Pronouncing "Daesh"

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In the comments on yesterday's post, the question arose about how the  Arabic-based acronym "Daesh" (from al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, "the islamic state of Iraq and the Levant", maybe better rendered as "Da’ish") would be pronounced in English.

We now know what Barack Obama's choice is — [dæʃ], as in "dash":

Turkey's been a strong partner with the United States and other members of the coalition in going after uh the activities of ISIL or Daesh uh both in Syria and Iraq
 uh to help to fortify the borders between Syria and Turkey that uh allowed Daesh to operate
and to eliminate uh Daesh as uh a force that can create uh so much pain and suffering

And by the way, you might have noticed that President Barack Obama is just as capable of extended passages of uptalk as President George W. Bush was:

Update — I had the impression that the French generally pronounce "Daesh" as two syllables, something like [dɐ.ɛʃ]. And this is true the first time that François Hollande uses the word in his address yesterday:

"… une armée terroriste, Daesh …"

But in the other usage of the term in that same speech, he makes it one syllable, more like [dɐʃ]:

"… la France sera impitoyable à l'egard des barbares de Daesh …"

Some quantitative indications of the difference:

  • In his first pronunciation, the vocalic part is about 268 msec. long, whereas in the second one it's only about 167 msec.
  • In the first version, the second formant rises steadily from about a minimum of about 1550 Hz. about a third of the way through the vocalic region, to a maximum of to about 1950 Hz. at the end. But in the second version, the F2 minimum of around 1440 Hz. occurs most of the way through the vocalic region, and the rise (associated with the transition to the palatal fricative) only gets to about 1600 Hz.

Update #2 — See also Alice Guthrie "Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?", Free Word 2/19/2015, which provides a clear and extensive explanation of the origin and progress of the term, and also includes this interesting illustration, with the caption "'Da'ish' becomes 'Ja'hish' – 'The state of donkeys in Iraq and Syria'":

Update #3 — Another approach, by John Oliver:

Quand John Oliver se lâche sur les terroristes…

Quand John Oliver se lâche sur les terroristes… (vidéo traduite en Français)L'animateur de la chaîne américaine HBO a défendu la culture française face au barbarie. Un message qu'on voulait vous partager, et traduire.

Posted by minutebuzz on Monday, November 16, 2015


  1. Cal said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 9:39 pm

    I'm not sure if this would be interesting to anyone but me, but in my case, I am a graduate student who has been spending time learning both Arabic and Persian. My education in this field began in an Arabic context, so I generally tend to favor Arabicish (Arabesque?) pronunciations, even when it's not appropriate. So for example, even though I know that a qoph in Iranian Persian is always realized as a voiced velar fricative (like the Arabic ghayn), there are some Persian words borrowed from Arabic where I just can't resist pronouncing it as a voiceless uvular plosive.

    But in the case of Daesh, the summer they came to power I was in an immersive Persian program, so I spent weeks having occasional conversations about them in Persian. As a result, even when I am working in a clearly Arabic context, I find myself pronouncing it in the Persian way: "daw-ESH." (The main differences are that the aleph is pronounced like an "AW" instead of something more like an "AH" and the ayn is just the same glottal stop that an English speaker would put at the beginning of the syllable "esh.")

    But maybe the actually interesting thing here would be the Kremlinological aspects of Obama's use of "Daesh" at all. There have been many discussions about the underlying (and to my understanding, as yet unspoken) political reasons for his choice of ISIL over ISIS. But to my knowledge his administration has not made regular use of "Daesh." But I vaguely recall reading that the Europeans (or at least the French) prefer "Daesh" for some reason, so maybe his use of both together was a nod towards supporting his allies' rhetoric (and bombing strikes).

    [(myl) This is clearly true, I think — and apparently the French and others prefer to use Da'esh because the group's adherents don't like it. See the links and discussion in the comments here.]

  2. J. Goard said,

    November 15, 2015 @ 10:32 pm

    My inclination from romanized Korean to pronounce "ae" as something between my English [e] and [ɛ] seems to be struggling against my sense of an English phonotactic constraint against [eʃ]. "Desh" doesn't feel like it fits the spelling, but "daysh" doesn't sound like possible English.

