the magnitude, or if their parents just didn't tell them. I'm betting on the latter.

    If there's a lesson there about the secrets we keep from our kids, I don't know what it is.

  8. Spell Me Jeff said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    @Mr Fnortner
    I am neither gleeful nor outraged. I anticipate a shifting of spirits that might prove good for the American People, whom I generally view with a mixture of pity and contempt. (Sue me.) I wonder if this shift of spirits will rise enough to lift (some of) the malaise (pace, Jimmy Carter) that seems to characterize our nation. And I suspect it will not.

  9. J Lee said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    The man was a billionaire financier of cold-blooded mass murder, not to mention a huge figure of a toxic ideology. Even if one holds such cringe-inducing beliefs as Mr. Fnortner, it is inescapable that Osama's death is a great event for the entire world. Quite obviously, Islamic terrorism kills many more Muslims than westerners.

  10. C Thornett said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 2:14 pm

    We happen to have a concentration of Mirpuri speakers here in Birmingham (UK), Mirpuri being one of the languages of Kashmir and one of the 'other' group. Students are often interested in comparing how much they can understand of each others' languages and some have been very knowledgeable on the subject. It seems likely that the existing divisions in Pakistan may lead to further violence in that country.

    ( I seem to have dropped part of my first post, which would mention that I am an American living in the UK, which partly explains the consideration I was shown by my colleagues at the time.)

  11. bfwebster said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 2:57 pm

    My wife and I were in the (rented) house we had just moved into, in the Cleveland Park area of DC, roughly four to five miles due north of the Pentagon and about the same distance northwest of the White House (previously, we had lived about two miles further north in DC, in the Friendship Heights area). My wife was in the bathroom, putting on makeup or something; I was in my (home) office, in the room next to our bedroom. The TV in our bedroom was on and turned to Fox & Friends. I heard something from the TV about a small plane hitting the World Trade Center, so I got up and walked in to see what was going on.

    After watching for a few minutes, I called my wife in; the live footage of the WTC looked like the damage had been caused by something a lot bigger than a "small plane", and I openly speculated about terrorism. We were both standing there, watching the TV, when we saw (live) the second plane hit the other tower. I said, "We're under attack; this is definitely terrorism" or words to that effect.

    The crash into the Pentagon a while later made it clear that DC was under attack as well. We were concerned for our own safety; we lived just a few blocks from the Israeli Embassy and about a mile north of the Naval Observatory (where the Vice-President lived). Reagan National Airport was closed and remained closed for some weeks. And, of course, the anthrax attacks started a week later; our post office was one of the ones where traces of real anthrax were found, disrupting our mail service for some time. ..bruce..

  12. Theophylact said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 3:02 pm

    I was at the US EPA in SW DC at the time (some of the staff had already moved to the new HQ in the Ronald Reagan Building, but many were still at Waterside Mall). When the plane hit the Pentagon, the initial reports were of a missile attack, and then there was mass confusion (as ML retells). My wife was working near the Capitol, at the American Federation of Teachers. Everybody was dismissed, but no one had any way to know what route was safe. I got a ride from a friend with a car; we drove past the monuments along Ohio Drive and Rock Creek Parkway, watching the smoke rise from the Pentagon. She walked to Dupont Circle, where she got a lift from someone driving up Connecticut Avenue, and we both got home without too much trouble; but friends going to Virginia by road were stuck in jams for hours.

    We had planned to have dinner out that night because it was our 21st anniversary. We ate at home.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    Mr Fnortner, I'm glad to see someone voicing (er, figuratively) the idea that it's not right to rejoice in someone's death.

    However, feeling something at his death that one uses the word "happy" to describe is not at all the same as feeling gleeful. If I had to describe how I feel about his death, happy is the best word I can come up with. Doesn't mean I'm joyful, gleeful, or even feeling what the prototypical meaning of "happy" is. "Happy" covers a wide range.

    I think you pose a good question. But I hope you aren't making unmerited assumptions about people that aren't justified by their choice of words.

  14. John Cowan said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    I was working at the time in a building fairly close to the Empire State Building, so about three miles from the Twin Towers. I first heard my boss saying that a plane had hit the WTC, and I thought the incident must have been similar to the B-25 crash, so I thought nothing much of it and went on working. Later, the CEO summoned us all (about 25 people) into the conference room, where we saw the second crash on TV. Concerned that the ESB might be a target, he sent everyone home.

    I walked to the subway entrance, but it was closed, so I started to walk home. It was a bit further than I normally would, but doable. I stopped by my 14-year-old daughter's school on 24th St.¸where it turned out that all students were being held until they were properly picked up, though normally it was routine for students to go home alone or in groups. I did so, and we walked to a supermarket on 17th St. where we bought some canned food and other things. The place was very crowded. We crossed 14th St., where the barrier was just beginning to be set up, picked up some pizza at a joint on 8th St. (their gas oven was still working) and walked to 3rd St. and home. My feet were pretty sore.

