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April 8, 2006 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Muslim or Moslem?

I keep seeing "Moslem" used interchangeably, it seems, in place of "Muslim." Can anyone explain why the variation and if it signifies anything?
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
From Wikipedia:

Until around the late 1980s, the word was commonly spelled Moslem. The spelling has since fallen into disuse. Muslims do not recommend this spelling because it is often pronounced "mawzlem" /mɒzlɛm/ which sounds somewhat similar to an Arabic word for "oppressor" (Za'lem in Arabic). The word is pronounced /muslem/ in Arabic, but often /mʊzlɪm/ in English. The word is now most commonly written "Muslim".
posted by godawful at 7:42 AM on April 8, 2006

Moslem has gone the way of "Hindoo" and and "Chinaman," both of which are now hilarious.

Here's more on godawful's explanation:

"According to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, "Moslem and Muslim are basically two different spellings for the same word." But the seemingly arbitrary choice of spellings is a sensitive subject for many followers of Islam. Whereas for most English speakers, the two words are synonymous in meaning, the Arabic roots of the two words are very different. A Muslim in Arabic means "one who gives himself to God," and is by definition, someone who adheres to Islam. By contrast, a Moslem in Arabic means "one who is evil and unjust" when the word is pronounced, as it is in English, Mozlem with a z."
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:10 AM on April 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it's mostly a problem with Arabic vowels not translating really well into English (apparently also the "s" becoming a "z"; I wasn't familiar with that word for "oppressor"). Also, to a lesser extent, pronunciations varying throughout the Arabic-speaking world. My comments are relevant to the Cairo dialect, which my Arabic teacher spoke.

The first vowel sound, the one alternately translated as "o" or "u", is (unsurprisingly) somewhere in between an "o" and an "u", pronounced curtly. The thing is, you need to use the sounds we in English call "long vowels," not "uh" as in short "u" or "ahh" as in short/nasal/midwestern "o". But the duration is very short; the Arabic word does not have the letter indicating a long vowel sound.

The second vowel, "e" or "i", is again short but this time it's okay to more or less use a schwa (though not exactly correct): the curt "eh" or i-as-in-it sound is fine.

"S" vs. "z" is also very distinct and apparently more important here than I realized. In short, if you want to be really correct about it, you should be saying something more like "mooslim" (but don't dwell on the "oo") and not so much like "mahzlem."
posted by rkent at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2006

If you are seeing these terms used interchangeably in contemporaneous writing, you should probably question the quality of writing you are reading. I think uninformed is the best description for such writing, but if you have links I'd be interested to see them.

I haven't studied the word, but here is what I think anyway with a few links to what I found on Google. "Moslem" seems to have been a common spelling in the early part of last century, at least in the US. "Moslem" became associated with "Black Moslems" or Nation of Islam adherents in the 1950s-1960s. "Black Moslem" became a term used by the right for militant blacks or just proud African Americans. With the rise of fundementalist terrorism, "Moslem" is used by some (mostly on the extreme right - Sean Hannity, I would guess) as a code word for "terrosist". Most prefer the term "Islamofascist". Like "partial birth abortion" and "one man and one women", it is a phrase meant to elicit a predictable response from like-minded individuals. Like "dilation and extraction", Muslim doesn't elicit the same response.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:42 AM on April 8, 2006

Sorta like McGuillicuddy, it seems I've only ever seen "Moslem" used on the net by rabid bloggers who hate Muslims, often in a sentence wishing them all jailed; for that reason alone personally I'd never use that spelling. I can't think of the last time I saw it in print. My (Muslim) boyfriend spells it Muslim and pronounces it something like "Moo-sleem".
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:56 AM on April 8, 2006

Great answers, thanks!
posted by Steve_at_Linnwood at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2006

Islam also used to be known as "Mohammedanism", linguistically pigeonholing it as a leader-bound cult rather than a full-blown religion.
posted by mkultra at 9:27 AM on April 8, 2006

In older written stuff I occasionally came across Mussulman, but I think that term is deprecated now. I have no idea whether it is considered offensive / disrespectful.
posted by beth at 10:30 AM on April 8, 2006

I believe my persian relatives still use "moslem," but then, most of them are Bahai and either left in the 50s and 60s, or fled after the revolution.
posted by Good Brain at 10:38 AM on April 8, 2006

mkultra: slam also used to be known as "Mohammedanism", linguistically pigeonholing it as a leader-bound cult rather than a full-blown religion.

Interesting...especially considering the name of Christianity.
posted by davidmsc at 10:54 AM on April 8, 2006

Muslims do not recommend this spelling because it is often pronounced "mawzlem" /mɒzlɛm/ which sounds somewhat similar to an Arabic word for "oppressor" (Za'lem in Arabic)

Oh, for... All right, I won't even get into that. (But people sure do love to find reasons to be offended.) Moslem and Muslim are equivalent forms with different renditions of the short vowels (not written in Arabic); the former is closer to the Persian form (a lot of our Arabic words come via the Persian the Brits learned in India), the latter to the Arabic. There's no reason to use one rather than the other, but if Muslims prefer Muslim (for whatever reasons), that's good enough for me.

