Trading Reeds and Stems.

Christopher Culver has a post on a nice little linguistic find; he starts off with Eastern Mari omə̑ž ‘reed,’ a borrowing from Chuvash xămăš ‘bulrush,’ found in the Skvortsovs’ Chuvash-Russian dictionary, and continues:

But a few lines above it, one finds an entry for a remarkably similar word: xămăl ‘stubble (of cereals)’. Fedotov compares this to Tatar and Bashkir qamïl ‘bulrush’.

These must be the same words, both going back to Proto-Turkic *kamïš ‘grass stalk (or the like)’ and showing the ‑š ~ ‑l distinction that divides the family in two. Outside of Chuvash, the ‑l variant has no cognates outside of Volga Kipchak, and thus can be regarded as a Volga Bulgarian loan into Tatar and Bashkir. The ‑š variant, on the other hand, must be a loan from Volga Kipchak into Chuvash.

An amusing bit of trivia, two distantly related languages trading cognates with different meanings.

This is the kind of thing that makes me love historical linguistics.


  1. In England, the assistant to the vicar is the curate, whereas in France, the assistant to the curé is the vicaire.

  2. marie-lucie says

    JC, Are those words referring to the same religion? The French words are definitely (and probably exclusively) used in the Catholic church (a Protestant minister is called le pasteur), and the English ones in the Anglican church (I don’t know about English Catholics or other Protestant denominations).

  3. Not the same religion, no, but in both cases the established religion (by law in England, by custom in France since the Revolution). Technically, a vicar had the cure of souls in his parish but did not receive the tithes, which were in the hand of an abbot, bishop, or secular lord, for whom he was the vicarius. One who had both the tithes and the duties was a rector. A curate was a second-order assistant to the vicar.

    Nowadays, there is no effective distinction between rectors and vicars, though the terms are still applied to the Anglican ministers of particular parishes by tradition.

  4. hm, I didn’t realise Russian камыш (kamysh) was of Turkic origin.

  5. I wonder if Russian ‘kamýš’ ‘reed’ comes in here.

  6. KamYsh has many cultural references in Russian culture, same as, I suppose, reed in English. One that instantly springs to mind is the folk song ‘Шумел камыш, деревья гнулись, и ночка темная была’ – ‘The reeds were making noise, the trees were swaying and the night was dark.’ It’s a heartbreaking song of love lost. And as such one of the top favourites at a drinking party. On youtube here.

  7. Aren’t reed and kamysh two different plants?

  8. I believe kamysh is the Russian equivalent of English “bulrush,” which can refer to a number of graminoid plants, including sedges and cattails, though it is more commonly used for sedges, especially of the genus Cyperus. “Reed” is also a slippery term, but one use is for a Cyperus species (Cyperus papyrus, i.e., papyrus). It would make sense, then, if kamysh has the specific meaning of papyrus. Wikipedia seems to suggest that it actually refers to sedges of the genus Scirpus, although it uses the older term Scirpoides. In any case, Scirpus is sometimes called bulrush too.

  9. January First-of-May says

    I believe kamysh is the Russian equivalent of English “bulrush,” which can refer to a number of graminoid plants, including sedges and cattails

    AFAICT Russian камыш, at least in colloquial use, has a semantic range roughly corresponding to “those tall grassy plants that grow on river/lake shores”.
    Those can be Scirpus (the botanists’ камыш), or Typha (the cattail – officially рогоз, which is a word that I can’t recall ever seeing except in prescriptivist rants to the effect of “that’s not what камыш means” and maybe the occasional botanical work), or apparently even Phragmites (the common reed, usually тростник). I don’t recall having seen it used for other sedges, but it doesn’t sound too implausible, and I’m not enough of a botanist to be sure.

    I’m not familiar with bulrush except in LH quotations of Pogo, and if not for those I’m not sure I’d even have guessed that it was some kind of plant.
    From the Wikipedia examples, it sounds like the semantic ranges of both bulrush and (the more familiar) reed are not quite the same as of Russian камыш, but strongly intersecting. If I had to translate the Russian word I would probably have used reeds.
    Wikipedia says that the Russian term for the genus Cyperus is сыть, which is in turn a word I don’t recognize in Russian. (I’m familiar with exactly one use of it, and in that context it’s clearly not a plant.)

  10. А. Лубянецкий, Чуфа («Наука и жизнь» 7, 2007):

    Оказалось, что чуфа была известна на Руси с давних времен под названием “сыть” или “зимовник”.

    Apparently (p. 179) it’s used in the Tula region.

  11. @January First-of-May: In English, bullrushes is mostly associated with the story of baby Moses, in the King James Bible. Exodus 2:3:

    And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.

    The other plant mentioned in that Pogo verse, the cowslip, is similarly obscure to most Americans. It’s a Old World wild primrose species, which would probably not be known to Florida swamp crtitters.* I didn’t know what a cowslip (or a woundwort, for that matter) looked like when I read Watership Down.

    * It now occurs to me to wonder whether Pogo was a significant, unacknowledged influence on the animated film of The Rescuers. (When I watched the movie as an adult, I still enjoyed most of it, but the climax, where the swamp critters come together to rescue Penny, was quite disappointing.)

  12. an ark of bulrushes

    Mutta hän syntyi vasta keväällä kylvön aikaan, kun taas minä, Sinuhe, tulin jo edellisenä syksynä tulvan ollessa korkeimmillaan. Mutta syntymäni päivää en tiedä, sillä tulin Niiliä pitkin pienessä kaislaveneessä, joka oli tiivistetty piellä, ja äitini Kipa löysi minut rannan kaislikosta lähellä oman talonsa kynnystä, niin korkealle oli vesi silloin noussut.