    Both landline and cell phone service were out, jammed by the huge volume of calls, but my broadband Internet was still functioning, so I crossposted a message to every mailing list I was on and to various individuals saying that we were all fine. We watched the updates on TV until I got sick of them — my wife continued to watch for several days after that, which she now agrees was a bad idea. My daughter has declined to discuss the matter then or since.

    After that, life went back to normal, except for the 14th Street barrier (but the subways were quickly restored, so I could go back to work). It became somewhat more annoying to take a cab downtown, as the closed streets changed from day to day. In the online discussions in which I participated, I took (and still take) the view that while this attack was an enormous crime, it was still appropriate to treat it as a crime rather than an act of war, a position I have consistently maintained. I knew no one involved, except for a coworker whose uncle was missing but later found to be alive, and who left the job shortly thereafter.

    Many months later, I happened to be downtown returning from a doctor's appointment, so I took a quick look at ground zero through a fence. I was glad in an odd way to confirm with my own eyes the actual existence of the hole, but to me it was merely a hole. I've been back twice with out-of-town friends, but it's still just another construction site like a thousand others in the city.

  15. Emily said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    But what about the real question: is the name of the dead terrorist leader Osama or Usama?

  16. Emily said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 4:54 pm

    On topic: I was pretty young when 9/11 happened, and since I live far from New York, I recall being fairly confused about what was happening. It wasn't until a couple years later that the implications of the events (beyond "wow that's scary and evil") really sunk in.

    I can't say I'm cheering about Osama's death– cheering about any human being's death strikes me as cruel– but I see it as a net good.

  17. John Burgess said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 6:07 pm

    I'm certainly not in mourning over his death. He was responsible for the deaths of several of my friends and colleagues and if there's any sense to the word 'justice', his death fits it.

    I was just preparing for dinner at home in New Delhi, where I worked for the US Embassy. I got a call from the Marine Security Guards informing me that a plane had struck the WTC. As John Cowan, I recalled the B-25 that hit the Empire State Building. When, a few minutes later, I received another call about another plane, my first reaction was, 'Al-Qaeda'. This was not their first action–the bombings of US embassies in Africa and the USS Cole had all taken place–and it had their hallmarks.

    Trying to figure out just what was happening via satellite TV and Indian media coverage was difficult. Our contacts at the State Dept. were not in their offices, but the good ones had their overseas contact numbers at home and did their best to keep us in the loop. Of course, the White House and Dept. of Defense had channels that we all ended up using.

    I had family in DC–including a nephew who had just left the south side of the Pentagon a few minutes before the attack–and getting voice communications was nearly impossible. I used e-mail and phone calls to friends outside the DC metro area to get messages back and forth.

    We had a solid, sleepless 36 hours of work in making sure Americans in India were safe and as informed as possible, that the security threats we could conceive of were being addressed by Indian authorities.

    Oh, we also had two US Supreme Court Justices arrive on 9/12 for a program with Indian jurists, one of whom learned of the attacks only during his ride in from the airport in New Delhi. Their program was truncated and the Justices flown back to the US on the 13th/14th, via US military aircraft.

    And on the night of the 12th, I got a phone call breaking my assignment in New Delhi, reassigning me to Riyadh for the next couple of years.

  18. J Lee said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 6:27 pm

    @Emily: LL's own John McWhorter explains:

  19. Pera said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

    I was working in Pennsylvania as a copyeditor then. Our floor of the building was always very quiet. I got up and went to the restroom, and when I came out the whole place was one big hubbub. So I always tell people, "I went to the restroom in one world, and walked out into another."

  20. Mr Fnortner said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

    We once had a system of justice that distinguished between war and criminal acts. And we once had a system of justice that required the accused to answer charges in a court of law before being executed. We considered these to be bedrock American values. Now we equate the enormity of a crime to an act of war, never mind that no nation acted on September 11 to attack the United States. And we equate our abhorrence of the crime to a finding of guilt and a death sentence. We would have been better people, and an example of true American values to the world, had we brought bin Laden to this country for a trial.

  21. J Lee said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    but if he had been remanded to custody he might have been coerced into revealing valuable information like KSM, undoubtedly an even more regrettable act from your perspective.

  22. John Cowan said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    KSM? They broke up "to pursue separate careers" last August.

  23. Mark P said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 8:26 pm

    I haven't heard the full story, but I doubt he would have surrendered willingly.

    Police in the US kill lots of suspects every year resisting or fleeing arrest.

