Who does not speak Arabic

...should better not speak Arabic, says the Hungarian proverb. Honestly, I cannot imagine in what circumstances our proverb-making forefathers found themselves constrained speaking precisely Arabic rather than Turkish, Tartar or Teuton and thus facing the gulf yawning between the subjective and objective reality of their linguistic competencies. Quite unrealistic. But so many unrealistic things happen daily in our lives. I would have not imagined Serbs getting in such situation either, and lo, it did happen. True, they have no proverb to defend them from such a danger.

The popular group Kulin ban has played since 2005 Medieval Serbian music mixed with modern elements (“od Kulina bana do današnjih dana” – “from Kulin Ban (†1204) to our days”). On their site composed with great ethnomusicological care they also present in detail the traditional instruments of the Balkans and of the Middle East. They describe Arabic lute – oud – like this:

Description of oud on the site of the Serbian group Kulin ban
“Both the words oud and lute [laúd, liuto] come from Arabic al-’ud [“the tree”]...” In fact: every lute history begins with this phrase. However, the word written there with Arabic characters does not mean this.

First of all because of the uncorrect form of the letters. In Arabic every letter has four different forms, depending on its position at the beginning, middle or end of the word. It isn’t magic: in our cursive script we also put a little stroke in front of “o”, for example, when it follows another letter, but omit it if it stands at the beginning of a word. The difference of the various Arabic character forms is no more important than this, and it is also dictated by the momentum of the writing hand. Nevertheless, whoever picked together these five letters from the computer’s character table knew nothing about this convention, and always chose the standalone form, like this:

د و ع ل ا

This is like someone writing in cursive script, but lifting the pen after each letter, leaving a short break, and then continuing with the next letter. In Arabic this looks even more strange as the difference of the various forms is much more marked. If the composer chose the correct medial and final forms, the word would look like this:


The more important mishap is, however, that he typed the word from left to right, as Serbs write, and not from right to left as Arabs do who would read the above word as du’lā. I don’t know whether this means anything. It does not figure in the dictionary, although Google has 303 occurrences of it. Anyway, the correct right-to-left form of the word al-’ud should be this:


And as to why the name of the lute comes precisely from the word “tree”, Arabic popular etymology offers a fascinating explanation. The tree, while living, absorbes the song of all the birds singing on its branches along the years. Then the tree becomes a lute, and the lute emits the condensed song of the birds, the more profusely the longer the tree had been absorbing it. I have seen a wonderful Persian miniature illustrating this in the bazaar of Esfahan. I am sorry for having not bought it. Perhaps I would also play more beautifully on the lute if I put it in front of myself.

Man playing on oud. 10th-century Egyptian ceramicsHowever, this small typo was only good to offer an occasion for the popularization of the Kulin ban. For both their site and their program is rich and beautiful, as is the music they play. Their first CD Kulin ban was published in 2006, still with much experimenting. We are looking forward to the more mature next one.

Kulin ban: Žali Zare da žalimo, 2006 (2'08")

Kulin ban: Januške Beluške, 2006 (6'12")

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