    – Mika Waltari, Sinuhe Egyptiläinen

    But he was only born in the spring at sowing time, while I, Sinuhe, came the previous autumn at the height of the flood. But the day of my birth I know not, for I came up the Nile in a little reed-boat sealed with pitch, and my mother Kipa found me in the reeds on the bank near the threshold of her own house, so high had the water risen then.



    From Proto-Finnic *kaisila, borrowed from Proto-Germanic *gaisilaz (“staff, whip”) (compare German Geißel and Swedish gissel).

    IPA(key): /ˈkɑi̯slɑ/, [ˈkɑi̯s̠lɑ]
    Rhymes: -ɑislɑ
    Syllabification: kais‧la



    1. rush, bulrush, club-rush (grass-like plants of the genus Scirpus)

    Pyhä Raamattu 1992 has kaislakori ‘rush basket’:
    Vaimo tuli raskaaksi ja synnytti pojan. Kun hän näki, kuinka kaunis lapsi oli, hän piilotteli sitä kolme kuukautta. 3Mutta kun hän ei enää voinut piilotella sitä, hän otti kaislakorin, tiivisti sen asfalttipiellä ja tervalla, pani pojan siihen ja laski korin Niilin rantakaislikkoon. 4Pojan sisar jäi jonkin matkan päähän nähdäkseen, mitä lapselle tapahtuis

    The Jehowah’s Witness 2010 bible has papyrusarkku ‘papyrus ark, and the 2018 one, kaislakori:

  13. Rodger C says

    I came up the Nile in a little reed-boat sealed with pitch

    Good trick, to float up a river, let alone during a flood. (I can’t read the original; is there some justification?)

  14. Well, I can’t tell. Perhaps came along would be a more felicitous choice.

    tulla can mean many things.

    Or maybe it was in the urtext.

  15. the cowslip, is similarly obscure to most Americans. … Watership Down.

    ‘Cowslip’ is all over Shakespeare: Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest “In a cowslip’s bell I lie”.

    So cowslip was familiar to me before Watership Down was published.

  16. David Marjanović says

    From Proto-Finnic *kaisila, borrowed from Proto-Germanic *gaisilaz (“staff, whip”) (compare German Geißel and Swedish gissel).

    Oh, the *-ss- means we’re looking at a Proto-Northwest-Germanic *gaislaz, after Sievert’s law had been abolished, and the *-sl- then became a West Germanic *-ssl-. Then, I suppose, the German word was exported to Swedish, where it got its first vowel etymologically nativized or something. Hm.

  17. Lars Mathiesen says

    ON geisl and for once not a Hansa import. Danish used to have Gisel, but Swedish does weird and wonderful things with syllable length.

    Hellquist does not say why the vowel would be short in Old Swedish, but I can guess that it was because /gi:sl/ would be over-long and then /s/ had to go long when an epenthetic /e/ was added. (I think Danish was more tolerant of long+cluster, or maybe opened the cluster earlier, so the /i/ stayed long and the /s/ short). Trond will now tell me why I’m wrong.

    (I’m ignoring that PG /ai/ normally goes to /e/ in East Nordic. Na na na I can’t hear you!)

  18. David Marjanović says

    …Ah. So /gi:sl/ counted as a single syllable, and desperate attempts were made to repair this train wreck while remaining in denial about syllabic /l/ – I can imagine that.

  19. @AntC: I probably read “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” before Watership Down. Both are full of distinctly British botanical references, but cowslips were particularly important in the latter, and thus I remembered that flower name only after reading Watership Down. For comparison, I remembered eglantine thanks to its appearance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” combined with it being the name of a main character, Eglantine Price (played by Angela Lansbury), from the 1971 film Bedknobs and Broomsticks. (Even as a child, I recognized that Bedknobs and Broomsticks was obviously an attempt to recapture the success of Mary Poppins in the years after Walt Disney’s death. Nevertheless, I still liked it better.)

  20. Incidentally a bit of a phonological SNAFU in Finnish too, with quite a gaggle of variants: standard kaisla but also at least kaihla, kahla, kaila, kaihila, kahila, kaisila, kasila.

    From *kaihla we can probably derive kaila (likewise e.g. siihvilä ~ siivilä ‘sieve’; raihnas ~ rainas ‘dilapidated’) and kahla (likewise e.g. nöyhtä ~ nöhtä ‘fluff, lint’), perhaps even kahila (reminds me of the metatheses like *veneh > venhe ‘boat’ for standard vene). This looks itself like an earlier loan variant besides kaisla (*sl > hl already known also in kihla ‘engagement’, or maybe it’s one of the loans that got taken over with an *š already). But are the variants like kasila then simply contaminations between the two? And is the second -i- in kaihila maybe also some kind of contamination rather than actually taken from Germanic? Many questions, for which this margin is too small.

    Huh, just registered for the first time that Ingrian and Ingrian Finnish further show yet another funky metathesis — to klaiza ~ klaizla

  21. Trond Engen says

    Lars M.: Trond will now tell me why I’m wrong.

    No, I won’t. But I wonder if ESc. gissel might be hypercorrection after contamination from gissel “hostage” < ON gísl in a form with centralised stem vowel.

  22. Good trick, to float up a river, let alone during a flood.

    Or was it up the Nile that baffled you?
    pitkin just means ‘along (a street, a road, a path, a river, etc)’. Thus, Niiliä pitkin translates to ‘along the Nile’.

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