‘HOLY SHIITE: Newsweek Retracts Its Deadly Toilet Tale,” was the headline of the May 17 New York Post. This pun of questionable taste, which was not calculated to further endear the American media to Muslim readers, was made possible by the aversion that most English speakers have to what linguists call a glottal stop — or, as it might be pronounced by the minority of English speakers who feel differently, a “glah-ul stop.”
Glottal stops are a standard phonetic component of many languages, including Arabic and Hebrew, and might be defined in nontechnical language as a constriction and release of the throat, sometimes made before or after a consonant, and sometimes between two vowels when one follows the other directly but is articulated separately. They are actually not that difficult for Anglophones, who sometimes do make them, as in a combination such as “law exam” — which, if not (as is commonly done) turned into “lorexam,” is pronounced with the “aw” of “law” separated from the “e” of “exam” by a slight catch in the throat.
In languages in which glottal stops are frequent, this catch is generally more pronounced, since it is as important to comprehension as any other phonetic element, and its omission or elimination can cause misunderstanding. In Hebrew, for instance, if you say “ Ha-eynayim sheli dom’ot,” with a constriction of the throat (indicated by the apostrophe), you are saying “My eyes are tearing”; if you say “ Ha-eynayim sheli domot, ” without it, you have said “My eyes are the same [as someone else’s].” Similarly, ta’am means “taste” but tam means “simpleton”; dla’ot means “pumpkins” but dlayot means “trellises”; and kor’im, “reading,” is different from korim, “mining.”
Some English speakers, as I have said, have no trouble with glottal stops and even create them where they are not supposed to exist. Such contrarians are found mostly in the United Kingdom — especially in London and adjacent areas like East Anglia, and to a lesser extent among some urban Americans — and the sound they glottalize most is the consonant “t.” In the Cockney speech of England, for example, “bottle” becomes “bah-ul,” and “Have you got a pot?” turns into “’Ave y’go’ a po’?” with the “t” disappearing in the larynx. Saying “Shee-ite” is no problem for such folks.
On the whole, though, English speakers prefer to avoid troubling their throat muscles by slipping a connecting consonant like the “r” of “lorexam” between any two consecutive vowels that don’t form a diphthong or single long sound like the “ai” of ‘rain.’ This is why, when faced with a word like “cooperation,” we do not say “co-operation,” but rather “cowoperation,” just as we say “deyemphasize’ rather than “de-emphasize.” It’s easier.
This is also why, when referring to the Muslim denomination, it is common to say “Shee-yite,” rather than “Shee-ite,” glottalizing it as in Arabic. The problem is, however, that English dictionaries and newspapers recognize neither this interposed “y” nor the use of a glottalization-indicating apostrophe — which would indeed be confusing, since in the rare English words that have such intervocalic apostrophes, such as “ma’am” or “e’en,” these indicate a single vowel spanning an elided consonant rather than two separate vowels. One thus sees the word spelled not as “Sheeyite” or “Shi’ite,” but rather as “Shiite,” which can indeed make one wonder whether it isn’t pronounced like you-know-what.
Hence the headline in The Post, which was not only vulgar but also inaccurate, since the rioting that broke out in response to the Newsweek story took place in Sunni rather than in Shi’a regions. These words, of course, refer to the two major religious groupings into which the world of Islam is divided, roughly comparable — although the comparison is rough indeed — to Catholicism and Protestantism in Christendom. Sunna in Arabic means “custom”; it was a pre-Islamic term used to designate the traditions of a tribe as passed down from generation to generation. In Islam it came to signify the main body of traditions concerning Muhammed and his followers that were accepted in most of the Muslim world.
The Arabic word sh’a, on the other hand, originally meant “faction” or “party” and is a cognate of Hebrew si’ah, commonly used today in Israel to denote a Knesset faction. Its Islamic sense comes from the phrase shi’et Ali, “ the faction of Ali” — that is, of Ali ibn-abi-Talib, a cousin of Muhammed’s who was married to his favorite daughter, Fatima. Ali vied for the leadership of Islam after the death of his two predecessors, Muhammed’s father in law Abu-Bakr and his chief general, Omar ibn Khatib. He briefly held it after defeating his rivals in battle, and was then assassinated at Al-Kufa in Iraq. After his son, Hussein, was killed in battle by the forces of Mu’awiya of Damascus, Islam split in two. The fissure was political, religious and also geographic, pitting the Sunni west against the Shiite east, and all Muslims who continue to look upon Ali and Hussein as the legitimate heirs of Muhammed are called Shiites to this day. If you can’t be bothered to glottalize that, at least give it the benefit of a “y.”
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