    Interesting… evidence that on some level I associate the Korean vowel with [e] rather than [ɛ], even though I wouldn't have consciously said so.

    [(myl) But the president's pronunciation aside, the "ae" is not a digraph but two separate vowels, which should be separated by a consonant maybe best approximated in English by a glottal stop, so something like /dɐʔɛʃ/.]

  3. phanmo said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 1:59 am

    I almost always hear "da ash" here in Nantes, but then there's a long tradition (from Breton) of pronouncing vowels separately here. Maybe it should be spelled "daësh" with a nice trema!

  4. Vilinthril said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 3:36 am

    A trema makes sense, and if we're signalling pronunciation orthographically, we might as well write “Dāësh” to make it absolutely clear were length and stress lie.

  5. Vilinthril said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 3:36 am

    Argh. “Where”, of course.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 6:24 am

    It is my impression the Secretary Kerry was the first, high American official to to use this name for the organization. I wish that a single English name would become predominate so that every article about them doesn't have to say, "also known as the Islamic State or ISIL or ISIS."

  7. Narmitaj said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 8:52 am

    The BBC and other media outlets came under pressure from the UK government to stop calling Da’ish/ISIL/ISIS "Islamic State", on the grounds it was neither Islamic nor a state; though it is a bit odd as in those acronyms the IS bit still stands for Islamic State. These days the BBC is likely to call it "so-called Islamic State" (though not SCIS, or indeed Daesh).

    I am not sure Da'ish or Daesh is any improvement; it strikes me it has a hint of excitement, speed and even glamour ("dash", "dashing", a dash of bitters in your Manhattan) and also has a hint of powerful and secretive James Bond-like organisations such as SMERSH (based on a real Soviet organisation).

  8. Adrian Morgan said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 8:59 am

    Regarding the "extended passages of uptalk" aside, unless I'm much mistaken, Obama is using upward intonation to signal "I haven't finished yet — in imitation of the conventional intonation for a list of items: upward intonation on all but the last.

    It struck me some time ago that one reason why people use uptalk for isolated statements is to signal "this is just one random thing among many that I could mention right now". It's the conventional list intonation with the final item elided.

    I can't remember whether this point was covered in Language Log uptalk conversations, but since I arrived at it introspectively, I am very confident that it applies to a significant proportion of Australian uptalk at least.

    [(myl) Indeed. But there's a still-unanswered question about when, where, and by whom this bridging function is deployed.]

  9. Pete said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 9:26 am

    It has exactly the same structure as al-Qaida (or al-Qaeda or al-Qa'ida):
    – القاعدة = æl'qæːʕɪdæ
    – داعش = 'dæːʕɪʃ

    Since the æːʕɪ in al-Qaida is pretty consistently mapped to the English diphthong , I'd expect to see the 'dæːʕɪʃ anglicised as daɪʃ.

  10. languagehat said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 10:26 am

    So for example, even though I know that a qoph in Iranian Persian is always realized as a voiced velar fricative (like the Arabic ghayn), there are some Persian words borrowed from Arabic where I just can't resist pronouncing it as a voiceless uvular plosive.

    Obviously you know this and were just writing quickly to make a point, but for the benefit of others, that is only the case after vowels. Initially, both qaf (ق) and ghayn (غ) are voiceless uvular plosives. I also studied Arabic before Persian, so I feel your pain; it just seemed wrong to say "faghir" for فقیر‎ . But you get used to it!

    It has exactly the same structure as al-Qaida (or al-Qaeda or al-Qa'ida):
    – القاعدة = æl'qæːʕɪdæ
    – داعش = 'dæːʕɪʃ
    Since the æːʕɪ in al-Qaida is pretty consistently mapped to the English diphthong aɪ, I'd expect to see the 'dæːʕɪʃ anglicised as daɪʃ.

    They may have the same structure, but they are not pronounced the same. Qaf, like all the "emphatic" consonants, pulls a neighboring vowel back, so the first a in Qaida sounds almost like /ɔ/; d, on the other hand, allows the a to keep its inherently front pronunciation, and there's no reason for 'dæːʕɪʃ to become daɪʃ.

