Arabic and Islamic Elements in Dune.

Back in 2008 I posted about my discovery that Frank Herbert had taken the name of the Fremen language Chakobsa from Lesley Blanch’s The Sabres of Paradise; it turns out someone named Khalid did an entire webpage on Arabic and Islamic themes in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”:

In this article, I try to explain in detail where Frank Herbert got his names, concepts, and words from. This article is not meant to be a literary nor an exhaustive topical critique of the novels, which I am cannot fully do, because simply, I did not read the original novels. I have watched and enjoyed the movie and the mini-series, and read summaries of the novels. Instead, this article is a linguistic and etymological study of the major aspects of Dune as they pertain to Middle East, Arabic, and Islam.

It goes from ABA (“Loose robe worn by Fremen women: usually black. The term seems to be a direct derivation from the modern day term: ‘Abaya’ عباية, which has been the Muslim female dress for centuries. The original term عبا or عباء is how it is referred to in the classical Arabic sources”) to ZENSUNNI (“Combination of two concepts, Zen, and Sunni سني, which is the larger sect in Islam (about 90%). In Dune, followers of a schismatic sect that broke away from the teachings of Maometh (the so-called ‘Third Muhammed’) about 1381 B.G.”) and links to both sources and discussions of his article; anyone with the slightest interest in Dune should enjoy it. (See also Will Collins’s The Secret History of Dune, which focuses on links to the Lesley Blanch book.)

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Don’t know where he got his etymology of axolotl from, though at least he’s got the language right. There’s no xolotl “dog” in Nahuatl. It means “servant”, though as Frances Karttunen points out, “water-servant” doesn’t look like a very plausible etymology semantically, even though it’s fine formally.

    I must say I never found much mystery in the Arabic elements in “Dune” in the first place; they’re almost all pretty obvious. I would think the same is true for most Hatters.

    I’m not a great fan of the work itself, though I can see why other people are. But then what do I know? I liked the David Lynch movie (and not even David Lynch did.)

  2. I must say I never found much mystery in the Arabic elements in “Dune” in the first place; they’re almost all pretty obvious.

    Come on, you’d say the same if they were Kusaal elements, admit it.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    I have wondered about making the pangalactic interlanguage in my forthcoming Hugo-winning space opera The Savanna and the Stars recognisably Kusaal-based, but I thought it might come off as a bit cultural-appropriation-y.

    (Irrelevant plug for the enjoyable Rosewater series of Tade Thompson: invasion from another world, set in Nigeria. [The only quibble I have with it is that Maiduguri seems to have moved to a location a couple of hours away from Lagos. I mean, yes, it’s science fiction, but NIGERIAN ROADS, Tade!])

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    (It has zombies. What’s not to like?)

  5. January First-of-May says:

    As far as linguistic aspects of Dune go, I’m inevitably reminded of the sentence ima trava okolo i korenja okolo, which was misinterpreted by a Russian translator as mangled Russian, and (the story goes) correspondingly re-translated into Hindi.

    In fact the sentence was written in FYLOSC (not sure which particular dialect), and was actually perfectly grammatical.
    (It means “there are herbs around and roots around” – the “herbs” part is also sometimes translated as “grass”, but apparently that would make it ungrammatical.)

  6. I did not read the original novels. I have watched and enjoyed the movie and the mini-series

    The mind boggles. Both productions may have virtues I am blind to, but neither production is in any way an accurate rendition of the books. The mini-series seems to me horribly acted, badly cast and replaces the “hi tech medieval” atmosphere of the books with generic TV SciFi design. The David Lynch movie is at least weird.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    The rationale offered for preferring an Arabic to a Latin derivation for Bene Gesserit is … unconvincing. Although at least there the non-Arabic possibility is mentioned, which makes one wonder if there are other instances where a rival theory isn’t.

  8. Charles Perry says:

    Yeah. I started reading Dune back in the Eighties on several friends’ recommendations, but I was so offended by the lame, fakey use of Arabic that I quit after a couple of dozen pages.

  9. My father, no sf fan, said after reading Dune that he thought it epitomized the genre: the technology fantastic, the ethics middle-class, and the aesthetics barbaric.