    Killing him does not, automatically, make it an assassination.

  24. David Green said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 8:36 pm

    If the news stories are true, then the (faint) hope was to capture him and actually bring him to trial, which would have been _much_ better for the US. That accounts (I think) at least in part for the decision to land troops and not just drop a big bomb. And to me it doesn't quite reach the definition of "assassination". That said, I'm not rejoicing over the event.

  25. kenny said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

    Mr Fnortner, the reason I am happy that Osama Bin Laden is dead is not because I wanted vengeance of any sort for his past acts (there is no such thing), but because it assures that he will not be able to perpetrate any future damage. He was just a man, but the negative influence he exerted on this world of ours was outsized. Do you think that adhering to imaginary distinctions of war/not-war would have helped? Killing a footsoldier in Japan during WWII was OK, because we were at war, right, but killing a mass-murdering mastermind isn't because we're not "at war," simply because bin Laden wasn't an official in a recognized state? Is that what you're saying? Sorry, but this world is more complicated than simple dichotomies like what you seem to prefer, and I'm glad that most people recognize that. I understand where your concern is coming from, worry about our fundamental American values of fairness and justice breaking down, but Osama bin Laden was guilty (or don't you know so? are you a truther?), he would have faced the death penalty in the US anyway. Why draw it out? Also, I think you're romanticizing what the reality of the past really was.

  26. Ellen K. said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

    Speaking (as I did in replying to Mr Fnortner) of making unjustified assumptions about people not merited by what they wrote, other people are quite blatantly doing that. He at least, did not accuse anyone in particular of being gleeful. And now he gets quite particularly accused of viewpoints he did not express.

  27. kenny said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

    I was in my middle school band hall when my band director told us that something big had happened. We were sent home early. My mom was watching the TV, and I was amazed that all the channels were showing the same thing: the scene of the second plane crashing into the WTC, over and over again.

    At that point in my life, I was a miserable, bitter child. I had recently found out that about 40,000 people starve to death in Africa every single day, a fact which remains roughly true. It was sickening to me that we narcissistic Americans cared so much about our own while we allowed tens of thousands to starve every day. I was sad about what had happened, but I was far angrier at what I perceived to be the imbalance of attention; anyone who has been involved in the war in Congo knows what that feels like. I told my mother, the five thousand people who died today (those were the estimates we were hearing on the news) are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to worldwide preventable deaths. I didn't cry, I wasn't afraid, I was just bitterly disillusioned about what I perceived to be the deep injustice in our world. This marked the beginning of a long saga of my mother thinking that I had sociopathic tendencies. She couldn't have been more wrong. I cared. A lot. I cared about the people that nobody was paying attention to.

    Looking back, though, while I can understand my reaction, I am still amazed by it. I think that if 9/11 happened today, I would cry. A lot. So I get why my mom was worried. But I'm a really different person now. As is our country, for better or worse.

  28. David Green said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    To my earlier comment, I would like to add that I was on jury duty about a mile from the WTC on 9/11. It was a terrifying experience — not least coming out of the subway at about 9:15 am and realizing that the police were terrified. Then going on to jury duty and being forgotten until almost noon.

  29. Greg Bowen said,

    May 2, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

    @Mr Fnortner:

    According to the news sources I've seen, Bin Laden was given the opportunity to surrender. Instead he fired on the troops sent to collect him, using one of his wives as a human shield. He was killed in the action. It seems he died while violently resisting arrest, something entirely in accord with a criminal justice operation.

  30. Xmun said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 5:03 am

    The headline in the Dominion Post uses a Maori word in 132 pt caps: UTU. That's the first time I've seen a Maori word in the headline of a story that has nothing to do with NZ. The word was obviously chosen for its brevity. In this context, it means "revenge".

  31. SeanH said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 6:47 am

    @Greg Bowen: Per the Guardian's account, bin Laden "according to the White House had no weapon". Clearly we do not know many details of the raid, but I would be very surprised if a team of Navy SEALs genuinely proved unable to capture alive an infirm, unarmed 54-year-old.

  32. Boris said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    I was at college in University of Penn but living at home in South NJ with my parents at the time. On 9/11 I heard about the first plane on the way to campus. The oldies station I was listening to briefly broke into a news report. As with all other media sources, the report didn't sound very serious, and they went back to playing oldies.

    I had a 1.5 hour class at 9 AM that day followed by a 1.5 hour break with 3 more hours of classes after that. I made my way to the building of the next class, entering, as usual, through the back entrance where the janitorial staff room (or similar) entrance was also located. There was a TV on in the room. This is where I first saw the whole story. I also learned that the city is Philadelphia along with all entrances and exits was more or less shutting down.

