I just came across a word new to me, namely yardang, ‘a sharp, irregular ridge of sand or the like, lying in the direction of the prevailing wind in exposed desert regions and formed by erosion by the wind of adjacent less resistant material’ (OED). Naturally, I wanted to know the etymology of this exotic-sounding word, and the OED did not disappoint: “a. Turk., abl. of yar steep bank, precipice.” Now, the Turkish ablative ending is -dan/den (to fall from a cliff is yardan uçmak), so I presume by “Turk.” they mean Turkic, and the -dang ending is from some other Turkic language, a supposition reinforced by the first citation:
1904 S. Hedin Sci. Results Journey in Central Asia I. xxvii. 439 At intervals furrows or trenches in the clay subsoil, called jardangs, traced between long elevations or ridges, crop up amongst the dunes.
So we’re dealing with a Central Asian language. But as far as I can tell, the ablative ending is -dan in Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, and Turkmen, and according to this page in The Turkic Languages by Lars Johanson (thank you, Amazon text search!) the Proto-Turkic ablative ending was *-dAn. So is the -ng a mistake by Hedin, picked up by everyone else from him, or is there some dialect that has it?

(I fully realize the recondite nature of this question and the unlikelihood that anyone out there will know the answer, but it never hurts to try, and besides, I wanted an excuse to publicize the word. Isn’t it fun to say? Yardang! Oh, and I got it from this page, via the irreplaceable plep.)


  1. what I want to know is, what the devil does “lying in the direction of the prevailing wind” mean? I loathe this sort of specious precision, which gives you everything but the information you need. Given prevailing northerly winds, does the ridge run east-west, or north-south? Which side drops off sharply? and irregular, compared to what? The OED — dearly tho I love it — is especially prone to this irritating combination of loquacity and coyness.

  2. An excellent point. The Infoplease definition is “a keel-shaped crest or ridge of rock, formed by the action of the wind, usually parallel to the prevailing wind direction”—infinitely superior both for the expressive “keel-shaped” and the vital “parallel.” One does get the image of OED editors as ancient dodderers absent-mindedly dislodging bits of old dinners from their beards with their quill pens as they search their minds for Latinate words that will form a pleasingly Ciceronian whole; the idea of telling people in plain language what the damn thing looks like seems to be far from their consciousness.

  3. i first encountered this word, believe it
    or not, in a Time/Life book called “Planets”
    published sometime in the sixties. it presented
    the “new” Venus (post-greenhouse effect), &
    postulated red-hot yardangs under an eternally
    overcast sky. (i don’t think they predicted
    the fish-eye distortion from the thickness
    of the air, though i think maybe Asimov, writing
    at about the same time, did.) –i look forward
    to finding photos of yardangs via Google Images.
    i don’t think our space probes are going to find any.

  4. Well, the OED guys may have been insane, but we have no reason to believe that their beards were unkempt, do we?
    The n/ng difference is hard to pick up aurally sometimes. Someone might just have been writing one language down using the alphabetic conventions or phonemics of a different one. In Taiwan I frequently heard people saying -n when they were supposed to be saying -ng, and it included speakers of standard mandarin. It drove me nuts. Perhaps the opposite occured with yardan.

  5. Oh, sure, it’s just that I would have assumed Hedin picked up enough of whatever the local dialect was to know the ablative ending. But maybe not. After all, it’s kind of odd to use a form meaning ‘from the cliff’ as a noun meaning ‘ridge of sand/rock’; maybe it was one of those “point at something and misunderstand the guide’s answer” situations.

  6. I can’t answer your question languagehat, but as a someone who is trying to teach himself Turkish, I wanted to thank you for adding “yar” and “-den/dan uçmak” to my vocabulary.

  7. dungbeattle says

    -in vs -ing seein is believing: My ears are not always connected to my reading, take close and close, I’m always at a loss. A close call or close the door from one who is ill informed.

  8. Aramis Martinez says

    Score another one for a technically trained person working outside their field (mmm, employment). “lying in the direction of …” means exactly what it sounds like, at least to someone in the physical sciences: the two items under discussion generally point in the same direction. However, for a general audience perhaps a better phrasing is something along the lines of “a feature of the land that points parallel to the direction the prevailing winds tend to blow in, which is created by the wind scouring away the softer materials next to it”.

  9. I first saw this word when reading a description of the origin of the spinx at Giza.

  10. Correction-Sphinx.

  11. Vinny Kilcullen says

    I first heard of yardangs from my geography teacher in the late 60’s. He also mentioned “zuygons”, (another geographical feature found in desert areas). I can’t find any reference to this word anywhere. Perhaps it’s misspelt; perhaps he took too much acid…perhaps. Any ideas..anybody…hello..

  12. I may be 16 years late, but yardang is exactly spelled “yardang” (يارداڭ) in Uyghur. Hedin was travelling through an Uyghur (then called Turki) speaking region when he coined the term. Not sure about the spelling in other languages.

  13. Many thanks — I’m always delighted when someone comes along years later and satisfies my curiosity!

  14. Yar I assume is the same ‘yar’ (steep bank of a river) as in Russian.

    The word is kind of obsolete now, but survives in various geographic names, the most famous of which is Krasnoyarsk (City at the beautiful steep riverbank).

