February 14, 2007

"Barack" mailbag

My post about the fake controversy surrounding Barack Obama's first name has brought in some thought-provoking email.

Some readers have wondered about other possible cognate forms related to Arabic/Swahili barak(a) besides Hebrew baruch 'blessed.' Joshua Barach (whose surname surely reveals a vested interest) writes:

I do think people will make more out of his name but I often wonder why the pronunciation 'barak' that we grew to understood meant 'lightning,' as in Ehud Barak or Barak Brigade (an Israeli army group). Since I'm not familiar with Hebrew I wouldn't know but those names can mean different things depending on how they are used, as we know. I wonder what else it could mean?

Despite the spelling, Hebrew barak 'lightning' is actually derived from a different Semitic triliteral root: B-R-Q instead of B-R-K. There are cognates in Arabic too: baraqa 'to flash, shine,' barq 'lightning,' burāq 'creature that carried the Prophet Muhammad to the seven heavens.' Things get a little confusing in modern Israeli Hebrew because proto-Semitic /*k/ (a velar stop) and /*q/ (a uvular or pharyngealized stop) are both realized as [k] — as opposed to modern Arabic, which maintains a velar-uvular distinction. The Hebrew spelling (if not the English transliteration) still reveals the historical root because of the orthographic difference between kaf (כ) and quf (ק). Thus Ehud Barak's last name is spelled with a quf (בָּרָק). (Interestingly, Barak didn't always have a name evoking lightning; he was born Ehud Brog and switched to "Barak" when he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces.)

And just to confuse matters even further, proto-Semitic /*k/ developed another allophone in Hebrew besides [k]: the velar or uvular fricative [x]. So while the [k] allophone of /*k/ merged with /*q/ into modern Hebrew /k/, the [x] allophone merged with the pharyngeal fricative /*ħ/ into modern Hebrew /x/. This is represented by the letter khaf (ך), which explains how Hebrew baruch (בָּרוּךְ) derives from the Semitic root B-R-K shared by Arabic baraka (برك).

Meanwhile, Shefaly Yogendra wonders about a similar word in Urdu:

I am no linguist but as a person whose mother tongue is rooted in Sanskrit and who grew up with Hindi and Urdu, I recall a word 'barakat' which roughly means 'prosperity'. Does it share the same roots with Arabic 'barak'?

Yes, indeed. The entry for barakat/barkat in John T. Platts' A Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English (1884) explains that it entered by way of Persian, true of many Arabic loanwords in Urdu. Similar forms can be found in many languages in the Muslim world besides Swahili, Persian, and Urdu. For instance, in Malay/Indonesian the word for 'blessing' is berkat. If you're wondering where the "t" came from at the end of Persian/Urdu barakat and Malay berkat, that's because the Arabic noun baraka(t) (بركة) 'blessing' has a feminine ending (ﺓ) called a tā' marbūta, which gets pronounced as [t] in many contexts.

Shefaly poses another fine question:

Also is there an associated pronunciation for the name which may be right? Many US and UK newscasters are regularly calling him 'Barrack' as in a soldier's temporary shelter and not 'Baraak' which I think may be the right way to say it. Does his use of a 'C' before 'K' contribute to this confusion?

The BBC Pronunciation Unit recently offered this advice for pronouncing "Barack":

His name should be pronounced buh-RAAK oh-BAA-muh. When he first came to prominence, there was some disagreement about his first name, which was also sometimes pronounced buh-RACK or even BARR-uhk, but our recommendation is based on the pronunciation he uses himself - he can be heard saying his own first name here.

I agree with Shefaly that the spelling of "Barack" with a "c" might encourage many English speakers to think that the pronunciation is like barrack ([ˈbærək]) rather than how Obama himself pronounces it with stress on the second syllable ([bəˈrɑːk]). But I think such an unfamiliar name is bound to engender differing pronunciations. The barrack pronunciation isn't too surprising, given the tendency of some English speakers towards first-syllable stress in pronouncing disyllabic foreign names — recall that George H.W. Bush memorably called Saddam Hussein "SADem" ([ˈsædəm]).

When I was verifying Obama's pronunciation of his first name, I came across an article in the Chicago Sun-Times from last September about the senator's visit to a Darfur refugee camp in Chad:

"Salaam alaikum," Obama told a crowd, using a traditional Arab greeting.
"My name is Barack Obama," saying it with a bit more emphasis on the B, which is how some Kenyans, including his sister, pronounced his name when he visited there last week.

The "emphasis on the B" discerned by the reporter is most likely an attempt to describe the Swahili voiced bilabial stop, which is an implosive [ɓ]. That means that as the consonant is released, air is sucked into the mouth rather than expelled as with English [b]. You can hear it in the pronunciation of baba in the sound file given on the Swahili pronunciation page of the Kamusi Project. Obama must have become familiar with the implosive pronunciation of [ɓ] from Kenyan family members on his father's side (such as his half-sister Auma, who happens to be a linguist) and deployed it to good effect on his Africa trip.

Finally, some readers picked up on Jim Geraghty's silly claim that Obama can "speak a little Hebrew" simply because Arabic/Swahili barak(a) is cognate with Hebrew baruch. Barbara Zimmer was reminded of a story about Colin Powell learning Yiddish as a child from a Jewish man who hired him to help out in a neighborhood store. The blogger "former_pirate" also recalled this story and linked to an analysis on the urban-legend repository Snopes.com. Turns out Powell did learn a bit of Yiddish from working at Sickser's baby equipment store in the Bronx, but not enough to converse (the urban legend has him speaking Yiddish fluently when visiting Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir). I wonder what linguistic urban legends will be spread about Obama. Perhaps that he's fluent in Irish Gaelic, because his name is really O'Bama?

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 14, 2007 12:29 PM