June 19, 2006

The four meanings of an Arabic word

Khaled Ahmad's most recent Word for Word column in the (Lahore, Pakistan) Daily Times ("Is camel beautiful?", June 18, 2006) tell us that

The word for beauty [in Arabic] is “jamaal” which is taken from “jml” the root that means camel. The popular name in Urdu Jameel means beautiful. Why are the Arabs so taken up with the camel? [In Urdu] We call it “oont” which points to the animal’s very ugly lip. [...] Hundreds of Arabic words are derived from the various motions of the animal. [...]

The Arabs got the horse from outside their region; but once they got used to its qualities, they took it to their heart. Two very important Arabic words that we use today are derived from the horse and not from the camel.

The root sas in Arabic points to the horse and the word siyasat for politics is derived from it. The art of training a horse through a saees — another word in Urdu meaning horse-trainer from the same root — is supposed to be akin to statesmanship.

Another word we use for wisdom in Urdu is farasat. This comes from the Arabic root frs and means horse.

This reminded me of an old joke about Arabic lexicography that I couldn't quite remember, so I appealed to Roger Allen, who furnished this version:

Every Arabic word has a basic meaning, a second meaning which is the exact opposite of the first, a third meaning which refers to either a camel or horse, and a fourth meaning that is so obscene that you'll have to look it up for yourself.

Roger expressed some skepticism that there is really a historical relationship between the "camel" and "beauty" words:

Yes, the words "jamaal" and "jamiil" ("beauty" and "beautiful" respectively) and the word "jamal" meaning "camel" are all formed from the same root structure, made up of the three consonants J - M - L. It is impossible to know (until we have done much more rigorously analytical and historical work) what mono- or-bi-consonantal combinations preceded the formation of this tri-consonantal cluster J - M - L , with its two entirely separate and otherwise unlinked sets of meanings. In other words there is no valid reason for linking the concepts of "beauty" and "camel" except for the fact that, in Arabic, they are both derived from the same tri-consontal root structure.

John McWhorter has warned us against taking patterns of polysemy as philosophical or sociological essays ("Mohawk philosophy lessons", 11/18/2003). I suppose that stories about Arabic camel-love and beauty may help adult learners to remember words, just as similarly fanciful stories about Chinese characters may help some people to memorize them.

Khaled Ahmad's column contrasts the Arabs' (allegedly excessive) affection for camels with the relative indifference of the Jews:

Their fellow Semites, the Jews, call the animal gamal but do not derive the word for beauty from it. The special relationship with camel is found among the Arabs, much less among the Jews. English word camel came from Latin, camelus.

He also attributes a key feature of Egyptian Arabic pronunciation to Jewish influence:

The original Greek khamelos has been borrowed from ancient Phoenician. In Egypt it is the Jewish pronunciation of the letter jeem that is followed. So if you are named Jamaal it will be pronounced Gamal as in Gemal Abdul Nasser.

I gather that this version of Egyptian linguistic history will be a surprise to historical linguists as well as to Egyptians. Tim Buckwalter suggested that this aspect of Egyptian Arabic phonology probably came straight from Coptic, along with some syntactic features not found in any other Arabic colloquial (discussed in this Wikipedia entry).

It's interesting to see that the hunger for nuggets of etymological, historical and cross-cultural information about language is international, and it's odd that there are not more sources of such information that are popular but also accurate.

I also need to remind everyone that it's the Somalis who are most deeply into camels.

[Update -- E. Phoevos Panagiotidis emails:

Only today did I stumble upon your Language Log, which I have been perusing with great interest for a while, at the expense of my doing valuable (?) admin work for the Department...

I would only wish to contribute a factual remark at this point. In your recent post on 'the four meanings of an Arabic word', you quote Khaled Ahmad about the Greek word for camel being 'khamelos'. That would actually be 'kamelos' instead.

Indeed. Here's the LSJ entry, and a citation in Aristophanes, which is interesting for another reason -- it's the earliest reference I've ever seen to a "bat out of hell":

Near by the land of the Sciapodes there is a marsh, from the borders whereof the unwashed Socrates evokes the souls of men. Pisander came one day to see his soul, which he had left there when still alive. He offered a little victim, a camel, slit his throat and, following the example of Odysseus, stepped one pace backwards. Then that bat of a Chaerephon came up from hell to drink the camel's blood.

Who knew? ]

[Update -- Alex Gretlein writes:

Thank you for taking on Khaled Ahmad, whose Word for Word column is consistently full of the headache-inducing incorrect assumptions you have identified. In the piece you mentioned, we might also add that "oont" उंट (camel) is derived from the Sanskrit "ushtra", related to the Persian shatr, and has - as far as I know - nothing to do with the camel's "hont" (lip), beautiful or otherwise. Also, the preferred pronunciation for his horsemanly word meaning insight is "firasat" (Firuz al-Lughat), although it is commonly (or as Platts would have it, "vulgarly") pronounced as Khaled Ahmad has it.

There is a species of middle-aged man - most of them English professors or journalists - common in India and Pakistan. They might have an interest in Urdu (though they use English almost exclusively, at least in their intellectual and professional lives), they acquire a shallow knowledge of Arabic or Persian, and some pop etymology, and then they run with it, never bothering to check with reference works or people who might actually know.

Of course, there are specimens of closely related species to be found in Europe and North America, and for all I know in East Asia and in other places as well. There's a positive side: such people reflect a widespread interest in linguistic history and linguistic analysis. And if the stuff in the popular press that responds to this interest is mostly produced by people who are not as well informed as they should be, maybe that's the fault of the people who know better. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 19, 2006 05:11 PM