Still more on "Daesh"

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After Tim Friese's comment at the end of our last post on Daesh, I almost didn't want to think about the word again, much less write about it.  But then I came across this article by Matthew Weaver in The Guardian:

"Syria debate: the linguistic battle over what to call Islamic State.  David Cameron has started calling the group Daesh – a name based on a derogatory Arabic acronym – leading to heated exchanges among MPs" (12/2/15)

Viewing the video with which this article begins, I was struck by the passions raised and the earnest style of debate in Parliament — all over this five letter acronym.  Above all, detailed linguistic issues were front and center throughout the entire report, so it seemed that this was a case where Language Log hardly could hide from the ongoing controversy.

There are at least four alternative names and abbreviations for the group: Islamic State (IS), Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), or Daesh – which is based on a derogatory Arabic acronym.

Until now David Cameron has doggedly insisted on calling the group Isil and chastised the BBC for calling it anything else. But as he urges MPs to back government plans to extend bombing from Iraq to Syria, Cameron has jumped linguistic ships from the Isil to the Daesh boat.

It is reported that Downing Street said Cameron was “persuaded by those who do not think we should use the English words ‘Islamic’ and ‘State’ to describe them”.

But perhaps the change of language is also an attempt by the government to symbolise standing alongside France rather than the US in plans to bomb the militant group. The French president, François Hollande, refers to the group as Daesh, whereas Obama calls them Isil.

Cameron has never been happy associating the militant group with Islam, or the “state” or caliphate it has claimed.

In June, Cameron criticised the BBC over its terminology. In an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “I wish the BBC would stop calling it Islamic State because it’s not an Islamic state; what it is is an appalling, barbarous regime. It is a perversion of the religion of Islam and many Muslims listening to this programme will recoil every time they hear the words Islamic State.”

Cameron insisted that saying “so-called” Isil was better. At the time he did not mention Daesh. But others did. A cross-party group of MPs, including the London mayor, Boris Johnson, the Labour chair of the home affairs select committee, Keith Vaz, and the former SNP leader Alex Salmond, urged the BBC and other broadcasters to adopt the name Daesh for the group.

The BBC rejected the call, but since the row it has frequently prefixed reference to Isis with the words “so-called” as Cameron had demanded….

Daesh is based on an acroyn [sic] for Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham, one of the names Isis used to go by. One of the other arguments for switching to the term is that Isis supporters do not like it….

The Guardian’s Middle East editor, Ian Black, points out that the plural, Daesh, means bigots who impose their views on others.

[VHM:  This is to misquote Ian Black, who wrote that the plural form is "daw'aish".]

After all that, I find it particularly curious that the article ends thus:

For the time being the Guardian’s house style for the group remains Islamic State, or Isis for subsequent use.

For comparative purposes, I may quote a colleague who writes:

I am under the impression that there was a time when the BBC would not use (or was not allowed to use?) the full phrase 'Irish Republican Army', only 'IRA'. This was in order to confer as little recognition as possible upon what what that organisation claimed to be. In a quick search just now I could not confirm this memory.

(And, of course, farther afield, there has been, for example, Jiǎngbāng「 蒋帮」("Chiang [Kai-shek] Gang") and Gòngfěi「共匪」("Communist Bandits") instead of what these organisations/states called themselves.)

Stigmatization comes in many different shapes and forms.



What follows is a simplified restatement of the phonological issues raised in the previous o.p. on "Daesh":

The whole phrase with vocalisation:  ad-dawlat al-ʾislāmiyya fī l-ʿirāq waš-šām اَلدَّوْلَة  اَلْإِسْلَامِيَّة  فِي  الْعِرَاق  وَالشَّام (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

The acronym with vocalisation:  dāʿiš دَاعِش (both from here).

1) Why is the acronym ' dāʿiš '  'داعش'  —
a) and not  ' dīʿiš '  'دإعش' ?
b) and not 'dāʿš'? (There is no < ي > in <داعش> before the < ش> , where does the <i> come from? Epenthetic? Is there a phonotactic rule against /ʃ/ directly following /ʕ/ ?)
2)  Does /ʕ/ force a directly following /i/ toward [e]? Is the Anglo-Franco common media-transcription 'Daesh' reflection of this? If this is the case, is it true even in standard pronunciations, or only localised ones?