    Note that Herbert consistently writes axlotl; I’ve always wondered whether he misremembered the word or deliberately changed it.

    In any case, Khalid evidently doesn’t realize that quamdiu bene gesserit is the standard legal expression for ‘during good behavior’, the conditions of a judge’s tenure of office. It is opposed to quamdiu nobis placuerit ‘during our [the King’s] pleasure’. One of the objectives of both the Glorious and the American Revolutions was to establish quamdiu bene gesserit tenure for judges, successfully in each case. That simply cannot be a coincidence: Herbert had to be playing with both meanings. The resemblance to Jesuit that his son Brian mentioned, on the other hand, might or might not be coincidence.

  10. I think I first read Dune at around age 10, so it was my first exposure to almost anything mentioned in it, in whatever language.

    Padishah emperor, Kris knife, all kinds of vaguely Middle-Eastern / Asian vocab words from Dune came up in later life which I already, almost subconsciously.

    I’m sure if I read it now I’d be more critical but at the time it was as powerful a vision of new linguistic worlds as “Lord of the Rings” (which I read the same year) – except unlike Elvish these words weren’t all made up.

  11. My father commented that Dune probably seemed a lot more creative if you were unfamiliar with the cultural tradition that Herbert was ripping off. As with much of Herbert’s work, it has some really outstanding elements, but the story does not hold together terribly well. (Over time, Herbert showed pretty clearly that he never understood how power politics actually worked.) However, as it definitely represents the author’s best work, it is definitely worth reading.

    The David Lynch movie is visually quite amazing. It has serious problems with pacing (requiring Virginia Madsen to reappear two thirds of the way through to narrate two years of action) and acting. However, it gives a vision of the setting that is very memorable, and the film is worth seeing just for that, in my opinion.

    A lot of people seem to miss the point of axolotls in science fiction, so I will just quote from my Stack Exchange answer here:

    Axolotls are famous, because of their known ability to regenerate lost limbs, something that (while not so remarkable in flatworms or starfish) is not very common in vertebrates. They are also able to accept transplants of whole organs (such as eyes) from closely related individuals. This has made them a subject of a great deal of exploratory medical research. Their regenerating ability almost certainly has something to do with the the extreme neoteny exhibited by the species; axolotls reach sexual maturity without every undergoing the usual amphibian metamorphosis, and as a result, they never develop lungs or live terrestrially. (The fact that they are fully aquatic also makes it easier to raise them in tanks for medical research.)

  12. The axlotl tanks in Dune, though we don’t find this out until later books, are in fact enva-qrnq Orar Gyrvynk jbzra ba yvsr fhccbeg jubfr jbzof ner hfrq gb tebj tubynf (rot13ed spoiler).

  13. I’m sure if I read it now I’d be more critical but at the time it was as powerful a vision of new linguistic worlds as “Lord of the Rings” (which I read the same year)

    My experience was similar; I’ve avoided rereading it since then, figuring it would probably not live up to my memories of it.

  14. And yes, it struck me as odd that Khalid never bothered to read at least the first novel.

  15. I am gleeful to learn that the Arabic (or one Arabic’s) word for the fruit “orange” comes from “Portugal” which is in part Latin, even while English “orange” comes through Arabic from Persian.

    The botanical history is that the bitter orange /C. aurantium/ “naranj” was already in the Middle East and Maghreb, before the Portuguese brought in /C. sinensis/ from China (thus the “China apple” naming languages like Russian).

    Now what do Arabic speakers call bitter oranges?

    (And then there is “yusuf efendi”. I might start calling tangerines “esquire josephs” myself.
    https://almanzali.wordpress.com/2018/04/04/an-arabic-citrical-history/ )

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    the ethics middle-class

    Ouch.

  17. PlasticPaddy says:

    What other ethics are there? To give one example, the rich marry for dynastic reasons and the poor cohabit. The middle class have the blessing of being less constrained by the god (dess) of Necessity and can marry for love☺

  18. Stu Clayton says:

    For several hundred years, the middle classes have been reasoning about ethics and morality without consulting the rich thank you very much. The poor hardly get a look-in, but they have other matters on their plate.