Oddly, the Muslim form is actually older in English; here's the OED:

Forms: α. 16, 18- Muslim, 18 Mooslim. β. 16- Moslim, 17- Moslem
[< arabic em>muslim, active participle of aslama to submit oneself to the will of God, of which the noun of action is islām (see ISLAM n.).
The form Muslim is now generally preferred, as being closer to the Arabic.]

Here are the first two citations:

1615 W. BEDWELL Arabian Trudgman in tr. Mohammedis Imposturæ sig. Nv, Muslim, or Mussliman,.. is one that is instructed in the beleefe of the Mohammetanes. 1732 Historia Litt. 3 20 The Moslems came to the Lake of Tiberias, and coasted round it in Battle-array.
posted by languagehat at 12:22 PM on April 8, 2006

OK, I can't resist bitching a little about that Moslem/'oppressor' thing. It's exactly as if we were to complain that the Persian word Amrika 'America' has reek in the middle, which is insulting in English, therefore they should change the word.
posted by languagehat at 12:44 PM on April 8, 2006

"Moslem" or "Muslim" is not an English word, and it has been spelled differently by different people because they are different people, each doing his best to spell it as they hear it. And they hear it differently. And people in the Moslem world pronounce it differently, according to their Arabic dialect--there are little differences in vowel sounds between the Arabic dialects, so English-speakers trying to transcribe the word probably heard it pronounced in a variety of ways, and therefore there is no one English spelling that has always been used universally.

In a similar vein, I was nearly driven crazy when I was in elementary school because I couldn't pronounce the difference between the words "pin" and "pen." To my ear, there is no difference. I can distinguish between an i and an e in the words "pit" and "pet" but not when they come before an "n." And that may be one factor in the different spellings of the word Moslem--English speakers may have difficulty distinguishing phonemes in different contexts, so they will transcribe foreign words differently, just as we still have English speakers who spell words in non-standard ways that seem reasonable to them, because they hear the words that way. Trained phoneticists, using the international phonetic alphabet, would agree more on the correct transcription of "Moslem" in the IPA, but the English alphabet is not the IPA, and therefore when we spell a foreign-language word, it isn't to be expected that it will correspond exactly to the spelling of the word in its native language.

My husband is Egyptian and Moslem and he doesn't care how we spell it. And the Center for Nonproliferation Studies explation is also questionable for because "mazlum" means "the oppressed" in Arabic, and "zalam" means "the oppressor"--that "m__ " syllable at the beginning of a word tends to indicate the direct object of an action, not the actor.

You could get into a pattern of asking Arabic speakers how we should be spelling English words and whether some spelling of an English word has negative implications in Arabic. And then why not extend the same courtesy to speakers of French? And Chinese? And Swahili? And Afrikaans? And Russian? And on and on. And then where would we be? We'd be reduced to a lexicon of a few hundred words that have no negative connotations to the ears of any speaker of any language spoken elsewhere.

Are there any other ESL teachers out there? I used to teach English to Arabs and this was always an issue--they didn't like certain English words because "in Arabic" they were offensive. Like the English word "hush"--meaning "Be quiet"--there is an Arabic word "hish" which is used to tell donkeys to shut up. And I could never persuade my students that "Hush" is a sweet word we use with our little children, because "In Arabic it's impolite." There are very few word-to-word exact mappings of meanings across languages.

Furthermore, my understanding is that just as Christians are followers of Christ, the analogy was that Mohammedans are followers of Mohammed--it was an attempt to apply logic to language. But Moslems consider themselves followers of Allah, so the analogy doesn't seem as apt to them.
posted by gg at 5:17 PM on April 8, 2006

languagehat's dismissal aside, I've heard from a number of Muslim acquaintances that they appreciate the pronunciation of an 's' rather than a 'z' sound. That's enough for me, and for any thoughtful person, I'd think.
posted by mediareport at 6:43 PM on April 8, 2006

I see 'Moslem' a lot when looking at things from the UK; some research turns up that the Daily Express and the Mail use 'Moslem' I think exclusively; both are of course more conservative/right-wing papers, and so I think that's an interesting indication of the use of 'Moslem' vs. 'Muslim', and suggests use of 'Moslem' can be somewhat deliberate, with an intent to provoke.

As an aside, beth notes the use of "mussulman" - in French, the word used is "musulman", which I often think of when writing Muslim, actually, which is rather confusing.
posted by livii at 8:22 PM on April 8, 2006

Thai say Massaman (transliterated).
posted by brujita at 9:49 PM on April 8, 2006

You could get into a pattern of asking Arabic speakers how we should be spelling English words and whether some spelling of an English word has negative implications in Arabic. And then why not extend the same courtesy to speakers of French? And Chinese? And Swahili?

To be fair, Swahili is generally spelled in Roman characters (these days; it used to be spelled in Arabic), so the issue shouldn't come up so often. But aside from that,

We'd be reduced to a lexicon of a few hundred words that have no negative connotations to the ears of any speaker of any language spoken elsewhere.