If someone knows how to contact Alice Guthrie (author of "Decoding Daesh: Why is the new name for ISIS so hard to understand?"), it would be helpful to have her comment on these questions.


  1. john burke said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 9:35 am

    South African politicians of the Nationalist party used to make a point of referring to the anrti-apartheid forces as "SACPANC," a portmanteau of South African Communist Party and African National Congress. I believe this move had two aims: to establish an identity between the two groups, and to deny both groups the names they called themselves by. There was also a period when the US military referred to Chinese Communists as "Chicoms" (and compare "Korcom" and "Vietcom," the last of which may have been the origin of the term Vietcong.)

  2. KevinM said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 9:43 am

    I believe it was in the Reagan years that Republican members of Congress adopted the practice of using "Democrat" as the adjectival form of the Democratic party's name (as in "the Democrat proposal to raise your taxes, burn the flag, and surrender to Communism"). The reasons seem to have been that (1) "democratic" as an adjective has positive associations, unrelated to partisan politics, that the Rs didn't want to cede to the Ds; (2) "democrat" is an ugly sound; (3) there was no obvious turnabout strategy (the "republic proposal" makes no sense).

  3. Ginger Yellow said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 9:50 am

    I don't recall a ban on the full name of the IRA, but what was definitely banned for most of the 80s and early 90s was the real voices of any (Northern) Irish terrorist groups, including their political wings, particularly Sinn Fein. Watching the news about the peace process and always hearing an actor talk on behalf of Gerry Adams was a curious part of growing up for me.

  4. Matt W said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    See also Nazi/Naczi and Nationalsozialistische

  5. RJP said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 10:04 am

    Correct, but to be clear, that ban was imposed by the Government, not by the BBC. In employing actors to speak SF members' words, the BBC actually violated the spirit (but not the letter) of the ban.

    Terminology: Unionist politicians often used to insist on the term "Sinn Fein/IRA". Irish Republicans tend to avoid the term "Northern Ireland", preferring "the Six Counties" or "the North of Ireland". Only Unionists use the term "Ulster" as shorthand for Northern Ireland. (NI comprises six of the historic nine counties that make up the province of Ulster.)

  6. ratnerstar said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 10:05 am

    Personally, I like how the BBC calls them "Islamic State," without even a definite article. It makes them sound like a mid-level public university. "I'm hoping to get in to Cornell, but Islamic State is my safety school."

  7. ardj said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 10:11 am

    Again nothing to do with Daesh, indeed this is the mirror image of the discussion so far. But I remain astonished that the UMP, pushed by Sarkozy, were allowed by the courts to change their name to Les Républicains (the Republicans) – in spite of the objection by left-wingers, that they were republicans too:; and a majority of the French (I have seen a figure of 68%) disapprove of the change. So for that matter did a family which also went to court, who have the surname Républicain.

  8. Lameen said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    In answer to your questions:

    1) Why is the acronym ' dāʿiš ' 'داعش' —
    a) and not ' dīʿiš ' 'دإعش' ?

    إ represents ʔi, not ī, so دإعش would have to be d(V)ʔiʕ(V)š, which would sound extremely awkward. CāCiC is the template for active participles, so Arabic is full of nouns of that form, but I don't think there are any nouns in Arabic of the form CvCiCvC – certainly no non-borrowed ones. إ is considered as ا plus a diacritic, not as a letter of its own – it doesn't appear in the alphabet, at any rate.

    b) and not 'dāʿš'? (There is no ي in داعش before the ش , where does the i come from? Epenthetic? Is there a phonotactic rule against /ʃ/ directly following /ʕ/ ?)
    Arabic short vowels are not normally transcribed, so acronym coiners are free to add them at will. /i/ is in fact the default epenthetic vowel, and there is in fact a phonological rule against a sequence V:CC unless the two consonants are identical, but the previously mentioned template CāCiC also plays a role here.

    2) Does /ʕ/ force a directly following /i/ toward [e]? Is the Anglo-Franco common media-transcription 'Daesh' reflection of this? If this is the case, is it true even in standard pronunciations, or only localised ones?
    Yes, /i/ and /u/ tend to be lowered phonetically next to /ʔ/. I wouldn't consider that as standard exactly, but with only three vowel qualities, standard Arabic can afford to be pretty forgiving of variation in their phonetic realisations.

