Sunday, April 29, 2007

Who has more than 40 words for camels?

Geoffrey Pullum is annoyed to hear a reporter state that "Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel" - not so much for whether it's true or not as because "they are presented as if profound and significant and clearly supportive of exoticizing claims about far-away nomadic peoples like Arabs and Eskimos, when in fact even if they were true they would be utterly unsurprising." I suppose I should point out that it is true - unsurprisingly. I don't know much more than three (Classical) Arabic words for "camel" ('ibil camels in general, jamal male camel, nāqah female camel); but people I can only describe as camel geeks have taken the trouble to post lists of terms for camels of various ages, sexes, colours, and breeds - and there appear to be 38 more terms for female camels classified by their breeding status alone, and another 14 for different Saudi camel breeds (and I'm ignoring at least another 6 lists of specialised terms for camels just on that site.) If I were a professional camel breeder or something (perish the thought!) I would no doubt know all these terms; but otherwise, who needs them?

But "Arabic famously has over 40 terms for different types of camel" is nonetheless misleading. People have a habit of thinking of technical vocabularies as aspects of a language - English has n terms for types of dog, Japanese has x terms for types of seaweed, etc. But that doesn't really work. It's not English speakers that have more than thirty terms for places of articulation; it's linguists working in a certain tradition. If they publish in a different language but studied in the same place, they'll just calque or borrow the words; if they cut their teeth on Panini or Sibawayh - in the original or in English translation - they will use a differently organised vocabulary even if they're writing in English. Likewise, an English camel breeder (if such a thing exists) will most likely just borrow the terminology of whichever region he got his camels from wholesale, as sure as an English sushi restaurant will borrow Japanese sushi terminology. Some Fulani tribes have shifted to Songhay - primarily a language of town-dwellers, with few native words for livestock types - but kept their cattle-herding lifestyle; unsurprisingly, they've also kept Fulani's enormous set of words for different types of cow, and not suddenly forgotten how to tell one cow from another. If practically every speaker of a language knows a given technical terminology, then it might make sense to view it as a property of the language; but that certainly isn't the case here.


Unknown said...

Maybe this is a question of transliteration, but doesn't "jamal" or at least the adjective form "jameel" based on the trilateral route of jeem, meem, laam mean "beautiful"? The word for camel is "beautiful?" I suppose it's possible - my study of arabic has pronounced stranger etmological weirdnesses, but have you seen camels? "Beautiful" is not the first word that comes to mind.

Unknown said...

Wehr appears to give jamal as a separate entry from those for beautiful. Nowhere however does he mention that jamal is only for male camels. On what is that statement based.

Incidentally one should not forget Kamal for the cigarette 'Camel'. Despite the picture of a camel on the packet the Arabic transliteration follows the normal rules for transliterating 'foreign' words (which now include 'Camel', and thus uses the 'k' and the long vowels.

ajnabieh said...

allison--my arabic teacher in undergrad defended the idea of camels as beautiful. he said, have you seen their eyes?

i just wanted to point out that the global voices note for this post was as follows: "Algerian blogger and linguist Lameen Souag draws our attention to the fact that there are more than 40 words used in Arabic to mean and describe camels." because when you write a post critiquing the notion of numbers-of-words notions of a language, you get noticed...for your claim about how many words about x are in a language.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Ironic indeed... I wonder if the summariser read past the headline?

As for "jamal", my copy of Mukhtār aṣ-Ṣiḥāḥ defines "jamal" as "min al-'ibili đ-đakaru" (the male of the camel), and - to cite a better-known source - Lisān al-`Arab says the same ("đ-đakaru min al-'ibili") ( I have no idea whether jamīl and jamal are historically related or just coincidentally similar, but they do share the same three consonants.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I see the point of this discussion, as a non-linguist and someone who has only a functional fifth-year-ish knowledge of Arabic. Why is it a problem to point out that there are numerous words for kinds of camels (whether breeds, or by gender), when all that suggests is that Saudis are connoisseurs (rather like saying that there are over 40 words for kinds of mangoes in India, which is true).

And Pullman's remarks about "lazy journalists" seem out of place, I know Andrew casually and he has lived in the Middle East for 15 years or more and speaks and reads and writes Arabic extremely well.

nomadu said...

I think the point is that the so called 40-words for camels are technical terms which have probably been borrowed from other languages, depending on where the breeds of camels came from and so they are not as such arabic every-day vocabulary. It's just like saying "sashimi" in english instead of "raw fish", just because you're eating it as Japanese food. If you catch a fish and eat it right away you wouldn't call that sashimi.

Anonymous said...

it's not unusual the in semitic lanauges one root have two separate meanings. it's as common as homophones are in other languages. I would say that there is not link between Jamal and Jameel.

About the transliteration of Camel, at first i though i could be through Turkish, because their C is actually a /dʒ/ and word for camel in Turkish is Deve.
Etymonline suggest L. Camelus, Gr. Kamelos as source, coming from Hebrew Gammal. given the C is the latin third letter of the alphabet and and Hebrew ג(gimmel) is the third of the alphabet, maybe that's the connection.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know the translation into english of the word Hutah?

Anonymous said...

Arabic is my first language, Although camel use in the Arabian world has been reduced significantly in the past hundred years, our Arabic language still includes many different words to describe a camel. That is due to the fact that camels were very necessary for our desert terrain. Please refer to Sapir-Dwarf Hypothesis for further information.

About Jamal, its totally different than Camel, Jamal means beauty while the word describing the camel is close to Jamal but the a is silent (as if its jaml)

I hope this is usefull

Anonymous said...

In classical Arabic there were actually far more words for camel-as many as 300-this is on the authority of a native-Arabic speaking linguist I know. They were not necessarily jargon, they were words created by poets to speak the wonders of the noble camel-not surprising considering that camels have always been and continue to be critical to the survival of many desert peoples.

I am convinced that there is a historical link between jamal (camel) and jamiil (handsome). If one understands their necessity to survival in the desert, then one begins to admire their overall beauty as well.

Salman Ansari said...

Here is a detailed article for you all:

Unknown said...

Well each root letter has its own meaning,
So jeem = beautiful
Meem = place
Laam = connecting, connections

So it's more like beautiful connecting from place to place.

Make sense?