Saturday, February 23, 2013

"Ya-chü-lo" (Kufa) and other confusing transcriptions

Translators of Chinese histories generally have a very inconvenient habit of transcribing foreign names according to the modern Mandarin pronunciation of the characters used. Mandarin is almost the least suitable of all the modern Chinese topolects for this purpose, since it's lost all the final stops, turned final m to n, and palatalised initial velars. Cantonese or Hakka forms would at least be more helpful; but reconstructions exist now, and those could be given directly.

A brief passage in Tongdian, a Tang dynasty encyclopedia, reports a Chinese soldier's impressions of life in early Abbasid Iraq (where he found himself captive after the Battle of Talas): Tongdian, chapter 193. A translation, taken from Hoyland (1997), is available online: T'ung tien. Unlike many of the other foreign accounts of early Islamic history that Hoyland gathers, which tend towards the bitter, this text is in parts rather charming, particularly where based on first-hand observation. However, the transliterations are as unhelpful as usual. Here are the appropriate Middle Chinese forms, based for convenience on Starostin's database, with y substituted for j:

T'a-shih: 大食 thầyźik, a reasonable transcription of Persian Tājīk, itself originally from Arabic Ṭā'ī (member of the tribe of Ṭayy) - see Language Hat)

mo-shou: 摩首 mwâśǝ́w – no idea what this alleged title of the caliphs might be; probably not Arabic, so maybe Persian? Any ideas?

Po-ssu: 波斯 pwâsye "Persia", presumably from Pārs.

Fulin: 拂菻 phütlim "Byzantium", apparently somehow from Armenian Rhôm (ie "Rome").

Ya chü-lo: 亞俱羅 ʔạ̀külâ "Kūfah", a pretty good transcription of the town's Syriac name, ʕAqūlā.

mumen: 暮門 mòmon (given as a title of the caliph), ie Arabic mu'min "believer"; the vowel choice in the second syllable is interesting, suggesting that the short i was already pronounced in a rather schwa-like way.

Shan: 苫, ie Arabic šām "Syria, the Levant, Damascus". This character isn't in Starostin's list, but its Korean and Vietnamese readings make it clear that the final letter was m, not n (CJKV-English dictionary).


David Marjanović said...

Part of the reason may be that there are several different reconstructions of the pronunciation of Middle (let alone Old) Chinese. But probably much more important is the fact that historians and historical linguists simply live in different worlds.

benkato said...

Fulin: 拂菻 phütlim "Byzantium", apparently somehow from Armenian Rhôm (ie "Rome").

In this case, the Middle Chinese probably was the result of mediation via Middle Iranian. Parthian but Sogdian ...

benkato said...

oh, it didnt show the transription for some reason. I meant Parthian has hrwm "rome" but Sogdian has frwm.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Adam: Ah - that would be the missing link. You should have a look at some other Chinese transcriptions and compare them to Sogdian - you might manage to elucidate some problems...

David: Yeah, it's true there are competing reconstructions, and I can understand them wanting to pick one dialect so that they can use standardised forms - but if it has to be a modern dialect, they could at least have gone for Hakka, or Sino-Korean, or something equally conservative.

John Cowan said...

All disciplines have their pointless orthodoxies. If a historian dared to defy his elders even to the extent of using Pinyin instead of Wade-Giles, they'd all exclaim with horror, and (more to the point) be utterly unable to recognize the familiar words in unfamiliar guise.

Consider that only historical linguists transcribe Greek in the (modern) Greek alphabet; general linguists transliterate it, as they do all languages, into Latin forms.

Jim said...

"Shan: 苫,"

The character itslef may not be on Starostin's list, but the phonetic portion of that character has an -m final.

"Po-ssu: 波斯 pwâsye "Persia", presumably from Pārs. "

David Marjanović said...

All disciplines have their pointless orthodoxies.

Oh yes. Another example from historical linguistics: the discipline is older than the IPA, so the IPA is practically not used or even understood by historical linguists.