You may have noticed something different in the way some people, including various presidential candidates, talk about Islam depending on whether they are Republicans or Democrats. No, I’m not referring to the Democrats’ refusal to say “Islamic terrorism,” sticking instead to the euphemistic “Jihadi terrorists” or the bland “extremism.” I’m referring to how people are pronouncing the words themselves.
During the Democratic presidential candidate debate on November 14, some on Twitter commented on the pronunciation of the word “Muslim” by Hillary Clinton and the other candidates. Rather than the common Americanized pronunciation of “Muz-lim,” they opted to pronounce it “Mooss-lim,” with a long “o” sound in the first syllable, and an “s” sound rather than a “z”.
Similarly, the Left tends to pronounce the word “Islam” not as “IZ-lahm,” like the majority of Americans, but rather “Iss-LAM,” with the “s” sound replacing the “z” and with the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first. See this clip of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Clinton from the debate (skip to 1:05):
The majority of NPR reporters and pundits on liberal media outlets share this pronunciation. Compare this to presidential candidates on the Right, like Sen. Marco Rubio (skip to 1:00):
Those on the Left pronounce these two words the way a native Arabic speaker would, as a way of signaling their sympathy for the American-Muslim population. They are indicating they identify with this population and they have their backs.
In other words, they aren’t like those nasty, Muslim-hating Republicans. They understand Islam and respect it, and they know it has nothing to do with jihad and terrorism. This pronunciation is code for “I’m not Islamaphobic.” The Left is making their opinions and politics known with the simple shift in pronunciation of these two key words.
Pronunciation Signals Group Membership
This is not, however, a new phenomenon. Beginning in the 1960s with the work of William Labov, sociolinguists have been examining how word pronunciation and accent signify membership with a particular group. This often has to do with membership of a socio-economic class.
Think about the difference in pronunciation between lower-class Britons who speak with a cockney accent (Jason Statham, for example), versus someone like Keira Knightley or Prince William. Pronunciation differences can also have to do with region. I grew up in Detroit pronouncing the word “coyote” with three syllables as “cuy-o-tee” whereas my husband, who grew up in Alaska, pronounces it with two: “cuy-ote.”
Word pronunciation as a marker of group-membership goes all the way back to the Old Testament book of Judges. The Gileadites, who were fighting the invading Ephraimites, vetted people crossing the Jordan by having them pronounce the word “Shibboleth.” If they pronounced it with a “sh” sound, they knew they were loyal Gileadites. But if they pronounced it with a “ss,” they could tell that they were Ephraimites, who didn’t know how to make the “sh” sound because it wasn’t a part of their phonetic system.
Sadly for the Ephraimites, this phonetic slip-up resulted in their deaths. The word itself is now used to refer to something that marks a person as a member of a group. Not only does the pronunciation of a word indicate group membership, it in turn affects how people perceive you. Sociolinguists have studied the way accent and word pronunciation affect how people view the speaker of that accent.
By using the native pronunciation of “Islam” and “Muslim,” the Left is changing the way they are viewed with respect to Muslims. This affects the attitudes not only of Muslims themselves, but of all listeners. Those on the Left hear this pronunciation and see it as a sign of the cultural sensitivity of their politicians and pundits, reaffirming their own views.
We’re So Culturally Sensitive, You Guys
What makes the Left’s pronunciation of “Islam” and “Muslim” even more noteworthy is that they are swimming against the stream of how we pronounce borrowed words. When a word is occasionally borrowed from one language into another, it may retain the pronunciation of the original language, but generally the pronunciation is adapted to fit with the phonetic system of the receiving language. Trust me, no one in America is pronouncing the phrase “hors d’oeuvres” like a native French speaker. This is the way with borrowing words from other languages.
The Left is refusing to make that adaptation when it comes to “Islam” and “Muslim.” We’ve all heard people do this with various words. Someone is talking about the summer they spent in Spain and they pronounce the city names with a Spanish accent. They’re trying to sound authentic and in the know, but they mostly just come off as arrogant and braggadocios.
In this case, the Left is intentionally pronouncing these two words like native Arabic speakers to demonstrate not just authenticity, but also their cultural sensitivity. They’re doing this as a sign of being part of a particular group with a particular ideology when it comes to Islam.
You’re Only Cool If You Say It Like We Do
Pronouncing “Islam” and “Muslim” in an authentic manner is especially important to the Left because Islam is their pet project. The reactions after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino paint a clear picture of the Left’s bias toward Islam even in the face of plain facts.
They don’t do this with other foreign words or place-names. No, the Left reserves this little linguistic condescension for its favorite liberal minority causes. You didn’t hear anyone pronouncing “Paris” as “Pah-ree,” as the French do, after the terror attacks in November in order to show solidarity. There wasn’t any effort to sound culturally authentic when discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But talk about Islam, and their tune—and pronunciation—changes.
If the Left is using the pronunciation of “Muslim” and “Islam” as a marker of where they fall politically, what happens to the rest of us who are pronouncing it with an American accent? For now, there is nothing notable about pronouncing these words as “muz-lim” or “IZ-lahm,” but one day there might be. One can’t help but wonder whether these words will truly become a kind of political Shibboleth. Pretty soon we might be outing ourselves as so-called Islamaphobes, simply for pronouncing a word the wrong way.