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.

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