Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Language and the Egyptian Revolution

While reading accounts of the developing events in Egypt, I notice repeated references to the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, a popular meeting-place in Cairo. I like the word 'Qasr' because it shows up with the Arabic definite article al  in Spanish as Alcazar, meaning castle, fort. Many, if not most words in Spanish starting with al-, such as alcalde (judge, now mayor) are of Arabic origin, dating back to the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula. And likewise many of the al- words in English also come from Arabic: algorithm, almanac, etc. ( Qasr Al-Nil = Fort on the Nile.)

 Anyway, seeing qasr this time reminded me that in Turkey they use another Arabic word for fort, hisar (mountain, fort), and I don't think they ever say qasr. By the way, German also conflates forts and mountains in the word burg/ berg; I suppose that's fairly common, forts tending to be sited on high ground.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, qasr. So I was wondering why Egyptians say qasr and not hisar. I think they must be the same word, and the Turks softened the k-sound to the h-sound. Just guessing (e.g., my Russian-born son used to pronounce house as chouse, like loch). But assuming they are the same word, there are still other words in Arabic & Turkish for castle and fort; why is qasr in use around the Mediterranean?

My guess is that in the 11th century the crusading Franks brought the Latin word castrum with them to the Holy Land, and the Arabs picked up the word there. Then the Turks got it from the Arabs. But, you say, French doesn't have the word castrum, they would've said castellum.  Yes, French retains the Latin word castellum (a fort smaller than a castrum, which strictly refers to a Roman legion's fortified encampment) first as chasteau, then château. But as late as the 13th century, the French in France were still using the old term castrum, which was applied to château-forts built by the French themselves, and which had no connection to any prior Roman work.

Notice how the Arabs dropped the t out of castr- as the French dropped the s from chasteau. Happens all the time.

So I'm amused to see castrum carried from Latium to Gaul; from France to the Levant; and from the Levant to Spain, where al-cazar now bumps against its old relation across the Pyrenees, château.