  9. Ginger Yellow said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 11:55 am

    Another reason why the BBC might have used "IRA" more than "Irish Republican Army" is that, at least by the 90s, it was common to distinguish between the main Provisional IRA and the Continuity IRA and Real IRA. So the emphasis was on the qualifier, not the Irish Republican Army bit.

  10. 번하드 said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 3:34 pm

    hmmm, reminds me of Germany's "bleierne Zeit" of left-wing terrorism.
    One of the terrorist organizations called themself "Baader-Meinhof-Gruppe", but the politically desired designation was "Baader-Meinhof-Bande", with Gruppe==group, Bande==gang.
    Using the "wrong" name would expose one to being blamed as a "Sympathisant".
    Sometimes one doesn't have to go as far as China.

  11. John Swindle said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 3:49 pm

    @john burke: I didn't know about "Vietcom." The Vietnamese equivalent "Việt Cộng," also intended as pejorative, is however the more likely origin for English "Viet Cong" or "Vietcong."

  12. Tim Friese said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 3:54 pm

    I agree with Lameen on all points and let me add one more thing: إ can only represent /ʔi/ utterance initially. Glottals in Arabic are almost always written on a 'seat' of another letter, and in this case it's on an alif: إ , but if we wanted to put a glottal in the middle of the word here and have it go with an /i/ vowel, the seat would have to be a yaa': ئ and we would get دئعش. But as has been pointed out, that looks unpronounceable to Arabic speakers, they wouldn't even know how to vowel it, and the CaaCiC-form Daesh seems like a better option.

  13. David Douglas Robertson said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 4:10 pm

    My glancing acquaintance with Arabic led me to think this way: The long "aa" in "Daesh" is a predictable result of placing the letter alif (elsewhere to be read as glottal stop) after the "d". That would be the conventional way that Arabic would spell a syllable "daa", am I wrong?

    Having only enough knowledge to be dangerous, I also wonder if a fluent Arabic speaker can tell us whether "Daesh" (daa9ish) sounds like the frequent active-participle derivation that inserts the vowels "aa" and "i" into a root. Examples of that from Wikipedia's "Arabic Nouns and Adjectives" article:

    ṭālib "student" (from ṭalaba "to ask")
    kātib "writer" (from kataba "to write")
    bā'iʻ "vendor" (from bāʻa "to sell")
    muhandis "engineer" (from handasa "to engineer")

    And if "Daesh" sounds like such an "occupational or characteristic noun", then what does it sound like it means? That is, is Daesh insulting due to its semantics, or due as I've heard claimed to the fact of an acronym being used at all, or is there another reason?

  14. Matt said,

    December 9, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

    @John Swindle: I thought John Burke meant that the "Cộng" part of the Vietnamese word was a loan of "Com[munist]", but a little poking around suggests that it's actually just the regular old Sino-Vietnamese morpheme 共 "together" as in 共產 "Communist".

  15. John Swindle said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 2:44 am

    @Matt: Indeed. And an abbreviation. And arbitrarily pejorative at the time, like Daesh today. Your analogy is a good one.

  16. Colin said,

    December 10, 2015 @ 6:58 pm

    @ardj: The frequent name changes of the main French centre-right party are worth a LL post in their own right.

  17. Katie said,

    December 11, 2015 @ 12:31 am

    Native Arabic speaker with limited linguistics knowledge here.

    "Daesh" does sound like an "occupational or characteristic noun". It would mean, "one who does da'sh". That doesn't mean anything as far as I know, so it's a bit confusing that it's pejorative. My best guess is that the offensiveness is a function of the mere fact of using an acronym (it feels informal, like a nickname, which would be disrespectful under some circumstances) and the fact that "da'sh" just sounds like an unpleasant thing to do. I'm not sure why. I've seen claims that it sounds like other words that are more obviously pejorative, but I haven't found them intuitively convincing.

  18. Anthony said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

    The phenomenon of UK TV news programmes being required by law to use actors' voices to overdub Sinn Fein representatives is well parodied in this clip from the British news media satire show The Day Today (which inspired The Daily Show):

  19. Matt McIrvin said,

    December 13, 2015 @ 11:22 pm

    @ardj: That of course reminds me of US political parties, the Republicans and the Democrats: since just about everyone in both parties is at least nominally a democratic republican, their literal meanings are not tremendously significant.

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