This week British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed in parliament the name Daesh as an alternative to ‘Islamic State’. The pronunciation of the letter combination ae is tricky in English: Mr Cameron’s approach was to ignore the ‘e’ altogether and pronounce the word exactly like English dash; 1:43 in this clip:
(This confused me when I heard it: I wondered if he was invoking the custom in old novels of anonymizing names with the punctuation mark dash – as in the opening of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “…a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S—y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K—n Bridge.”)
If your first language isn’t English, you may be wondering what the problem is. Why couldn’t Mr Cameron simply pronounce the vowel ‘a’ followed by the vowel ‘e’? The answer lies in the patterns of the Southern British vowel system.
In some languages, the phonetic sequencing of vowels is quite free. English is not like this: its phonetic vowel sequences are under strict constraints, according to the columns in this chart:
The short vowels in the grey column must be followed by a consonant. So if you choose to pronounce the ‘a’ of Daesh with the short a of TRAP (and dash, back, tag, etc), then you can’t pronounce the following vowel ‘e’. Mr Cameron, of course, skipped the ‘e’ and went straight to the ‘sh’.
The long vowels in the pink column only occur before a consonant or at the end of a word, and not directly before a vowel. So, again, if you choose to pronounce the ‘a’ of Daesh with the long vowel of START (and bra, spa, Saab, etc), then you can’t pronounce the following vowel ‘e’.
However, the vowels in the blue and green columns (the diphthongs) may occur before another vowel. So the ‘e’ of Daesh can be preceded by vowel of PRICE, eye, my, sigh, pie, buy, etc. This is exactly the option that is chosen for the ‘a’ in words like paella and Joan Baez: British English speakers pronounce these words as pie-Ella and Joan Buy-ez.
This is why I’ve chosen /dɑ́jɛʃ/ (DY-esh in BBC-style respelling) for the CUBE searchable transcription dictionary. It’s a compromise which acknowledges both the ‘a’ and the ‘e’, while conforming to English pronounceability.
Daesh is an Arabic acronym; the ‘e’ stands for ‘Iraq’, which begins with a pharyngeal consonant ع [ʕ] followed by the vowel i. Therefore /dɑ́jɪʃ/ (BBC-style DY-ish) would be phonetically somewhat more accurate than /dɑ́jɛʃ/.
Unstressed schwa ə is an exception to the generalization that English short vowels must be followed by a consonant: it commonly occurs in word-final position, eg data, extra, sauna, visa.
American English is somewhat more tolerant of vowel sequences than Southern British. Many Americans have the vowel of bra and spa in the middle of Hawaii and other such words, rather than the vowel of pie and buy. Americans are also more ready to separate vowels of this type with a glottal stop.