A Khwarizmian Sound.

I don’t know why, but I’ve always been fascinated by Khwarezmian, also known as Khwarizmian, the East Iranian language once spoken in the area of Khwarezm (Chorasmia); I mentioned it in this 2003 post about a movie set in a time and place where it would have been spoken. So I was delighted when Matthew Scarborough, in this recent post about his article “Bactrian χϸονο ‘(calendar) year, (regnal) year’” (behind the paywall of the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society), mentioned Adam Benkato’s “very cool” Open Access article “Ibn Sīnā’s Remarks on a Khwarizmian Sound” from the same special issue. Here’s the abstract:

In his study of Arabic phonetics, Asbāb ḥudūṯ al-ḥurūf (The Causes of the Genesis of the Consonants), Ibn Sīnā briefly surveys some speech sounds found in languages other than Arabic, among them one particular to Khwarizmian, an Iranian language attested primarily in glosses to Arabic manuscripts of the 13th century. This study attempts to elucidate the sound Ibn Sīnā describes both through reference to his own system of phonetic terminology and through comparison with extant material in the Khwarizmian language.

Which is interesting enough, but what I love are the quotes about the language. The Khwarizmian al-Bīrūnī said “I was brought up in a language which, were science ever to be immortalized in it, it would be as astounding as a mule in a water-spout or a giraffe among thoroughbreds.” And here’s a nice compendium:

Scholars of the generation just prior to Ibn Sīnā were aware of, or had encountered, a distinct language in the region, though for the most part they did not give it a specific name: the geographer al-Maqdisī (d. 991) simply mentions that the “language of the people of Khwarizm cannot be understood” (lisān ’ahl khuwārizm lā yufhim) while the noted traveller Ibn Faḍlān (d. 960) was somewhat more judgmental, writing in his travelogue that “the Khwarizmians are the most barbarous of people, both in speech and in custom. Their speech sounds like the cries of starlings (kalāmuhum ’ašbaha šay’in bi-ṣiyāḥi z-zarāzīr). There is a village…whose inhabitants are known as Kardaliya, and their speech sounds like the croaking of frogs (kalāmuhum ’ašbahu šay’in bi-naqīqi ḍ-ḍafādi‘)”. Ibn Ḥawqal (d. ca. 978), who was in Khwarizm in 969, was more objective, stating that “[the Khwarizmians’] language is unique to them, no other like it is spoken in Khurāsān (wa-lisān ’ahlihā mufrad bi-luġatihim wa-laysa bi-khurāsān lisān ‘alā luġatihim)”. So well before even al-Bīrūnī wrote about it, scholars of the time seem to have been aware of a particular and seemingly unique language in the region, and this general knowledge is likely to have been available to Ibn Sīnā.

And Ibn Sīnā himself “may also even have been a speaker of a non-Persian Iranian language before learning and mastering both Persian and Arabic.” Great stuff.


  1. Are Khwarizm and Khorasan cognates?

  2. Apparently not; Khorāsān is ‘sunrise,’ ‘east,’ or ‘land of the rising sun,’ while Benkato writes in his first footnote:

    The name of the region itself is attested as Avestan as xᵛāirizəm (acc.sg.) in addition to Old Persian as (h)uvārazmiš <u-v-a-r-z-mⁱ-i-š> (nom.sg.), which may be derived from *hwāra- “low” (as was already recognized by David MacKenzie (‘Khwarazmian language and literature’, in The Cambridge History of Iran Vol. III, Part 2 (1983), p. 1244) plus *zm- (zero-grade of *zam- “land”) with a likely meaning of “low-lands”—not unreasonable given the low elevation of the marshy (in antiquity) region south of the Aral Sea.

  3. And of course Khwarezm is the birth place of the first algebaist. I wonder, was Khwarezmian his first language.

  4. @D.O.: Probably not. The ancient sources are unanimous that he was an ethnic Persian.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    the Khwarizmians are the most barbarous of people, both in speech and in custom

    A sadly parochial view. Glasgow had been founded already, centuries before Ibn Faḍlān’s time.

  6. ə de vivre says

    I’m trying to find some kind of pun along the Khwarizmian~Bakersfield sound line, but I’m coming up dry. Any help getting this dumb-joke ball over the goal line would be appreciated.

  7. Yet another open-access work I found at Brill:

    Encyclopædia Iranica Online Now Freely Accessible at Brill

    Not finding an entry for “Khwarizmian”, I wouldn’t have thought to look for it under “Cho” without the alternate spelling in the OP:

    The Chorasmian Language

  8. Owlmirror says

    Embarrassingly, after checking WikiP, I saw in the references that there’s already an Encyclopædia Iranica online, with what looks like the same content at Brill, (eg: CHORASMIA iii. The Chorasmian Language). Curious as to the relationship between what was at Brill and this version, I went to the main page, where there in the bottom right I noticed a link to some academic intellectual copyright drama:

    September 16, 2019
    The Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation Asserts its Ownership of Encyclopædia Iranica

    New York – The Encyclopædia Iranica Foundation has filed a lawsuit against Columbia University; Dr. Elton Daniel, Director of the Ehsan Yarshater Center for Iranian Studies at Columbia University; and Brill, the global publishing firm.

    . . . oy.

  9. Good lord. Well, if Brill is on one side, I’m on the other.

  10. What am I missing about Brill?

    Going by the linked complaint, it looks like Columbia University is accused of being the bad guy, and Brill is being sued because they are partnering with Columbia. Although perhaps I oversimplify.

  11. Aren’t they one of those academic publishers that charges an arm and a leg because they can get away with it? If not, I apologize.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Of course they are, and they may be the biggest one in linguistics. They’re just not one of the big four: Elsevier, informa (incl. Taylor & Francis), Springer Nature, Wiley (incl. Blackwell).

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