  11. Robert Coren said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 10:50 am

    I find it interesting that there are people objecting to calling it the "Islamic State", with or without "of {place}", urging instead the name "Daesh" — which, Mark tells us, is an acronym for Arabic "the islamic state of Iraq and the Levant". In other words, it's exactly equivalent to "ISIL". So apparently it's OK to call it something that means "Islamic State", as long as most of your hearers/readers can't understand it.

  12. Jason Eisner said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    @Narmitaj, @Robert Coren: Apparently "Daesh" has various negative associations, and is both intended and received as an insult. See e.g. here and here.

  13. Vilinthril said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    No. “Da'esh” has very derogatory connotations in Arabic, and in fact, the Da'esh punish use of that term on their territory quite strictly. It's not in any way just the equivalent of ISIL/ISIS.

  14. JJM said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    Robert Coren: "I find it interesting that there are people objecting to calling it the 'Islamic State'…"

    I agree. I consider "Daesh" to be mere political obfuscation: English speakers can't know what it's supposed to mean. Even ISIS/ISIL is bereft of any significant meaning.

    I use – and insist on – "Islamic State" because it's important to face facts and call a spade a spade.

  15. languagehat said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

    I agree. I consider "Daesh" to be mere political obfuscation: English speakers can't know what it's supposed to mean.

    So you're only interested in what matters to English speakers? I respectfully submit that that attitude is part of the problem. Here is (in the words of John Cowan, who shared the link at my site) a sensible and linguistically informed article that explains how and by whom it was created and why Daesh (the organization) hates it so. Since Daesh hates it and the people they oppress like it, I intend to use it.

  16. John Cowan said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

    Looks like the link got lost:

  17. Y said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 3:02 pm

    To draw a parallel, Cambodia was renamed (Democratic[!]) Kampuchea under the regime of the similarly murderous Khmer Rouge, in the 1970s. Kampuchea is merely a more accurate transcription of the Khmer name of the country, but using it then would lend legitimacy to that regime, and many avoided it for that reason. Using Daesh instead of its literal translation ISIS is not much to ask for.

    (It is extra awful that the the owners of Le Petit Cambodge, one of the sites of Friday's massacre, had to experience this kind of thing again.)

  18. W. Glenn said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 3:48 pm

    Would an outline of a shoe sole with Daesh in Arabic script be considered insulting as a bumper sticker?

  19. Levantine said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

    Y, the difference between Islamic State and your example is that Cambodia already existed, whereas Islamic State was newly created. Its creators have given it a name that we may not agree with, but it *is* its name nonetheless, and if we can call other objectionable groups by the designations they give themselves ("Taliban" and "FARC" to name just two), it seems childish to make an exception in this case.

    To be clear, I'm not opposed to the use of "Daesh" as an alternative, especially if it can signal (as it does in Arabic) opposition to the group, but to suggest that we should systematically avoid "Islamic State" and its English abbreviations seems petty to me.

  20. Christian Weisgerber said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 5:13 pm

    The French government may prefer "Daech", but I've seen plenty of instances of "EI" or "État islamique" in the French media over the last few days.

  21. How to pronounce “Daesh” | diversity | equity | inclusion said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 7:02 pm

    […] Audio guides: Language Log » Pronouncing "Daesh" […]

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

    A fair amount of contemporaneous English-language writing about events in Russia circa 1917 calls the Bolsheviks the "Maximalists," which was an attempted calque of a Russian word that it was assumed would mean nothing to Anglophones. But the calque didn't stick. I'm not sure why preferences stabilized as they did, but I doubt it was because Western stylebook compilers asked the Bolsheviks what their own preference in the matter was. For initialisms, it is perhaps useful to have one that can be used consistently across major Latin-scripted languages, so "IS**" versus e.g. a French "EI**" is a potential problem. It's not insoluble – English-language writing standardly uses "MPLA" for the winning faction (and subsequent ruling party) in the Angolan civil war even though it's an initialism for the Portuguese name of the group and the initials of any English translation of the full name would be different. And I guess we won the Cold War even if the French insisted on calling the USSR l'URSS.

