05 March 2008

Blessed Lightning, or Barack and Baruch vs. Barak and Burak.

Barack, Baruch, Barak and Burak.

 They’re at it again. Pronunciation shift and inconsistent transliteration are confusing people. With Senator Barack Obama high in the public eye at the moment, people are speculating what his first name Barack might mean. With the knowledge that it is of Semitic origin (in this case, Arabic via Swahili), many have compared it to the name of Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and incorrectly concluded that it means lightning. However, the two names, despite their similarity, are from entirely different Semitic roots.

 Ehud Barak’s last name might be better transliterated Bārāq or Bārāḳ to reflect its coming from the Semitic b-r-q (ברק، برق) root, but is transliterated as it is to reflect its pronunciation in modern Europeanized Hebrew which has shifted from [q] to [k]. The precise same shift occurred in the Turkish language as it is spoken in Turkey (as opposed to Turkic Central Asian languages). Thus the Turkish first name Burak, as in that of musician Burak Kut, is also from the b-r-q root, more specifically from the Arabic burâq (براق).

Barack actually comes from the Semitic b-r-k (برك، ברך) root and means blessed. The cognate Hebrew word would be bārûḵ (ברוך) as in the name of Bernard Baruch. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the pronunciation of certain letters changes to a different allophone when in certain positions (in this case, word final), so that the sound of the letter kāf (כ، ك) becomes spirantized and shifts from [k] to [χ] or [x]. In imitation of German or Polish, this is frequently transliterated ch. This sound change does not occur in Arabic.

Update, 3 October: The following articles have more information. At least two of them were published before mine was, yet I failed to consult them.

• Benjamin Zimmer, “The Barrage Against ‘Barack’,” Language Log, 12 February 2007.
• Benjamin Zimmer, “‘Barack’ Mailbag,” Language Log, 14 February 2007.
• Bill Casselman, “Barack: Origin & Meaning of Obama’s Given Name,” or “Barack Obama: The True Meaning of His First Name,” Bill Casselman’s Canadian Word of the Day & Words of the World, ©2008.

Update, 9 October: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language believes the b-r-k root to be “Probably a metathesized variant of krb” which would mean Barack is cognate with Hebrew כרוב kərûḇ, Arabic كروب karûb and English cherub and cherubic.

Versions of this article are preserved at webcitation.org/5bJ8vqYBb, 5bJAFkj2i and 5bRhxh8gS.