... are you implying that it's somehow restrictive of our freedom to try and avoid offending native speakers of other languages when we use their borrow words? I've never met any foreigners who get offended that English words sound like naughty words in their language, so I'm inclined to believe that's a straw man. Sorry if your experience has been otherwise. My own personal bias is the other way, actually; I don't see why we feel entitled to change, e.g., Koeln to Cologne and Muenchen to Munich when the phonemes in the original aren't that hard to grasp. With مسلم (muslim) obviously we have to transliterate, but we have all the phonemes already! It shouldn't be that hard to say it right.
posted by rkent at 10:09 PM on April 8, 2006

Muslim and Moslem are both English words. If you're going to claim borrowed words somehow "aren't English," you're not going to be left with many words. (For instance, you'll have to do without they, them, and their.) The idea that speakers of other languages have the right to tell us which English words to use is absurd and offensive. (Try out my example above: would you tell speakers of Persian they shouldn't use Amrika for 'America' because it includes a syllable that sounds like reek?)
posted by languagehat at 6:58 AM on April 9, 2006

languagehat: While I agree with you that it's silly to complain about the word one language has for something, "Amrika" is a bad example. It's not pronounced "ahm reek ah." It's pronounced "ahm ree kah" and it's a different vowel length (english [ri:] and farsi [ri]), AND the r isn't a liquid, it's a flap.

"Mozlem" however, genuinely does sound like the arabic word in question. As regards Muslim with an [s] versus with a [z], that's just a feature of english, and is just a false cognate of "oppressor" in Arabic. So yeah, anyone who complains about the pronunciation in english just needs a few lessons in phonology.

Beth: Musselman is a cognate of farsi's "mossalmun", which just means "muslim". It's antiquated but I wouldn't think anybody would be offended to hear it. Mohammedan (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales refers to them, and seems to suggest they worship Apollo, if I remember correctly) is offensive because it suggests that you worship Mohammed- Muslims do not.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 5:47 PM on April 9, 2006

My experience has been mostly with Arabic speakers. I can't remember any English words that corresponded to naughty Arabic words, but the guys did enjoy asking me the names of body parts. It wasn't necessary to get into intimate detail because they would point at their necks and knees and ask me to name them quickly. I finally noticed that when this came up, it was usually not in connection with the unit on basic body parts, and a look would go round the class. Someone finally let me in on the fact that, said quickly "neck" "knee" sounds like the Arabic for "f*** me"--or it was close enough to do for them. I learned to head that off after a couple of times.

And as my husband pronounces the word for "the oppressed", it's more like "maz-loom" with the stress on the second syllable. Nowhere near our pronounciation of Muslim/Moslem. And his pronunciation of the religion is closer to Moos-lim. Especially if it's the plural, it's definitely "moos-lim-een." (stress on final syllable) But that's Egyptian Arabic--tho I've lived in the Gulf and they pronounced it the same way there.

This reminds me of the young Brits at the British Council who got off on me because I didn't pronounce "Moscow" the way they did. Which, by the way, is nothing like the Russian pronounciation which is more like "Mosk-va" (stress on second syllable). But they thought it was horribly crass, ignorant, and, well, American, not to pronounce it in their way, never mind if it was nothing like the Russian pronounciation.

Linguistics is a field that excites strong emotions in everyone, because our language is so bound up in who we are and it's our most important interface with our environment. It connects us with our culture, our family, our literature and music, and our earliest connections with our mothers, who taught us our language originally. When I taught ESL I always felt as if I were the students' mother for a few weeks, helping them to learn a new way of communicating in a strange environment.

And as far as why we don't spell and pronounce foreign words as they are pronounced in the original languages, that is an interesting window into the differences between English and those languages. In some cases it would require us to pronounce sequences of sounds that we don't have in English (as when a Farsi speaker tries to pronounce our word "school"--he's going to insert an initial vowel because that "sk" sequence doesn't occur in his language). And we would mangle the vowels in Scandinavian languages, so we go about pronouncing their words we have borrowed into our language in the best way we can without falling flat on our faces. Therefore, hopefully, we are compelled to be patient with speakers of other languages who try to function in English.
posted by gg at 7:52 PM on April 9, 2006

languagehat's dismissal aside, I've heard from a number of Muslim acquaintances that they appreciate the pronunciation of an 's' rather than a 'z' sound.

Well, that's because it's actually written and pronounced with an 's', and not with a 'z', in Arabic, so the 'z' pronunciation could actually be said to be wrong. However, there's no difference between an 'o' and a 'u' in Arabic; it has only 3 vowels (6, counting long and short variants), one of which (damma/waw) makes a sound that can be transcribed as either an 'o' or a 'u' in English. Hence the original confusion, I would guess; I had no idea there was any reason other than convention for choosing one spelling rather than the other, but I think the point is to pronounce it in the way that most closely approximates the Arabic word, and to use whichever spelling encourages English speakers to do so.
posted by xanthippe at 9:41 AM on April 10, 2006

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