Oh, *That’s* How You Pronounce It

I was wondering what to write about so I figured I’d google “Muslim” to see what was up these days. Honestly, I already know what’s going on for the most part just by scrolling through my Facebook feed and my own general knowledge. Currently, the Hajj pilgrimage is happening right now in Saudi Arabia and we’re all gearing up to celebrate our holiday, Eid Al-Adha on Monday. And then there’s unfortunate incidents like this that popped up on my feed:
Bigot tried ripping off two Muslim women’s hijabs as they strolled with their babies in Brooklyn attack

Therefore, I didn’t really have to search for anything but I was curious.

The cool thing about searching for just one word in Google is that the search results will bring up the definition of the word, pronunciation, and all that. It’s pretty convenient when you want to confirm you know the definition of a word real quick.

So… this came up when I googled “Muslim”:


It’s always been a struggle to get people to pronounce “Muslim” the right way. For some reason, a lot of people can’t not make the “z” sound in the word or they heard it somewhere pronounced like that and assumed that was correct. A lot of us have accepted it while others hope that the people who do say it like that will eventually learn when they hear it properly said over and over again: with the “s” in the word sounding like an actual “s”, with an “ess” sound.

But if you freaking google it and you get the search engine telling you that it’s a “z”, what are you supposed to do if you happen to not know any better? The most well-intentioned person would get it wrong if they actually were trying to figure out how to properly say the word. Someone, somewhere, normalized the wrong pronunciation of “Muslim.”

I can see it now:

Newscaster: How do I even pronounce this word? *googles it* Ah, okay.
“Today, Mozlems from around the world are celebrating…”

If you do hear someone say “Muslim” with a “z,” be kind as they may not know any better. If you are the one who says it with a “z,” trust me when I say it would make a huge difference if it’s said properly.

On a related note: Been seeing this article here and there. It’s somewhat connected but this actually has way more of a negative impact than the above: The Lasting Impact of Mispronouncing Students’ Names

8 thoughts

  1. Yes, this annoys me too and ugh, that sucks that Google is even inaccurate, given it’s role in looking things up when you need a quick answer, as you said.

    Yes, I think we can be kind and nicely / respectfully correct people or at least passively do so, by pronouncing it right and hopefully, it will catch on / be asked of us to clarify it.

  2. I thought this might happen. The -sl- in my original comment was auto-deleted because I put it between angled brackets; the blog platform thought it was an HTML tag. This should be better:

    OK, this is very fascinating. I think there are two main things going on here. (1) The standard phonological process of voice assimilation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consonant_voicing_and_devoicing) and (2) sociolinguistic variation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Variation_(linguistics)) that has taken on meaning.

    With (1), there is certainly a defense of the pronunciation with [z]. The letter pattern -sl- between vowels is not very frequent in English, but the word Muslim has a structure that lends naturally to changing the [s] to a [z] sound, that is “voicing” or pronouncing the sound with the vocal cords vibrating. Namely, the syllable preceding is stressed, and it is not at the word boundary in a compound (like gaslight or gaslamp). Examples of other English words with this pattern are as follows: gosling, paisley, grisly, measly.

    So, basically, pronunciation with [z] is more English, indicating the originally foreign word has become more Anglicized, more fully incorporated into the English sound system. Tesla is an example, like Muslim, where variation exists. I tend to pronounce it with [s] but I have heard many people naturally pronounce it with [z].

    Where Tesla differs from Muslim is its lack of any sort of meaning in the [s] vs. [z] variation, (2) above (at least as far as I know!). Bushra, it seems that for you, as an English-speaking Muslim, the pronunciation with [s] is “correct,” and with [z] is “incorrect.” This may be because the original Arabic has the [s] pronunciation. More generally, though, it seems that pronunciation with [z] indicates a sort of lack of knowledge or understanding, whereas pronunciation with [s] indicates an understanding of or respect for Muslim identity.

    I must admit, I happen to be one of the people who has traditionally pronounced Muslim with a [z], but I will catch myself from now on, and make an effort to use the [s] pronunciation!

    1. Thanks for that detailed comment Greg! I was wondering if it’s just one of those words that I may be pronouncing differently (meaning different from “American English”) because of my background and that the word with the “z” pronunciation isn’t actually wrong. I mean, I guess it’s not wrong because that’s what the official American pronunciation is but you know what I mean :)

      Funny about “Tesla” though – I have always said it with an “s” never realizing that some pronounce it with a “z” sound!

Leave a Reply