September 27, 2004

A capital to stir kumiss with

Steve at Language Hat has a wonderful post about the capital of Kyrgyzstan. About its name, of course, which used to be Pishpek, and then became Frunze in Soviet times ("Purunze" to the locals, at least in pronunciation). Since the Soviet name was a reference to the Bolshevik political and military leader Mikhail Frunze, the post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan decided to return to the old name. Unfortunately, no one knew its etymology. I'm not completely clear why this was viewed as a problem -- perhaps local linguistic nationalism prefers etymologically transparent place names? Anyhow, it was decided to use the Kyrgyz word nearest in sound, which is bishkek, meaning "whisk to stir kumiss with".

As Steve pointed out to me in email, this story (if true) means that the name of the capital of Kyrgyzstan is a very special type of eggcorn, namely a false analysis, with a slight change in sound, created on purpose to provide an interpretation for a name that otherwise lacks one. A few other examples of this sort of thing come to mind. For example, there are the cruel nicknames that children invent by malicious re-intepretation of the sound of other children's names. And there are some brand names that find more positive eggcornic analyses for common words.

It stirs the imagination to consider the possible results if other nations used a similar approach to replacing etymologically opaque place names.

Here's a recipe for kumiss: the step requiring a bishkek might be "dissolve the lactose in the water, add it to the milk, mix the yeast and brown sugar thoroughly, adding a little of the milk mixture to make it a thin paste, then add that to the rest of the milk solution and stir well". But I can't imagine that the nomadic Kyrgyz had either lactose or brown sugar -- not to speak of the champagne bottles suggested as containers. This recipe suggests using the mylar bags from boxed wine, which explains why a leather kumiss bag hanging on one's saddle would be a far more ecologically appropriate method. But there's still that lactose and brown sugar. Is mare's milk maybe just higher in sugar content? Or did the nomads of the asiatic steppes just make do with larger amounts of weaker kumiss?

[Note: Ethnologue spells the name of the language as Kirghiz, even though the country is now officially Kyrgyzstan. ]

[See these two later posts for more of the linguistic history.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 27, 2004 09:55 AM