December 01, 2003

Stress and death in Samarra

Because of the ambush and subsequent firefight in central Iraq yesterday, the news has been full of mentions of the Iraqi town whose name is spelled "Samarra" in English. In the context of this serious event, I hate to bring up the relatively trivial matter of pronunciation, but one way or another, we have to say the words...

This morning on NPR, Bob Edwards said [sam'ara] but Carl Kasell said [s'æmara] (where single quote marks the main-stressed vowel, and I'm ignoring the details of the quality of the unstressed vowels).

I asked Tim Buckwalter how this word is pronounced in Arabic, and he responded:

The word sAmar~A' has two long vowels (/sa:mar:a:?/) so the stress should fall on the last long vowel and all preceding ones get shortened. However, names that end in /a:?/ tend to drop the glottal stop, and stress shifts to the nearest preceeding long vowel. A good example of this is "Sinai": /si:na:?/ in MSA, but /si:na/ in colloquial (and sloppy MSA). So, I suspect that this is how he got /sa:mar:a/. But since I don't know Iraqi, maybe I got it all wrong.

[Note: for the interpretation of Tim's transliteration sAmar~A', see this table]. According to Tim's answer, the correct formal pronunciation in Modern Standard Arabic would have final-syllable stress (which neither NPR announcer used), whereas the colloquial pronunciation (at least in the Levantine Arabic that Tim knows best) would have initial-syllable stress, as in Carl Kasell's pronunciation. If I understand the transliteration right, the vowel quality would also be closer to American English cat than cot.

There are several colloquial Arabics spoken in Iraq, so I guess there could be additional answers, but my guess is that Bob Edwards' pronuncation [sam'ara] is just the default American-English stress rule for foreign words: "if it ends in a vowel, use penultimate stress", along with the default American-English idea about how to pronounce orthographic "a" in foreign words ("use the vowel in cot, not the vowel in cat"). This is certainly how I always thought the word Samarra should be pronounced in English. And maybe Bob Edwards and I were right -- this is English, after all, not Arabic -- but the version with initial stress and a fronter vowel is apparently closer to the colloquial Arabic while remaining well within the phonetic space of our native American English.

Then again, Mohamed Maamouri supports the final-stress pronunciation that neither announcer used: "According to what I know, the pronunciation is /samar~A'/ with the stress on the last long vowel and with possible deletion of the final glottal stop." Mohamed has visited Samarra (in the 1970s), and so he has some direct personal evidence. He also mentioned that the names comes from an Arabic form meaning 'have an evening of entertainment.'

The first time that I ever had occasion to pronounce this word, if only to myself, was when I was 12 or 13, reading John O'Hara's novel Appointment in Samarra. gives it a blurb to die for by Ernest Hemingway: “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.”

The book's action actually takes place in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. But the version that I read as a kid was an old-fashioned paperback edition with a trashy-looking cover, and I found it in a stack of mystery novels and suspense stories in my mother's sewing room. So I thought it was a spy thriller, and kept waiting vainly for that part of the story to start...

The title comes from a passage by W. Somerset Maugham:

DEATH SPEAKS: There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 1, 2003 11:50 AM