Now that the Republican convention has popped its balloons and the Democratic one is inflating theirs, let’s pause for a moment to consider politics and pronunciation. I had very little stomach for the speeches in Cleveland, but I did tune in long enough to hear a few words whose distinctive pronunciation got me thinking. My sampling is anecdotal and perhaps arbitrary; I’m hoping others will expand and perhaps clarify this list.
Divisive. This one didn’t begin with President Obama’s pronunciation of a short “i” on the second syllable, but Obama’s habit has surely influenced how other politicians say the word. When he was in the race, Jeb Bush continued to say div-EYE-sive, and so does Hillary Clinton. But Bernie Sanders has swung over to the short-”i” div-ISS-ive, and many commentators have followed suit. People have called this pronunciation a Briticism, but the Oxford English Dictionary gives us div-EYE-sive, as do all other major dictionaries. Journalists have started to take on the short-”i” habit. It’s odd only because, generally speaking, divisive follows the trend of other adjectives formed from verbs ending in –ide, like decide/decisive, deride/derisive. (By contrast, adjectives formed from -it verbs, like admit/admissive or permit/permissive, add a second s and pronounce the second syllable with a short “i” sound.)
Simultaneous. This one is a Briticism that I heard from at least one commentator on the RNC. Call me crazy, but I think we’re starting to pronounce the first syllable with a short “i” at least in part because of the way we’re starting to say divisive. Also perhaps because of …
Iraq and Iran. For a while, George Bush’s Eye-rak and Eye-ran pronunciations produced a simultaneous effect of co-opting the names of those nations and suggesting that no culture in those places deserved any effort on the part of a Texan to change the way he talked. Interestingly, the Republican pundits, including Trump, are not seeing fit to continue this habit. But neither will they stoop to Hillary Clinton’s or Bernie Sanders’s pronunciations, Ee-RAHK and Ee-RAHN. So Trump’s acceptance speech last week included many references to ih-RAN, with the first syllable rhyming with the new sih of simultaneous and the viss of divisive.
Muslim and Islam. While we’re on foreign affairs, let’s review the political differences here, which have grown more pronounced over the years. To an American, the spelling of the first word suggests the pronunciation Muhz-lim, which was the pronunciation we heard from Trump on Thursday night. By contrast, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both pronounced the word Mooss-lim, which apparently means “someone who submits or surrenders” in Arabic, whereas Trump’s pronunciation can suggest an opposite meaning, implying a tyrant or oppressor. Similarly, I heard IZ-lum from Trump, as opposed to Iss-LAHM from Clinton. According to the conservative publication The Federalist,
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.
When politicians’ pronunciation goes far from the American mainstream, they become subjects of mockery. George’s Bush’s Yur-up and nu-ku-lar were laugh lines, as was Trump’s pronunciation of Tanzania earlier this year. But when you can inflect a word one way or another without drawing undue attention, you can control the narrative that surrounds that word. We’re not talking here about bloopers, but about the small choices that powerful people make, sometimes consciously and sometimes without thinking. There are more important language issues in the presidential campaign now, sure, like the difference between “illegal aliens” and “undocumented immigrants.” But we notice those. Pronunciation is subtler; it slips by us. What choices have you managed to note in these endless speeches, and what impact might they have?
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