Thursday, 22 September 2011

Words I have learnt

I always learn some new vocabulary when I'm at LAGB. Sometimes from the language tutorial (every year there's an in-depth look at an unfamiliar language), sometimes just from examples in the papers. Last year, for instance, I learnt that Swahili for lion is simba, presumably where the lovable yet headstrong (and somewhat dim) character in The Lion King gets his name.

This year I learnt that Turkish for man is adam. It's also the same in Hebrew, I think, as the name of Adam (the Biblical one) is supposed to be from Hebrew. People seem to disagree over what it means though - it also means red, like the earth (which Adam was supposedly made from). However, this new word is not surprising, only mildly interesting.

I also learnt the Tundra Nenets word for bread, which is na'an. Tundra Nenets is a Samoyedic Uralic language spoken in Russia. We get the word naan from Urdu (or Persian, according to the OED), which is a whole lot different from Nenets. I don't think there's been a lot of contact between northern Russian peoples and Urdu speakers, so what the heck is going on here? Could it be just coincidence?

1 comment:

  1. Swahili simba is from Proto-Bantu cimba. The similarity with Sanskrit "siṃha" (where "ṃ" is pronounced as a velar nasal [ŋ], hence the Sikh name "Singh") is merely accidental. That the name of the cartoon lion is taken from Swahili seems obvious.

    Turkish "adam" is apparently a loan from Arabic "ʼādam" with the same meaning, which may itself be a borrowing from Hebrew.

    Urdu "nān" is borrowed from Persian "nān", from Proto-Iranian *"nagna-". Cognates are found in several other Iranian languages. It has spread as a loanword far beyond that. Obviously, Persians (to say nothing of Indians) were not in direct contact with Siberians, but why do you assume direct contact? The word appears to have spread via Turkic to Uralic languages (not only to Tundra Nenets, but also Komi, whence into Mansi). Depending on when the borrowing took place, it is theoretically possible that the Uralic languages did not receive the word from Persian but other Iranian languages such as Scythian, but as far as I'm aware, the Uralic borrowings are not that old.