Tuesday, February 01, 2005

A Place Abundant in Small Crows

"Abu Ghraib" has become a name of ill-omen in the West, because of the abuses committed at the Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. troops. But there seems to be a difference of opinion about the actual meaning in Arabic of the word transliterated "Ghraib."

The majority opinion so far seems to be that "ghraib" or "ghurayb" means "crow" or "raven" (as this site translates it). But there also seems to be a minority option that it actually means either "strange" or "west" (the same word is used for both). See this NPR audio feature for that option. "Abu" means "father of" — so we just need to know father of what?

As I've indicated before on this blog, I'm no Arabist, but I am curious about anything Semitic. My initial digging turned up that, in the dictionary, the word for "raven" is /gh-r-'-b/ [ghuraab], while the word for "strange, west" is /gh-r-y-b/ [ghariyb]. That didn't really settle anything; [ghuraib] wasn't in the dictionary.

But then I run across this site, which tells me something I already suspected, and that is that the name of the prison is actually a diminutive form. The pattern /qutayl/ in Semitic is a common diminutive pattern. Therefore "ghurayb" could simply be read as a diminutive of the word for "raven." This is confirmed by an Arabic speaker posting on this site:
[ghurayb] may be a diminutive of [ghura:b] "crow". 'abu: literally means "father of" ("father" in the construct state), here in the meaning of "place abundant in". So it probably indicates "a place abundant in small crows."
Whew! Here's a question: is part of the problem the lack of vowels? Iraqis obviously know what the word means, but when non-Iraqi Arabs see the consonantal /gh-r-y-b/, do they mistakenly vocalize [ghariyb], leading to the confusion documented here? (Or is it the other way around?) In other words, are we dealing here with an Arabic eggcorn?

And all of that just reminds me of the Hebrew word for "raven" which is the cognate עורב, oreb. And in fact oreb in its phonetic structure looks a lot closer to [ghuraib] than it does to [ghuraab]. Is oreb, etymologically, a diminutive? Too many questions piling up.

The ghain sound (something like a cross between a growl and a gulp) was still pronounced in ancient Hebrew, by the way. It was signified by the letter ayin, most of the time; but in at least one case by the letter het. In Zephaniah 2:14, the prophet foretells that Nineveh will be deserted, and he prophesies of חרב בסף, which looks like it should be "desolation in the threshold." But the reading of the Septuagint suggests that the true reading was "raven on the threshold," and many modern translations render it that way. Maybe the ancients had as much trouble with [ghoreb] or [ghuraib] as we do.

UPDATE: I replaced the Arabic Unicode with transliterations, because my browser was having trouble dealing with it. If it caused the same problems for you — sorry about that! Experiment that didn't work. Too bad, because it looked really cool.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

abu ghraib would mean father or place of arabs as crow is arab as arabs had he charm,wit and magic of crows. wise and effective.