Saturday, January 9, 2016

Vowels of compassion

Some Americans, New York, December 2015. Photo by Esther Merono, Huffington Post.
This is about something that came up over at Alicublog over the course of the week involving linguistics, where I thought it might sort of be my duty to say something more boring than would be appropriate for the comment section there, as always the Best Party Ever, where you really want to look your nattiest at all times.

Also, while I may not actually have all that much to say, at least I'm going to spell it right, which is more than can be said for M.G. Oprea at the Federalist, whose post

How You Pronounce ‘Muslim’ Says A Lot About Your Politics

Ever notice how those on the Left pronounce ‘Muslim’ like ‘Mooss-lim’? Here’s what it means.
was the topic of discussion:
This pronunciation is code for “I’m not Islamaphobic.”
(That's how rightists spell "islamophobic", to show their contempt for traditional rules of word-formation, where a compound with an Ancient Greek stem like φόβια always uses the thematic vowel -o-,  still true in modern Greek incidentally.)

So Oprea is an Austin-based writer at the Federalist who "holds a PhD in French linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin" who generally writes about terrible things happening in France (radical Islam, climate change agreements because radical Islam, lack of religious belief because that leads to radical Islam, and, enchantingly, the "Closing of the Academic Mind", which I imagine must be what you get when an academic mind that sees everything in the light of a single exclusive obsession—yep, "[a]ny author, or student, who does not join in the liberal narrative about Islamic culture... will find themselves labeled an 'orientalist'").

The degree in "French linguistics" presumably means a degree from the Austin French department that isn't in literature, but it isn't in linguistics either; she spent a year (2011-12) teaching English as a Foreign Language at the Université de Montpellier III Paul Valéry, and there administered to 48 Arabs, presumably her students, a questionnaire on language attitudes, tabulated the results, found that the subjects didn't seem on the whole to love French as much as Arabic, and called it a dissertation. She just got the doctorate last summer. It's more sociology than anything else, and not at a very high level [sniff!]. You can't get any meaningful statistical results from an opportunity sample that size, and there's barely any analysis anyway, so little that when she concludes,
There is evidence to suggest that the North African diaspora strongly identifies themselves with Islam and that they do not feel at home in France, a place that is not welcoming to their religion. These attitudes are reflected in their attitudes toward Arabic and French. If attitudes are a “map of the social world” (Garrett et al., 2003, p. 3), and language is a fundamentally social tool, then understanding language attitudes can provide great insight into the social world and positioning of this population 
you find yourself thinking, "I suppose they can—I wonder why she didn't try to find out!"

In today's essay, though, she is concerned with linguistics, more specifically sociolinguistics, and with the varying social meanings of a series of pronunciations that could be represented like this (no "Mooss-lim" for me, thanks):
  • [mazləm] "Moslem", for the spelling that was normal 50 years ago
  • [mʌzlım] "Muslim", first syllable rhyming with "fuzz"
  • [mʊzlım] same spelling, first syllable using the vowel of "foot" or "wuss" but closed with a voiced -z (no exact rhymes in English)
  • [mʊslım] same spelling, first syllable closed with voiceless -s to rhyme with "wuss" or "puss"
  • ['ızlæm] "Islam", rhymes with "ham", stressed on the first syllable
  • ['ızlam] same spelling, rhymes with "Rahm"
  • [ız'lam] stressed on the second syllable
  • [ıs'lam] stressed on the second syllable and voiceless -s in the first
So when Oprea writes,
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”
she means to distinguish between the "common Americanized" [mʌzlım] and a putative "leftist" [mʊslım] (not a "long 'o' sound" but a lax "u"); and for the other part,
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):

Only Clinton and Sanders don't stress the second syllable of "Islam" at all (it was Steve M who caught that). Oprea can't even hear it properly (not much of a handicap for a French student, since French doesn't really do stress, but she shouldn't have passed phonology without learning it, or without learning not to use the word "emphasis" either) Note that Sanders says "Eye-ran" ([aı'ræn]) and "Elkayder" ([ɛl'keıdə]) too.
The majority of NPR reporters and pundits on liberal media outlets share this pronunciation.
A very quick search found Renee Montagne and her interviewee (Hina Shamsi, ACLU) both saying [mʊzlım], not [mʊslım], on NPR, while on local station WNYC, reporter Robert Lewis and Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU both say [mʌzlım] exactly the way Oprea herself presumably does (continuity announcer Soterios Johnson said [mʊzlım] but was not on the audio clip). Steve Inskeep is a definite [mʊslım] and ['ıslam] sayer, and there's a nice bit in this audio (starting 23:38) where he describes just how hard he works on getting his pronunciations right, not for political reasons but to be doing a good job.