  23. D.O. said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

    But Bolshevik never meant Maximalist, though different meanings of the word can bleed into each other, Bolshevik just meant "of majority fraction", because Lenin's followers happened to win some vote in an intraparty dispute. And for all their mendacity, Bolsheviks never pretended otherwise. Anyways, there is hardly any consistency in using initialisms for foreign entities in English. USSR is initialism of English translation of that country's name, but KGB is transliteration of Russian initiaism. Short story, Daesh seems to be entirely within the normal English practice and I will join those who use it, if occasion arises.

  24. Gene in L.A. said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 11:57 pm

    Just a note for those of you who may not be aware, that the article referenced in the post with the image, above, goes at great length into explaining what Daesh does and doesn't mean, and why the author believes it's a good word to use in place of our acronyms and the name Islamic State.

  25. Rita Lovejoy said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

    I agree with Gene in L.A. that this link is very clear in expressing the pronunciation of the word 'Daesh' and the importance of using it!

  26. Jeanne Fries said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

    Just a little about uptalk. Growing up in Minnesota and moving south, I have learned not to end my sentences on an up note. People across the U.S. know I am from the northern midwest when I revert back. It's part of my accent – definitely not done intentionally. Although it may be by some.

  27. JJM said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

    languagehat: "Since Daesh hates it and the people they oppress like it, I intend to use it."

    I'm not much interested in what the Islamic State hates or insulting them.

    I simply want them eradicated.

  28. Joyce Melton said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 2:41 am

    Is Daesh somewhat parallel to Nazi, in that the National Socialist German Workers Party did not use the abbreviation because it sounded like a word that meant something similar to rube in English?

    I don't mean an exact parallel because Daesh does not seem to have an independent meaning in Arabic but can be distorted to have a choice of derogatory or humorous meanings, getting something of the same effect as referring to the NSDAP as a bunch of yokels or bumpkins.

  29. Vilinthril said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 3:28 am

    Oh? I'm a German native speaker, but I hadn't heard that connotation before. Do you have a source for that?

  30. Joyce Melton said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    I found several English language sources by searching for "Nazi etymology" though many of them have near identical wording, indicating circular reference, most likely.

    But I had read this story long before the internet, that Ignatius was a common name in Bavaria, and Ignaz a shortening of it and Nazi a humorous nickname. It might not have been common itself outside that particular area and surely no one uses it that way now.

    Regardless of the bumpkin possibility, Nazi was a shortening of NSDAP that was not favored by the party itself but used a lot by its enemies, making it a sort of parallel to Daesh which was my point.

  31. Vilinthril said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 10:32 am

    Ah, I see. Well, yes, “Nazi” is a nickname for the (very old-fashioned and out-of-use – no idea if because of the phonetic similarity to Nazism or for unrelated reasons; I mean, it's old-timey enough on its own) name “Ignatius”, but I wouldn't be aware of any yokel connotations that nickname would carry or have carried.

    That the abbreviation was disfavoured is a sort-of parallel, but not directly, in my book, because Da'esh certainly has much stronger explicitly negative connotations.

  32. Alex said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

    "Daesh" is by far the most common term in French, normally pronounced as two syllables. I'd never seen it used in American media until this past weekend. I wonder if its sudden appearance is due to Obama's use of the word, and I wonder if the conversations he has presumably had with French officials or at least with the French president caused him to use it.

  33. Joyce Melton said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 12:10 am

    Here is an image of a print source, similar to online sources:

    And here is an online source that gives a reference to a 2002 work in German:

    At this late date, it is unlikely that even the people in Bavaria and Austria today have ever heard of this, partly because of the opprobrium attached to–and even legal restrictions on the use of–the term.

  34. Vilinthril said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 7:27 am

    Fascinating, thx!

  35. The linguistic war on terror | Friendly Humanist said,

    November 24, 2015 @ 8:06 am

    […] acronyms are exceedingly rare, so there may not be clear conventions on how to pronounce them. Language Log comes through with corpus-based observations of [dæʃ] ("dash") from Barack Obama, or […]

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