    By then I received word from a teaching assistant that, at the very least, the 12:00 class was canceled, so, not being sure what to do, I called my father. He told me to get out of the city ASAP in any direction that was still open and he would try to pick me up. By then the 30th street station was closed, but I haven't heard from the subway, so I made my way to the 34th street station. It was open and they waved me through free of charge telling me the final train was about to arrive. Everyone was in panic, understandably. So was I. I made the transfer to the subway line into New Jersey, also still running, but on one of the last trains.

    In New Jersey the situation was much calmer. I took the bus home and let my parents know I was safe. I spent the rest of the day glued to the TV. As it turned out, Philadelphia was reopened about 2 hours after it was shut down.

  33. Greg Bowen said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    @SeanH: It looks like there are conflicting accounts, then: according to ABC News, "U.S. officials said that Bin Laden himself fired his weapon during the fight, and that he was asked to surrender but did not. He was shot in the head and then shot again to make sure he was dead."

    I'm not sure how to embed a URL, so here it is just typed:

  34. GeorgeW said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    @C Thornett: "To add a further language note, there are deep language divisions within Pakistan–the decision to declare Urdu rather than Panjabi the official language was a political one, my students have told me–along with cultural, religious, tribal and political divisions."

    According to the Wikipedia article about Abbotabad, the predominant language of the district is Hindko while Urdu is spoken, as a first language, by only 1.05%. It does say that Urdu is widely understood and spoken as a 2nd language.

  35. peter said,

    May 3, 2011 @ 3:50 pm

    Mr Fnortner said (May 2, 2011 @ 7:37 pm)

    "We once had a system of justice that distinguished between war and criminal acts. . . . Now we equate the enormity of a crime to an act of war, never mind that no nation acted on September 11 to attack the United States. "

    Given that nation states are, historically, only a relatively recent human invention, there is no inherent reason why the definition of war should be limited to violence only between nation states. And it isn't: western judicial systems have always permitted us to defend our societies against organized violent attacks and systematic campaigns of violence originating abroad. What happened in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 (and in Nairobi, and Bali, and London, and Madrid, et al) was war. The perpetrators of these acts acted with full deliberation and malice aforethought and in knowledge of the likely summary deadly consequences for themselves, as a part of a larger campaign of violence against western society and its values. Not a single one of those perpetrators, I would venture, thought he was undertaking a criminal act rather than an act of war, as is evident from even a cursory examination of the public statements of these perpetrators.

  36. Christopher Cieri said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 10:34 am

    As Mark Liberman wrote, I was on the train with him and Martha Palmer on the way to a DARPA TIDES planning meeting. My most chilling memory was noticing the train suddenly go quiet except for the ringing of cell phones all around and passengers whispering into them. I remember finding a pay phone in the back of a bar where we were able to call LDC and DARPA to coordinate plans for the meeting. By then the cell network was over-loaded; a few minutes later the landlines went down too. I was very impressed with our government hosts who knew that some part of the government was under attack and yet sat calmly and went about the work of planning a new research project. Mark mentions the shift in focus toward Arabic, at the time an under-resourced language, but now one of those for which there exist the greatest volume and richest variety of language resources.

  37. Acilius said,

    May 4, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

    "On topic," "off topic." Those are a couple of interesting metalinguistic concepts. I wonder if Prof. Liberman was running some sort of experiment about them with this post.

    I'll be on topic for a moment. My brother had an office in that part of the Pentagon; between the time I found out where AA Flight 77 hit and the time I found out he was someplace else that morning, I'd had to teach a class. That was the longest 75 minute class period of my life, I can assure you.

    One thing I never will forget are the surprising reactions I heard in the immediate aftermath from people most directly affected by the events of that day. Of course I heard anti-militarist types spend days shouting for blood and bombs, but I also knew people with long records of hawkish attitudes who that week said they wanted to see a peaceful resolution, that there had been enough killing.

  38. jc said,

    May 5, 2011 @ 7:25 am

    @Emily: Actually, the correct spelling of his name is "أسامة". ;-) "Osama" and "Usama" are both just attempts to transliterate his name to an alphabet for a language whose phonetics don't match those of Arabic very well. Some Arabic-speaking friends of mine have commented that "Usama" is slightly more accurate, but that it doesn't matter. Both spellings produce sounds from American voices that are heavily-accented, and obviously not the native (Saudi) pronunciation.

    Similarly, I recently ran across a list of several dozen different transliterations taken from various media publications for the name of the leader of Libya. His name is especially difficult to map to English characters (and our so-called "spelling system" doesn't help much).

    Has Language Log ever dealt much with the problems of transliterations? I don't recall much. There was an interesting article a while back about the problems with Burma/Myanmar (which are attempts to map the same word into English spelling). I don't recall much else on the topic.

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