So in fact, in a sense, Oprea is a bit right: there is some kind of tendency among some kind of people to pronounce it [mʊzlım] or [mʊslım], but it's not clear who it is, and it's definitely not what Oprea thinks:
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.
Or maybe we try to pronounce the way English people do, you know, because England swing like a pendulum. UK standard pronunciation (sounds to me more like a central rounded vowel ['mɵzlım]), per Wikipedia:

Or as we pronounce "schizophrenia" German-style "skitso" (/skıtso/) rather than English "sky-zo" (/skaızo/) following its Greek-through-German origin, no doubt to show our leftist respect for the fact that Germans are all nuts.

No, seriously. (a) We don't pronounce it the way a native Arabic speaker would, because that would be too hard and wouldn't fit in our conversational rhythm, just as we don't pronounce hors d'oeuvre in French when we're speaking English, but neither do we say "horse doover" or whatever our understanding might be of what the letters could mean in a native English expression (if there were such a thing as a native English expression, which is hardly the case)—we have this intermediate thing that evokes the French sound, sort of [or'dɜrvz], with an English plural suffix (I've said "starter" for decades, anyway). (b) What evidence does Oprea have of the motivations we may or may not have?
There wasn’t any effort to sound culturally authentic when discussing the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 
Speak for yourself; I'm always careful to use Ukrainian "Luhansk" as opposed to Russian "Lugansk", for instance, not to mention Ukrainian "Kiyiv" rather than Russian "Kiev" and so on, not to sound "culturally authentic" (I won't) but in this case really to make it clear which side I'm on. I do identify with Ukrainians (well, with Crimean Tatars and democracy-loving students). But this is not how I do what I do with Islam.

I can pinpoint the autobiographical moment, believe it or not, when I started saying [mʊzlım], partly because that was around the time I first started studying linguistics, and a lot of my language memories from then are very fresh from the context, and it was also when I became friends with somebody from Elizabeth, NJ, a white guy but with a broad acquaintance among African American people of a kind to whom I had no access, like drug dealers and adherents of the Nation of Islam, and he said [mʊzlım], and I admired it. I was very far from identifying with Black Muslims or having their backs; it was the era of Elijah Muhammad, not that long after the murder of Malcolm X, and I thought they were brutal and hypocritical thugs, with their stupid bow ties, and probably theological frauds. But the sound of it seemed right to me, and I took it up. (Sanders probably did at the same time, and plausibly out of similar experience; he's got a terrible ear, though.)

Looking back at the literature I can find online on the subject, there's a hint as to why I thought it sounded right, in a bigger development of around the same time (Yii-Ann Christine Chen, from the History News Network, vintage 2002):
When Baby Boomers were children it was Moslem. The American Heritage Dictionary (1992) noted,"Moslem is the form predominantly preferred in journalism and popular usage. Muslim is preferred by scholars and by English-speaking adherents of Islam." No more. Now, almost everybody uses Muslim...
It was the moment when American usage itself was changing in a big way, and I'd stumbled onto it, as you can see in the ngram: when people started using it in a big way after the Second World War, they started overwhelmingly preferring the u-spelling.

Chen doesn't say anything about the pronunciation, but that in itself suggests something: that it wasn't an important part of the change. The English-speaking Faithful were, of course more on the [mʊslım] side, since they really spoke Arabic (as the practice of the religion requires, even when you speak more Urdu or Persian or French or English or Swahili or Mandarin in your daily life), and scholars presumably the same whether they were Believers or not. I think [mʊzlım] is best understood as merely a variant of the more scholarly form. But where did [mʌzlım] even come from?

The answer to that is the same as where Michele Bachmann got "chootspa" for chutzpa/hutzpa or my son got "Dieter mein" for determine when he was seven or eight: from reading the word instead of hearing it, and making up the pronunciation that seemed reasonable on the basis of the spelling. "How else would you pronounce muzz?" People took [mʌzlım] from the discourse of people who knew nothing about it, and it happened more in America than Britain because Islam was so much more familiar in Britain at the time (which is why in the OED the British pronunciations are [mʊzlım] > [mʌzlım] > [mʊslım], and the US pronunciations [mʌzlım] > [mʊzlım]). As it gets more familiar, and the Muslim community in the US grows, the pronunciation preferred by Oprea gets to sounding more and more ignorant.

That's what makes people like her really mad; she thinks she's being "politically incorrect" and nobody even respects her for it.

The thing I really want to emphasize is something she adverts to herself when she mentions the "American-Muslim population", which is that Muslim Americans are Americans, and the language they speak is a part of American English. To use the evidence of the way they say the word as a charter of how the rest of us ought to say it is no different from pronouncing chutzpa on that basis, or lasagna, or tamales, or karaoke. It's the civil thing to do, and also the way to not sound like an idiot.


Something else to think about via Waleed Kalous at Quora:
The pronunciation preferred by Muslims and also consistent with the Arabic pronunciation is the UK style hard "s" (not "z"). 

In my opinion, this makes the hard "s" correct. 

 This is consistent with the Arabic word مسلم -- i.e. someone who submits or surrenders. The problem is that if you say it with the "z" style sound, it sounds like the Arabic word مظلم -- muthlim -- which means oppressor or tyrant. 
Maybe I have to work at saying [mʊslım] after all.

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