    What I consider to be an all-time high in research results was announced only a few decades ago – that the purpose of ethics, as the study of morality, must be to warn against morality. This is neither widely known, nor practiced.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    I was channelling the elder Doolittle (ideally as played by Stanley Holloway.) Role model.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Their regenerating ability almost certainly has something to do with the the extreme neoteny exhibited by the species

    No, it’s normal for salamanders. Frogs lose the ability during metamorphosis, salamanders don’t.

    Also, why “extreme”? Neoteny is neoteny. They don’t enter metamorphosis in the wild* and become sexually mature anyway, that’s all.

    * Put thyroxin in the water, and they promptly metamorphose healthily like any other mole salamander. That’s another reason why they’re studied so much.

    the “China apple” naming languages like Russian

    Or Dutch (sinaasappel) or northern German (Apfelsine, f.).

  21. January First-of-May says:

    Or Dutch (sinaasappel) or northern German (Apfelsine, f.).

    In fact the Russian term must have been borrowed from either the latter or its very close cognate somewhere.
    (Wiktionary claims Dutch appelsien, which must have been an alternate version of sinaasappel.)

    The Russian term for the bitter orange, for what it’s worth, is apparently померанец (which I thought was an archaic term for the regular orange), from German Pomeranze, apparently from a Romance compound “apple-orange” (!!) – if so, no relation to the homonym померанец “Pomeranian (dog breed)”.

    (…That has to be the longest part of 100% unrelated homonyms that I recall having heard of. Anyone knows of a longer one? Artificial compounds excluded, obviously.)
    (…OK, after looking up the etymologies, those two aren’t quite 100% unrelated – technically the “po” part comes out to the same Indo-European prefix. Still probably quite unusual.)

  22. I read The Lord of the Rings at 17, was enthralled; looked at Dune when it came out, but (besides being prejudiced against it because it was published by Ace, who had tried to steal LotR), I found the linguistic invention very pale next to Tolkien’s. I too got only a little ways in.

    I thought axolotl meant “water-devil.”

    In California a “Chinese apple” is a cultivated persimmon (there are no wild persimmons in California). Li-young Lee has a very funny poem involving one.

  23. Dune is not particularly interesting for its linguistic aspects, which are superficial and play nothing like the role they do in Tolkien’s universe. Herbert’s book is interesting because of his focus on ecology, sustainability and world building. Dune was also the first SciFi/Fantasy book I can remember reading where you got the sense that activities had actual economic costs. Dune also has interesting three dimensional female characters (something you can’t accuse Tolkien of doing).

  24. Another long pair of unrelated homonyms: French mangouste (mangosteen) and mangouste (mongoose) are equal to померанец, at 9 letters. The fruit tree is via Portuguese ultimately from Malay, while the animal is via Portuguese ultimately from Telugu. TLFI says the t in the animal name is actually a hypercorrection!

  25. David E: Middle-class doesn’t carry the weight of intellectual and moral condemnation in Leftpondia (or Begrudgeria, evidently) that it seems to in England. Our words for that are philistine and bourgeois, which of course you have too.

  26. Yes, over here everyone wants to be (seen to be) middle-class, even if they have Lear jets.

  27. PlasticPaddy says:

    Bougeois is best 😊. Ireland is a funny case. The original middle and upper class (“we the great gazebo built”) were replaced (in a more or less neglectful way) by new men and women from the country and Northern Ireland, leaving the Dubs high and dry until the Celtic Tiger. So no settled seething malcontent critical mass. And Dubs are easygoing except when they are not😊

  28. okolo

    I’m reminded of a friend who was asked to teach Russian to some Americans. One was from Florida and described himself/herself—I don’t remember which—as “Ya zhivu okolo Ocala (=I live near Ocala),” and it took some persuasion on the part of the friend to get her to change it to “Ya zhivu ryadom s Ocala.”

