Many moons ago, offered an apple by a generous stranger in Afghanistan, I attempted to show off my limited Persian vocabulary. “Seeb!”, I said; “seb”, he corrected me, firmly. As later explained to me by Edmund Herzig, this was a good illustration of how Dari, Afghan Persian, preserves many older features of the language, and in particular retains sounds lost in the Iranian Persian that I had learned a little of. The word for “apple”, سیب, is in standard Iranian Persian “seeb”, but in Afghan Persian (and also in my nineteenth-century Persian dictionary) “seb”.
A parallel example, and the subject of this blog, is the word شیر, “sheer/sher”, which means three distinct things, lion(/tiger, cf. Shere Khan in the Jungle Book), milk or tap. In all of those meanings it is pronounced “sheer” in the Iranian Persian I studied, while in Afghan (and some Iranian) Persian the word for lion is pronounced “sher” (to sound like “share”; thanks to Roh Yakobi for helping me here). So in Afghan Persian شیر meaning “milk” and شیر meaning “lion” are homographs but not homophones, terms distinguishable in pronunciation, but not on the page. I’ll explain in a while why this is currently interesting me, but first a couple of illustrations of the play that the similarity and difference of شیر and شیر have encouraged.
The first was given me by Lindsay Allen, a reliable source of fascinating information about Iran. In this case it was that rare thing, Farsi on US network television. A very funny running gag in the comedy series 30 Rock, a TV programme about a TV programme, is an inexplicably successful gameshow called Homonym, where guests are asked which of the meanings of a word spoken by the host is meant, and always pick the wrong one. Homonym is succeeded by Celebrity Homonym, of course, and then becomes “the first US TV show to be broadcast in Iran”:
Presenter: “Next word: sheer, sheer.”
Contestant: “Sure: sheer, like a big cat.”
Presenter: “No, it’s the other one.”
Contestant: “Damn you!” (Lit. “Soil on your head!”)
Clearly the gag here depends on the Iranian Persian for “lion” and “milk” (or “tap”) sounding the same, “sheer”. But another illustration illustrates the potential offered by older pronunciation.
In Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Ma‘navi, considered one of the greatest works of mystical literature, we find the following couplet in a passage insisting on the superior spiritual status of the Sufi saint (1.263):
کار پاکان را قیاس از خود مگیر گر چه ماند در نبشتن شیر و شیر
‘Do not assess the deeds of the pure by analogy with yourself,/ though “lion” and “milk” are similar in writing.’
“Lion” and “milk” are both written شیر , but there would have been no ambiguity in meaning in the thirteenth century when Rumi was dictating his poetry since “sher” and “sheer” were as clearly distinguished in pronunciation as they still are in Afghanistan. The second شیر has to rhyme with the end of the previous half-line, “mageer”, so is “milk”; the first شیر must be “lion”. Furthermore, Rumi’s point clearly hangs on the difference in pronunciation: things may seem similar at the level of appearance, but are in a deeper sense as different as a big cat and milk. A speaker of contemporary standard Persian might not understand the line automatically, however, as for them the similarity of the words for lion and milk is not just a matter of their appearance on the page.
(A kind of riddling quatrain seems to have become associated with this moment in the Masnavi, though it’s not by Rumi. It takes the ambiguity of شیر “milk” and شیر “lion”, and expands on it:
آن یکی شیر است اندر بادیه وآن دگر شیر است اندر بادیه/ آن یکی شیر است که آدم می خورد وآن دگر شیر است که آدم می خورد
This combines the ambiguous شیر with other ambiguous words and phrases, so is a challenge to translate. The important thing to appreciate is that you can reverse the order of each half-line: “This one is a شیر in the desert,/ and the other’s a شیر in a jug./ One’s a شیر that’s a man-eater,/ and the other’s a شیر that man eats.”)
It’s time to reveal my interest in this piece of linguistic trivia. In collaboration with an Italian archaeologist of Swat in N-W Pakistan, Luca Olivieri, I’m working on a study of a “Political”, a diplomatic officer of the British Raj, named Harold Deane. From 1895 to 1901 Deane was in charge of the Malakand Agency, essentially in control of relations between the British and the unoccupied territories beyond the official border. So successful was he establishing and maintaining the British toehold at Malakand, the point of access to the Swat Valley, that in 1901 he was promoted by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, to be the first Chief Commissioner of the North-West Frontier Province, when the latter was first established. Deane was as tough a customer as that abbreviated CV might imply.
But in an 1896 article in The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Deane also has a decent claim to have inaugurated the archaeological exploration of Swat, which through the work of such figures as Aurel Stein and Giuseppe Tucci and the Missione Archeologica Italiana in Pakistan has brought to light remarkable things in the last century. (Deane was close to Aurel Stein, who dedicated On Alexander’s Track to the Indus to him.) The military/intelligence role of this Political Agent and his archaeological interests were essentially indistinguishable: sites were investigated during military campaigns and information about archaeological remains were communicated by agents maintained in the independent territories. But his antiquarian interests also speak to the education and cultural horizons of the men who administered British India’s N-W frontier: Deane’s ground-breaking article ends with his observations on the location of Aornos, scene of one of Alexander’s most celebrated exploits. All in all, Deane represents an interesting figure in his own day and in ours, as we hope to show.
Deane died in 1908, in his mid-fifties. Whatever else his job was, it wasn’t good for the health. But he had a big fan in Olaf Caroe, himself Governor of NWFP half a century later. In his book The Pathans (1958, 421-2 and 456), Caroe offers a pen sketch of a man he saw as a model of an Imperial frontier operative (the accounts that follow of George Roos-Keppel and Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum are very interesting, too). In the passage that follows, Caroe contrasts Deane, an administrator actively engaged with the people he governed and thus ideal for the frontier, with a more conventional bureaucrat who happened to share a similar name:
“Later, Deane was appointed Deputy Commissioner of Peshawar at a time when the revenue settlement of that district was being undertaken by Louis Dane, an officer of great distinction who in due course became Lieutenant-Governor of the Panjab, but whose lot lay always in pleasant places. Dane’s spiritual home was in Simla and Lahore. One day a naive young Khan [member of the landowning class] in a Peshawar hujra [a guest house, but see this], puzzled by the similarity of names, asked one of the Khalil Arbabs [chiefs] what was the difference between Din and Den. The answer came: “The same as between Shir and Sher, only the other way round.” A pretty jest.”
Deane is the “sher”, Dane the “sheer”. Here I go nose-to-nose with a fellow Classicist, as Olaf Caroe was (perhaps not so unexpectedly) a graduate in Classics from Magdalen College, Oxford. He offers two explanations of the Arbab‘s joke, but clearly favours the first: “sheer” is the Persian/Iranian way of pronouncing the word for lion, “sher” the Afghan, and the Afghans “despise the Persians as soft creatures.” Thus Deane is a tough lion, Dane a soft one.
But I prefer the other interpretation, partly because it is clearly quite a cliché among Persian speakers. We never leave the borderlands of Afghanistan, where “sher” is a lion and “sheer” is milk. Deane is a lion; while Dane is no lion at all, but a milksop.
A nice illustration in itself of that peculiar frontier combination of intellect and machismo.