Iran lurking at the heart of Tahrir Square?

Posted on 16 February 2011


Tahrir Square, Cairo - February 2011

If you don’t know where Tahrir Square is, then you’ve probably had your head in a bag – at least since 25 January.

One of Cairo’s central squares, Tahrir Square is of course where mass opposition protests recently led to the resignation of Egypt’s long-reigning president Hosni Mubarak.

Fittingly – although find me a city without one, I suppose is the counter-cry – ‘tahrir’ means ‘liberation‘.

There is also a Tahrir Square in Damascus, where Syrians – apparently inspired by events in Egypt – have called for rallies demanding freedom, human rights and the end to emergency law.

‘Tahrir’, تحرير, is pronounced [tæħˈɾi:ɾ], with that lovely voiceless pharyngeal fricative [ħ] that would have any English speaker retching just trying to pronounce it.

That said, it’s probably as close as any sounds could get to a “phonemic retch”.

Interesting tangent: the Arabic word for Egypt is nothing like ‘Egypt’ (which came to us from the same place as the word ‘copt’). It’s مصر, Miṣr. Listen back to the news tapes: you’ll hear it. This is where it’s from:

Of Semitic origin, literally meaning “the two straits” (a reference to the dynastic separation of upper and lower Egypt).

The full name in Arabic for Tahrir Square is ميدان التحرير, Midan al-Tahrir‎, [meˈdæ:n ettæħˈɾi:ɾ].

Notice one nice linguistic feature of the Arabic name here. It concerns the article, (-ال, al-), which sometimes assimilates the first consonant of the next word. This depends on whether that consonant is a sun letter or a moon letter.

Sun letters, like ‘t’ in ‘tahrir’, double up – and kick out the ‘l’. This is why Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh is pronounced as if written ‘Sharm esh-Sheikh’.

Moon letters, like ‘q’, don’t; e.g. in ‘al-Qaeda’ (القاعدة‎, al-qāʿidah).

Ok, back to the main point.

For those of you who like your revolutionary squares – you might well see something familiar in the ‘midan’ bit.

Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti during the Orange Revolution, 2004

Cast your minds back to 2004 and to a very nippy revolution in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Its Independence square is called Майдан НезалежностиMaidan Nezalezhnosti.

So instead of taking the roots that other languages in the East Slavonic group, i.e. the Russian (площадь, ploshchad’) or the Belarusian (плошча, ploshcha), it’s taken the Persian word – and so did Arabic.

There also maidans (or very similar) in, for example: Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, India, Pakistan, Turkey and, unsurprisingly, Iran.

Persian words are common in other Slavonic languages too – these are Russian:

алый (alyy) – crimson; арбуз (arbuz) – watermelon; баклажан (baklazkhan) – aubergine; сарай (saray) – barn

Persian pinched some Russian ones too:

запас – [zāpās] – store; бочка – [boške] – barrel; пирожок – [pirāški] – pie; сухарь – [soxāri] – cracker.

And don’t think English is any less partial to pinching Persian words. There’s a smattering of culprits:

angel; candy; khaki; kiosk; lemon; pistachio; pyjama; tapestry and typhoon

So when you look at the news and wonder whether Iran will follow in Egypt’s footsteps, remember that the very square from which Mubarak was gently nudged from power is a Persian word.

Perhaps Tehran’s own Maidan Azadi (Liberation Square) will get a linguistic bite on the bum.

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