  29. Which reminds me that I own a copy of Valeriya Narbikova’s Около эколо [Okolo ekolo].

  30. “we the great gazebo built”

    Thanks for that; looking it up took me to its source, “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz,” with its lines

    The innocent and the beautiful
    Have no enemy but time

    That’s clearly the source of Auden’s famous

    Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and innocent

    I did not know that!

  31. PlasticPaddy says:

    @juha
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jude_Thaddeus_Okolo
    Too bad Wikipedia has no photo of our papal nunzio (maybe needs copyright), but there are photos on the net.

  32. Also:

    “Down, chitta mico!” she exclaimed, once more addressing the rattlesnake; “and you, ocola chitta! (Green snake.) Be quiet both. It is not an enemy. Quiet, or I crush your heads!”

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/35620/35620-h/35620-h.htm

  33. Karen Dakin offers a wealth of information about the word xōlōtlxolōtl, including a summary of the ideas of Roberto Moreno de los Arcos about the role of the axolotl in culture, in her article “El Xolotl mesoamericano: ¿Una metáfora de transformación yutonahua?” from 2004.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    from German Pomeranze, apparently from a Romance compound “apple-orange” (!!)

    Well, sure, from pomme orange where orange is an adjective, or perhaps pomme d’Orange after the place. AFAICT, the color is named after the place, and the fruit probably after the color.

  35. The fruit name is a conflating of the Arabic with the place name Orange. The color is named after the fruit. The association of the Dutch House of Orange (in the Irish flag, for example) postdates those identifications.

  36. @ Roger and Vanya

    I’m definitely not claiming that Frank Herbert was a great linguist, or anything like Tolkien!

    Reading the novel “Dune” was just one of the first times I personally remember being exposed to a fictional universe which was filled with vocabulary which was exotic in just the right way to memorably conjure up a whole galaxy’s worth of history, culture, etc. for me.

    It’s the sort of thing that has definitely done much better by others (and has been done much worse, as with the goofy names in Star Wars).

    Because of the interesting mix of evocative terms from various Middle-Eastern/Asian languages, I think it’s probably the same sort of excited response I would have had if I’d read, for example, Kipling’s “Kim” at a young age. But for better or worse I didn’t read “Kim”, I read “Dune”!

  37. @AG: I’m actually rather fond of the goofy names in Star Wars, which I always took as a deliberate homage to the goofy names in 1930s science fiction.

  38. You can read George Lucas’s explanations of some of the names here. Having read about how he had to be talked out of giving some characters even stupider names (I don’t remember the actual example, but Biggus Baddus will give you the general idea) I can’t say I’m impressed with his subtlety or ingenuity; he’s a great concocter of action scenes but in general has a sledgehammer approach to everything.

  39. January First-of-May says:

    Not on the linked list is Tatooine, which is apparently the name of a Tunisian town (officially spelled “Tataouine”) close to some of the filming locations.

    Also not on that list: Jar-Jar Binks. I wonder what’s up with that one…

    Having read about how he had to be talked out of giving some characters even stupider names

    Actual ludicrous example that made it in: Biggs Darklighter.

  40. To be fair, “Darklighter” never appears in dialogue. “Biggs” on its own is fine as a nickname.

  41. “Darklighter” seems fine, relatively; I knew someone called Lightowler which strikes me as dafter but also weirdly evocative.

    I read Dune as a teenager and liked the Arabic-sounding names and terms, but having lived in Beirut for the first ten or so years of my life they sounded ever-so-slightly comfortingly familiar (albeit Lebanon doesn’t have a desert and I never learnt Arabic). I fantasised about being Paul Atreides – not in real life, but as the actor playing him in a movie (which was still ten years away from coming out).

    Biggus Dickus appeared as a Roman name in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where it seemed to fit more-or-less OK.

  42. “Herbert’s book is interesting because of his focus on ecology, sustainability and world building.”

    The ecology of Dune is hilariously terrible and I can’t imagine anyone with any ecological knowledge regarding it as worthy. I like the book, but despite its ecology not because of it.

    “Dune also has interesting three dimensional female characters (something you can’t accuse Tolkien of doing).”

    It has more female characters than Tolkien, but not necessarily better ones. I think it would be tough to argue that Luthien or Eowyn are inferior to Chani and Jessica.

