Wednesday, December 4, 2013


An alternative slang word for a city I sometimes live in, Amsterdam, is the nickname "Mokum".
Finding out about its etymology triggered a series of associations in me, which sent me on a discovery trip back into the entrails of Hebrew and Arabic grammar, all the way to languages as far away and as far apart from each other as Amharic, modern Aramaic, and Malay and Indonesian, where cognates can be found unto this day.

To start with I learnt that "Mokum" comes from Yiddish, and it seemed to me that the word entered Yiddish probably from Hebrew. It seemed an obvious cognate with Turkish "makam", 'work place'.

Indeed, as a bit of research made evident, מקום, pronounced "makom" in modern Hebrew means "place". It is based on a classical root meaning something like "to stop", whose cognate root apparently shows up in one of the bits of Aramaic the gospels quote Jesus as having said: "Talitha kumi", "maiden arise"!

Interestingly, a related word in modern (!) Hebrew is "kumi" meaning "stand up" when addressing a girl or woman. For example a mother might say to her young daughter on the bus: "Kumi... let this elderly gentleman sit down."

Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, which is Semitic also, has the verb "meqom" which means "to stand" or "to stop" (the "me-" syllable is not related to the first syllable in "Mokum" however), of which "qom" is the imperative form "stand!", "stop!".

The "ma-" part of "makom" is part of a grammatical form indicating a place (and/or time of doing something).
Even though I would have to delve quite deeply into Semitic grammar to explain its functioning fully (see footnote), what is interesting is that Arabic, which calls this form maf3al or MAFAAL, uses this grammatical form in an analogous manner to Hebrew (while I do not know the proper grammatical term in Hebrew). Since the roots are similar in this case, too, in Arabic the word مقام, maqaam, means "place of standing, standing, status, place".

Further examples of words from cognate stems which end up looking very similar can be given. For one, while in Arabic "madrasa" is school, Hebrew has "midrasha", gramatically formed in exactly the same way (it designates a special type of religious school, similarly to the loanword "madrasah" in English). Both Hebrew and Arabic also have "matbakh", literally 'place of cooking', meaning, of course, "kitchen" in both languages.

But back to "Mokum", "makom", and "maqaam". Words from this root have travelled far:

Both in Turkish and Persian the cognates "makam" and "magham", مقام, both from Arabic, are used to mean "work place","position". The Persian is used only for hierarchically higher positions, that is to say, the post of a secretary in a private office would not be designated like this. But for example the office of the Supreme Guide is called by Persian wikipedia  "the highest official function (maqam) in the Islamic Republic of Iran"  ("مقام رهبری بالاترین مقام رسمی در جمهوری اسلامی ایران [...] است").

In Urdu "maqaam", also from Arabic and which is pronounced as "mooqaam", means "place" and "destination", but is also used figuratively to mean "position" or "status". For example the sentence "Uss Muqaam par pohunchna" can either mean ' to reach that (certain) destination', or 'reach that (certain) status in life'.

Travelling even further, in Malay and Indonesian, as I learnt, "makam" means tomb.

In all of these languages, in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, even English and probably in Malay and yet other languages, "makam" is used to designate something like "mode" in classical Oriental music.

The connection between "mode", which seems to be something fluid and changing, and "position", "place", which is something static, is not evident at first sight. To wrap up my blog post, let me try to explain this.

A friend of mine told me that his teacher had a very plausible theory about why mode and place have the same name in Arabic (and languages that use the Arabic loanword): If you change the place of your fingers in a certain, fixed position on the fingerboard of an instrument, the mode changes.

I did not immediately get it, and he explained it to me in the following manner, on an "imaginary guitar" (because the guitar and related instruments are the only instrument I play):

"Imagine you're playing on a string tuned to C. So "no fingers" is C, first finger is D, second finger is E, third finger is F. Now if you move your fingers down without changing their position, the notes become D, E, F, G.

In this case, if you consider the D to be the first note of the "scale", to the ear it's gone to a minor scale, right?"

Footnote: To explain the MAFAAL form correctly, I have to delve a bit deeper into Semitic grammar:

Arabic (about which I know a little more than about Hebrew), and Semitic languages generally, form words by putting a root, usually of three consonants, into a particular pattern or form.

For example from KTB you might have kataba, he wrote; kaatib, writer, scribe; and maktab; place of writing, office.

From QTL you might then have qatala, he killed, qaatil, killer, and maqtal (although I don't know if that word exists), place of killing.

When Arabic grammarians want to refer to these forms, they use the root F3L (3 = ayin, a guttural consonant lacking in English) = to do, to make. They would talk about the fa3ala form (third person singular masculine perfect); the faa3il form (spent participle masculine) etc. The maf3al or MAFAAL form, denotes place or time of "doing x". Makaam is that form for the root QWM; w's and y's cause odd but predictable things to happen compared to other consonants.

By the way, it is not just the initial "m" that Indicates "place or time of x-ing". The whole form is MaF3aL, where F, 3, and L indicate the first, second, and third consonants of the root. There are other forms with initial m and even initial ma. MaF3uuL is the past participle, e.g. Mahmoud = praised.


Muna said...

In Amharic:

Mekom means to stand.
Makom means to place, also to stop.
Mekomiya means a place to stand

Kumi! means stand! to a female.

Akumi means stop to female.

Kum means a position as in his position on this issue.

Kumat means height.

Ilham Bint Sirin said...

Thank you !!