  15. ktschwarz says

    I presume by “Turk.” they mean Turkic

    In the list of abbreviations at the front of the 1989 edition, “Turk.” is Turkish (and that’s how it’s been expanded in the online version) — but they were very loose about what was included in Turkish: for example, the source of the name Uighur is given as “East Turkish”. So in effect, your assumption worked.

    The OED has a lot of outdated content on Central Asian languages. Their definition of “Turkic” (from 1915) is extremely obsolete: “Designating one of the branches of the Ural-Altaic or Turanian family of languages, which comprises the Samoyedic, Finnic, Ugric, Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic …” Ural-Altaic!? Is there even anyone alive who remembers that being taken seriously?

    I think Turkic languages are in Patrick Taylor’s wheelhouse, so the AHD is probably a good place to look, and here’s their etymology:

    Of Uyghur dialectal (Tarim Basin) origin, equivalent to modern standard Uyghur yardin, ablative of yar, ridge, steep bank; akin to Old Turkic yar.

    That adds some detail to what baedling said above. (It wouldn’t have helped you in 2003, though, since the AHD didn’t enter this word until the last edition in 2011, and the part about Tarim Basin dialect was an online update after that.)

    it’s kind of odd to use a form meaning ‘from the cliff’ as a noun meaning ‘ridge of sand/rock’

    In the 1904 quote, the word appears to refer to the “furrows or trenches” around the ridges, so “from the cliff” would make sense there, but apparently it quickly got flipped in English to refer to the ridges.

    And I’d say the worst fail in the OED’s definition is “of sand or the like”. Yardangs are not made of sand! They are not dunes! They’re made of rock (or “cohesive material” in geology-speak). That’s why they can have overhangs, and sometimes look like herds of long-necked animals facing into the wind. Creepy.

  16. “The word is kind of obsolete now, but survives in various geographic names, the most famous of which is Krasnoyarsk (City at the beautiful steep riverbank).”

    To which (Russian Ба́бий Яр (Babi Yar) and (Ukrainian) Бабин Яр (Babyn Yar) may be added (https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kiev-and-babi-yar).

  17. ktschwarz says

    Turkic got its OED update in March 2023, and the obsolete lumpist definition was replaced with a conservative splittist one: “Designating a large group of closely related languages of western and central Asia, including Turkish, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uyghur, Uzbek, and Tatar.”

    Note that they don’t mention any larger family that Turkic might be part of! This definition is the same one that (as I should’ve mentioned) was already in the current Oxford dictionary — except that the current dictionary has “closely related Altaic languages”. Deleting that word must have been a deliberate change. (They do include *quotations* mentioning it.) This looks like a change in policy since 2000, when Manchu-Tungus was defined as “one of the main branches of Altaic”, and 2002, when Mongolian (sense B.2) was defined as “Any of the principal languages of Mongolia, spec. Khalkha, a member of the Altaic family. Also: the group of Altaic languages of which this language is a member, along with Kalmyk and Buriat.”

    Altaic (in the language sense) was defined confidently by the OED in 1972 as “a family of languages comprising Turkish, Mongol, and Tungus”, and more qualifiedly in 2012 as “a proposed family of languages of the Altaic region, conservatively including Turkic, Mongolian, and Tungusic.”

    I don’t generally expect them to go back and redefine all related words for every word that they update. In fact, I think I’d rather have them leave the 2000 definitions in place than erase their own history.

  18. ktschwarz says

    Also, the current Oxford dictionary has tried to fix “of sand or the like” by changing it to “compact sand”. I don’t think that is geologically correct either: yardangs are made of rock, which is consolidated (not just compacted), and the rock material is not specifically sandstone but can be any rock. Any geologists want to comment?

  19. So the OED Turkic didn’t include the genetic offshoot, Chuvash, nor the geographic offshoot, Yakut (and their cousins)?

  20. ktschwarz says

    Good question; “of western and central Asia” would seem to exclude those. I’m guessing this is more likely a careless oversight rather than a narrow definition of Turkic, but who knows. The OED does have Yakut, definition from 1986: “The language of the Yakuts, belonging to the Northern Turkic group of the Altaic family” (current Oxford definition: “the Turkic language of the Yakut”); they have not yet entered Chuvash (current Oxford definition: “the language of the Chuvash, usually classified as Turkic”).

  21. Now I am wondering about Samoyedic *jåərå ‘sand, sandbank’, an etymon which reflects enough regular sound changes that it cannot be just from Russian (e.g. Nganasan ďuəru, Selkup ćūrɨ)… Relationship thru Turkic looks more possible, and interestingly it has a derivational etymology within Samoyedic (from *jåə ‘earth, sand’) which would suggest this is the origin side. The correspondence *åə ~ *ā likewise. I don’t see anything about this in the current works of known Samoyedic loans in Turkic though, nor the inverse. (EDAL lists an Altaic comparison with Mongolic *ǯerge ‘row’ and Tungusic *ǯerin ‘edge’, which looks clearly worse too.)

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