  43. The ecology of Dune is hilariously terrible and I can’t imagine anyone with any ecological knowledge regarding it as worthy.

    But it could draw a young person to ecology nonetheless. I was drawn to linguistics by Mario Pei.

  44. David Eddyshaw says:

    The logic is irrefutable …

  45. Stu Clayton says:

    I’m not sure logic is involved here, but rather only a claim that “you gotta start somewhere”. That’s a premise in search of a syllogism.

  46. David Marjanović says:

    the goofy names in Star Wars

    Luke Skywalker was originally meant to be called Annikin Starkiller.

    Nothing, of course, beats Thulsa Doom, the very-evil-indeed cult leader (and priest to himself in snake form) in Conan the Barbarian, in the temple that burns at the end as Conan rides away.

    (The temple burns. Its walls burn, because they’re made of styrofoam.)

    Tataouine

    And did you know there really was a sauropod in the sand there?

    Also not on that list: Jar-Jar Binks. I wonder what’s up with that one…

    Long story.

    tl;dw: Lucas had an absolutely great idea, but the execution was so bad and so racist that he had to cancel it less than halfway through. It might come back sometime.

  47. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Stu:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argumentum_a_fortiori

    I suppose I was drawn to linguistics by Wright’s Gothic Grammar, which I found in a public library by chance. This was in the days when (a) public libraries in the UK actually had books like Wright’s Gothic Grammar on their shelves* and (b) when there still were public libraries in the UK.

    *But you try and tell the young people today that, and they won’t believe yuh.

  48. J.W. Brewer says:

    1. You gotta start somewhere.
    2. This is somewhere.

    Therefore, 3. You ___ start here.

  49. J.W. Brewer says:

    I suppose the first stuff I read that had a plethora of made-up “alien” names (for both personages and places) was the Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom series, which I must have stumbled upon at age eight or nine. (I was reading Heinlein juveniles at around the same time but the majority of the characters are earthlings with more or less American names, innit?)

    How do we think Burroughs ranks for badness of linguistic invention as compared to either F Herbert or G Lucas?

  50. David Eddyshaw says:

    Well above Star Wars, at any rate. Perhaps not a high mark to aim at.

    I like the Barsoom novels. In their own way, they’re quite perfect.

    I like the description of Deja Thoris in the Wikipedia article:

    A Princess of Helium; courageous, chaste, and resourceful despite frequent abduction by villains.

    Says it all.

  51. Stu Clayton says:

    1. You gotta start somewhere.
    2. This is somewhere.
    Therefore, 3. You ___ start here.

    I didn’t claim that nothing can be concluded from a premise. I said that Hat’s comment was a premise in search of a syllogism – a single premise. You need two to ergo.

    Obviously, when you add another premise (or pretend to add one, as in argumentum a fortiori), then you’ve got all the ingredients of a syllogism. Just add water and stir.

    People do not always discuss things by means of “logic” in the sense of controlled sequences of explicit syllogisms. Instead they light up a favorite single premise, and throw it onto any pile of chopped logic left over from previous discussions. This produces mental brush fires, but not much enlightenment.

  52. David Marjanović says:

    I like the Barsoom novels.

    I’ve read all about them on TV Tropes – the safest way.

  53. You think TV Tropes is safe?

    *shudders, makes apotropaic gesture*

  54. January First-of-May says:

    I’ve read the entire Barsoom series, the entire Amtor series (which, IIRC, I actually enjoyed more), and even the depressing sequel about the invasion from the Moon… in Russian translation, around 10th grade, because they were available on my school’s website (along with a bunch of other random old science fiction works) and I didn’t have much else to do.

    Still somewhat sad that we never found out any more about the Skeleton Men of Jupiter.

  55. David Eddyshaw says:

    You think TV Tropes is safe?

    Because he got away this time, he underestimates the danger.

  56. Stu Clayton says:

    A backwards syllogism with suppressed major ! Nice.

    Isn’t that called argumentum a posteriori ?

  57. David Eddyshaw says:

    Are you suggesting I pulled the argument out of my …?

