IYOM2023 in Russian, Arabic & Chinese: Specific terms &/or generic meanings?

4th in series on translation & the International Year of Millets

Proso millet – pearl millet – foxtail millet (l. to r.)

The UNGA resolution declaring 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYOM) appears in the six (6) official languages of the United Nations. The name of IYOM in English uses the plural “millets.” I’ve previously discussed issues with the French and Spanish versions (presumably translations from English) using singular forms. There are also other questions regarding names for millets particular to each of those two languages.

In this is article I will consider the name of IYOM in the other three UN official languages: Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. What they have in common in this context is that it seems the words they each use for “millet(s)” actually refer to specific millets. This is a linguistic reflection of the “multi-local” distribution of millets, as well as an absence (until now?) in many cultures of a need for a generic way to refer to these crops.

Also, the words for “millet” in the Russian and Arabic names for IYOM are in singular rather than plural forms (the Chinese language doesn’t form plurals of nouns for objects). This raises again the question whether plural forms of these specific terms might better convey the message of the Year.

Russian: The word for proso millet?

The Russian version of the name of IYOM uses a singular form: Международный год проса (meždunarodnyj god prosa). The word проса (prosa) is evidently the genitive form of the singular noun for millet, просо (proso). And this word is from a Slavic root that is also the source for the common name in English for Panicum miliaceum: proso millet. So there are two questions here which, having next to no knowledge of Russian, I cannot answer:

  1. Does просо really just refer to this one species of millet – P. miliaceum?
  2. Is there a plural form (or genitive plural) of просо that would better convey the idea of IYOM being about multiple distinct millets?

Before moving on, it’s worth noting that another word in the Russian “millets namespace” – пшено (pšeno) – that apparently refers to the hulled grain of proso millet. Some languages have only specific (not generic) names for millets, some have different names for the plant and the grain, and some both.

Arabic: The word for pearl millet?

The Arabic versionالسنة الدولية للدُّخن (≈ assana adduwaliyya liddukhn) – uses the word دخن (dukhn) which sources I consulted1,2 have as meaning pearl millet, Pennisetum glaucum. (The word apparently comes from the root د خ ن having to do with smoke. If accurate, might the connection be that the generally grayish color of pearl millet grains and flour was perceived as smoke-colored?)

On the other hand, the article on دخن in the Arabic Wikipedia does use this word in formation of binominal common names for several other millets, but these just have translations or transliterations of the modifiers from English common names for millets.

The same article, and other sources, mention other terms for millets, which would indicate, not surprisingly, that the “millets namespace” in this language is much richer, with its own history. Some examples:

  • بشنة (bishna or bashna) has the connotation of sorghum or millet,1 with Wiktionary suggesting the latter would be Eleusine spp. (that’s the genus that includes finger millet)
  • بنج (banij) or بنيج (banīj) is indicated as proso millet in an old text focusing on the Maghreb ad Andalusia.3 However contemporary references on Modern Standard Arabic1,2 give بنج (banj, with no short vowel between n and j) the meaning of an entirely different plant – henbane.
  • جاورس (jāwars) is given the meanings of sorghum and proso millet.2 It appears to have the same Persian root as the Hindi word for sorghum, jawar.

However it does not appear (from what little I can see) that Arabic has another term to serve as an equivalent of the generic “millet(s).”

Returning to the word دخن (dukhn), it is a singular form for which I have not found a plural (in the context of the name of IYOM, “of millets” it might look something like للدّوخين). It may be that use of the plural for this noun currently is infrequent or is associated with other meanings, but that would seem much like the same issue with most of the languages discussed above and previously – especially Spanish, if indeed there is here too a homonym issue (most words derived from د خ ن have to do with smoke or various senses of smoking).

Nevertheless, could a plural of دخن (dukhn) convey the idea of a plurality of millets better than the singular form of that word?

Chinese: The word for foxtail millet?

The Chinese version国际小米年 (guójì xiǎomǐ nián) – includes a name both species-specific, and of grain rather than plant. From what I have seen in various sources,4 the word 小米 (xiǎomǐ; lit. “small grain/rice”) properly refers to the hulled grain of foxtail millet (Setaria indica). Some English-Chinese dictionaries/look-ups, as well as online translation, do offer 小米 as the meaning of “millet,” but that may be because there is not an exact equivalent.

The Chinese “millets namespace” is elaborate, with multiple common names for both foxtail and proso millets, and their various varieties5 (some recorded since ancient times), plus more than one way of naming other millets. From this rich lexicon, could a generic term for “millet(s)” be found or generated – perhaps one drawing on archaic terms in written records – that would cover all these grains without the potential confusion of relying on the name of one of them? The Chinese language has traditionally used neologisms for new technologies and concepts when needed.

The Chinese language does not, however, use plural markers on nouns for objects, so the issue of plurals discussed with the other languages in this series of blog posts does not apply here.

(It is worth noting that 小米 (Xiaomi) is also the name taken by a major Chinese consumer electronics and software corporation. This might be another homonym issue in translations of the name of IYOM.)

Notes:

  1. Wehr, Hans, and J. Milton Cowan, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd edition, Ithaca, NY, Spoken Language Services, 1976.
  2. Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary (English edition), various pages accessed, 4 & 5 February 2022
  3. Nasrallah, Nawal, Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib: A Cookbook by Thirteenth-Century Andalusi Scholar Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī (1227–1293): English Translation with Introduction and Glossary, Brill, 2021. Page 571.
  4. Looking at a number of websites on Chinese language, including for example, Baidu.com.
  5. Bray, Francesca, “Millet cultivation in China : a historical survey,” Journal d’agriculture traditionnelle et de botanique appliquée ,1981, 28-3-4, pp. 291-307.

Posts in this “IYOM2023 & translation” series:

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