Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland

Phonetic details can, sometimes, make all the difference. A few days ago, the Lebanese pop singer Elissa released a version of the popular Arab nationalist anthem “Mawtini.” (There’s some info on the song on its Wikipedia page; its lyrics are a poem written by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Touqan (brother of Fadwa), and it formerly served as the anthem of Palestine as well as being the national anthem of Iraq since 2004.) Elissa’s effort was bound to stir up some reactions all by itself; it isn’t often that tacky female singers choose to tackle such deep-grounded symbols of Arabist (and pro-Palestinian) belonging. At least in Jordan, though, what attracted the most critique was Elissa’s alleged mispronunciation of the lyrics. A single consonant was at issue – but this was enough to arouse the ire of a gaggle of social media commentators, and draw out broad-ranging responses regarding gender, language, and the current state of the Arab nation.

Some phonological background first. Arabic – Standard, and all of its dialect variants – features a series of sounds that linguistic analyses like to call “emphatic.”  Phonetically, this involves both ‘pharyngealization’ – that is, constricting the pharynx or the epiglottis while pronouncing the sound – and ‘velarization’ – that is, raising the back of the tongue upwards so that it is in contact with the velum / soft palate (sort of the place where the tongue touches the roof of the mouth when you’re pronouncing or g). (For those mad souls who want more details, there’s a pretty thorough explanation of the phonetic issues in this 1972 article.)

emphatic schema

(A sketch showing differences in tongue position between an “emphatic” and “non-emphatic” sound. The dotted line (emphatic) touches the back of the mouth; the straight line (non-emphatic) does not. From Ali and Daniloff (1972); LINK)

The sin that Elissa committed was pronouncing one of these sounds – the alveolar stop, /ṭ/, ط (Taa’) in Arabic script – apparently without emphatic coloring. Even this might have been written off as a one-time ‘error’ (though more on whether it even is an error below) – if the mispronunciation didn’t occur in the very title of the song; which also serves as the refrain (and is repeated a total of 12 times throughout the lyrics). Instead of موطني، people claimed – which means “my homeland” – Elissa was singing موتني. mawtinii, not mawTinii.

Listen to the track above; you can judge for yourself. (Fingers crossed it will stay up for a while; the YouTube version has already been removed on Friday, apparently following a copyright claim.) The responses, in any case, were striking. Ro’ya TV’s news website did a roundup (as they sometimes do, for contentious issues) of social media comments. These include a few tweets and Facebook posts from Lebanon praising the recording, but many more critical ones from Jordan (and a couple of Gaza) taking issue with Elissa’s purported mispronunciation. (The writer of the roundup piece, ever diplomatic, characterized the enunciation as “delicate,” in “Elissa’s own special manner.”)

In many of these comments, the authors exchanged the “soft,” non-emphatic ت <t> for ط <ṭ> – not just in the title of the song, but in other words as well. فلسطيني falasTiinii “Palestinian,” for example, is normally spelled with a <ṭ>; in one tweet, Elissa was claimed to now have become فلستينية falastiniiyya, with a <t>. Another claimed that Ibrahim “Tou’aan” – توئان; the surname is properly spelled طوقان، with a <ṭ>, but suffered a change to <t> here, in addition to the stereotypically feminine and Lebanese shift from <q> to the glottal stop (<ʔ>) – did not die; rather, he “committed suicide after he heard Mawtini.”

The target here wasn’t just an isolated mispronounced sound, but purportedly ‘feminized’ variants of Arabic more broadly. To be expected, perhaps, from a Lebanese starlet such as Elissa; although, given that her error was conspicuously located in a self-consciously  nationalist song so often invoked as a symbol of Arab strength and resistance, the ‘corruption’ of “Mawtini” here seemed to be indicative of something deeper.


(Elissa wearing a T-shirt with a misspelled “Mawtini.” Image via: LINK)

First, though, to clear the matter of whether it’s incorrect from a linguistic standpoint. Phonetically speaking, I’d say it’s at least up for debate. The release of the t – that is, the point at which the tongue leaves the roof of the mouth to allow airflow through – may be closer to the non-emphatic version; but if we consider the word as a whole, the preceding syllable – maw- – definitely has some ’emphatic’ coloring. (I’m pretty confident a phonetic analysis would confirm this; perhaps somebody with better skills than me might be able to check the formants in Praat or something…) The most marked feature of /ṭ/, the retraction of the tongue – the dotted line in the picture above – happens; just earlier than expected. It’s called “leftward emphasis spread” – basically, anticipating the ’emphatic’ sound before you actually pronounce it. Due to the particularities of human oral physiology, this kind of pre-coloring may actually be more likely than spread of emphasis “rightward” (i.e., following the “emphatic” sound rather than preceding it). Normally, you’d still expect it to sound different; but the traces are there.

It might be a phonetic peculiarity; non-normative, and possibly non-standard. But from a purely phonological perspective, it doesn’t mean that Elissa is not pronouncing the Taa’, or exchanging it for the non-emphatic version. It’s just that all the phonetic features that some of her listeners might expect aren’t present. In other words, she’s not pronouncing the lyrics as if she were actually saying mawtinii; it’s just her mawTinii that is different. (And it most certainly does not mean that Elissa is unable to enunciate ‘deep’ sounds altogether, as some commentators have claimed. The rest of the song features a couple of quite impeccable emphatic r-s, as well as /q/ in its standard form, [q], in its proper place, as opposed than the stereotypically feminine glottal stop.)

The song’s male chorus, by the way – see from about 3:10 in the video clip above – features a pretty much identical pronunciation of mawTinii. But of course, Elissa’s voice is the one fronting, and hence the more exposed.

On @anghami in less then hour #mawtini

A post shared by Elissa (@elissazkh) on


And that may, in fact, be the heart of the matter. A female singer attempting an Arab nationalist song will always be putting herself in the crossfire. Fully exposed, as a transmitter of the nation’s values – putting herself, metaphorically, in the position of the model Arab, the Palestinian longing for strength and independence – she needs to be nothing less than perfect. Even the most minute phonetic details become subject to scrutiny.

Double standards might be invoked here: the stereotypical position of women as ‘repositories of the nation’s virtue,’ and hence held to task for every slight or slip. But even for more sympathetic commentators (such as Hiba Jawhar) who say that “it’s not Elissa’s fault,” there was no doubt that Elissa’s pronunciation was, first, non-normative; and, second, indexical of femininity. The association with gender, though, is a higher-level one – perhaps almost incidental. Rather, the basic value conveyed by a non-emphatic pronunciation in place of an emphatic one – as with [t] for /ṭ/, or [ʔ] for /q/ – is that of ‘softness’; delicacy, in a sense, but one which also stands for degradation of linguistic rules, for people too meek or feeble to enunciate the more forceful sounds of Arabic.

Since Elissa is, in fact, female, all this comes round again, compounded. When a widely valued nationalist song that suffers linguistic degradation, it’s not too big a step to imagine the downfall of the nation as well. And if Arab women can’t even pronounce “Mawtini” correctly anymore, where is our homeland headed?

Where, indeed. For her most hardened critics, even an emphasis-perfect rendition by Elissa might not have been enough. As it was, though, it was phonetics that provided the ideal point of departure for critiquing her supposed transgressions – and the wave of responses it inspired proves just how deeply, and how scrupulously, Jordanians care about their homeland’s language in this day and age.

Gender and Emphatic Colouring in the Arab Homeland

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