  58. Stu Clayton says:

    In an unpublished paper many years ago, I reduced three pillars of wordy philosophical tradition to two cribs: posis and prida.

    Posteriori, inductive, synthetic

    Priori, deductive, analytic

  59. I wonder whether Dune had any influence on Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

  60. Stu Clayton says:

    They have sand, critters and water in common. WiPe says:

    # While a connection to Frank Herbert’s Dune is often made there is no confirmation apart from the name “Ohmu” being a syllabic rendition of the English “worm”.[11] Miyazaki’s imagination was sparked by the mercury poisoning of Minamata Bay and how nature responded and thrived in a poisoned environment, using it to create the polluted world of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind #

    (Ohmu)

  61. Stu Clayton says:

    “Syllabic rendition” is a misleading term for what would more accurately be called a phonemic shot in the dark.

    Phonemes don’t travel well.

    Are the Japanese averse to final consonants ?

  62. J.W. Brewer says:

    These days the standard Japanese version of the loanword “worm” (as in e.g. the computer sense) is apparently ワーム, which would be standardly romanized as “wāmu,” although some might be too lazy to include the macron and/or would do something else to indicate the effect of the ー. Like speakers of all languages, Japanese speakers are averse to words that violate their L1’s phonotactic constraints, and word-final /m/ would be such a violation.

  63. Stu Clayton says:

    I asked whether “the Japanese” are averse, rather than “Japanese”, because there is a two-sided coin – language on one side, its speakers on the other. When over a longish period many speakers violate phonotactic constraints once in force at time t1, it will be found convenient to declare different constraints as in force at the later time t2.

    You redefine the constraints to fit the facts, right ? How else to explain Great Vowel Shifts and Pharyngeal Funny Business ?

  64. I think it would be tough to argue that Luthien or Eowyn are inferior to Chani and Jessica

    Not at all. Luthién does not appear in the LotR, for one. Éowyn is an interesting character in the movie but a cardboard cutout in the book.

  65. I can’t imagine anyone with any ecological knowledge regarding it as worthy.

    Actually, a lot of climate scientists and biologists love Dune, and the book is widely regarded as being one of the foundational texts, along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that brought awareness of the concept of “ecology” to the general public in the late 1960s. Herbert was ahead of his time, even if a lot of the “science” violates the laws of thermodynamics.

    Obviously

  66. David Marjanović says:

    You think TV Tropes is safe?

    Emotionally, yes.

    It’s not safe if you’re on a deadline, but everybody knows that.

  67. You can’t fool me, I’m not clicking that link.

  68. J.W. Brewer says:

    I tried to post an additional comment last night after hat’s usual bedtime that vanished. I don’t know if excess katakana got it put in spam-filter jail (in which case perhaps hat can release it) or if it just got eaten by mysterious forces (in which case it may not be worth trying to reconstruct).

  69. Nothing in moderation, and the only Brewer in the spam filter is Corey Brewer Jersey UK, whose comment starts: “Many full-time homemakers have been able to complete their education, which has helped them not only with their self esteem but has also prepared them for job markets once they decide to move out.” I’m guessing that isn’t your comment. Sorry about that!

  70. J.W. Brewer says:

    Whatever I was trying to say in response to Stu is likely not worth trying to reconstruct, but let me see if I can just add this quasi-science-fictiony tidbit that post included:

    “‘Wormhole’ in Japanese, the space-y Einstein–Rosen bridge kind, is wāmuhōru ワームホール.”

  71. Stu Clayton says:

    Well, in my ignorance of Japanese it seems that wāmu shows more praiseworthy effort than ohmu. Even hōru makes sense. I trust I would take equal effort to pronounce Japanese words as they should be, English phonotactics be damned.

  72. Ōmu in the Japanese is written 王蟲, ‘king insect’. 王 is ō, 蟲 is mu. 蟲 is actually the rarer complex form of 虫 mushi ‘insect’. Therefore mu can be understood as a shortening of mushi. This is a kind of word play; it does not rule out that ōmu could be from English ‘worm’.

  73. Stu Clayton says:

    In the anime the omu are very large Juggernaut insects, not worms at all !

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