February 2, 2011

Geology Word of the Week: N is for Nabkha

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Nabkhas in front of sand dunes in Namibia. Photo courtesy of Michael Welland and used with permission.

def. Nabkha:
1. A mound-like accumulation of wind-blown sediment, usually sand, collected within and behind, and stabilized by, vegetation (definition modified from Khalaf et al., 1995 and Keary, 1996).
2. One of several words of Arabic origin that is used to describe sand features.

The Eskimos having an unusually large number of words for snow may be an urban legend, but perhaps the Arabs have an unusually large number of words for sand.

Actually, probably not. My simple Goodword English-Arabic dictionary lists just one word for sand,  رمل (raml), while my very comprehensive Al-Mawrid English-Arabic dictionary, which is a good three inches thick with very small print, again only gives رمل (raml). The other definitions given in this more comprehensive dictionary are variations on this one word, such as turba ramliyyah, “sandy dirt” or “sandy dust”; shaTi ramly “sandy beach”;  and raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah, “hourglass sand.”

Curious about how many words for sand there might be in Arabic, I tried to google the answer. I found this answerbag question, with an answer that is labeled “great” and “professionally researched.” This “professional” answer says that there are six Arabic nouns for the English word sand. However, I became a little suspicious when I noticed that the reference listed in the answer is Google Translate. Don’t get me wrong– I love Google Translate and use it all the time. However, I decided to double-check the translation. Also, I wanted to know the other five words in Arabic for sand.

When you type “sand” into Google Translate, the following list of Arabic words shows up:

English-to-Arabic translation of “sand” on Google Translate. Click to view larger.

When the Google Translate result showed up, however, I was disappointed. Again, there is just one word for sand in Arabic. For those of you who don’t know Arabic, let me explain why. I’ll just explain the nouns:

1. raml- this is the word for sand we already know.
2. saHra- this is actually the Arabic word for desert. The English word “Sahara” comes from this word.
3. ‘azm- this word actually translates to “determination” or “resolution.” I assume this word refers to slang usage of the word sand in English as a word to indicate determination or courage. For example, “She had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand.” (Mark Twain) or “After surviving two advisor changes, Evelyn showed she had the sand to survive her PhD.”
4. raml as-sa’ah ramliyyah- hourglass sand.
5. a-laun a-ramlee- the color of sand.
6. shaja’a- this word translates to “courage” or “bravery.” This relates to the third word.

I can only assume that whoever wrote the answer to the answerbag question did not speak Arabic. From my dictionaries and Google Translate, I determine that there is only one word in Arabic for (geologic) sand: raml. However, I am not a native speaker of Arabic. Perhaps there are additional colloquial words for sand. If you are a native Arabic-speaker and read this blog post, please feel free to comment below or email me with any additional words for sand you might know. I would love to hear from you. For now, however, I have to conclude that the Arabs having an unusually large number of words for sand is as much of an urban legend as the Eskimos having an unusually large number of words for snow. 

If you think about it, in English we actually have a large number of words to describe both snowy and sandy things. In addition to the word snow, we have words such as ice, icicle, powder, pack, frost, blizzard, flurry, slush, sleet, freezing rain, and wintry mix. Similarly, in addition to the word sand, we have words such as dust, dirt, grit, soil, soot, sediment, and gravel. Perhaps these words do not describe sand in a geologic sense, but they certainly work as everyday substitutes or specifiers. As an interesting aside, Arabic has one word ثلخ (thalj) that is used for both snow and ice.

I started thinking about Arabic words for sand when I was leafing through my geological dictionary looking for an interesting geology word starting with the letter N. For those of you who haven’t noticed, for my weekly geology words I have been working my way steadily through the alphabet, from A is for Alluvium to M is for Magma. This week I am at the letter N. Browsing my dictionary, I came across the word “nebkha.”

I was very excited to discover the geology word “nebkha” or– more properly transliterating from the Arabic– “nabkha” for two reasons. First, this word exactly describes some sand structures that I noticed last month at Nobska Beach here in Woods Hole. When I observed these features, I didn’t know the word nabkha, so I just called them sand structures. Now I know that these structures are small nabkhas, which are mounds of sand which accumulate around and which are stabalized by vegetation, in this case small plants growing out of the beach. Several other terms are used to describe similar sand-vegetation features. For example: bush-mound, shrub-coppice dune, knob dune, and phytogenetic hillock (Khalaf et al., 1995). However, I think that nabkha is the most comprehensive word and also the prettiest.

Picture of a Nabkha in Kuwait. From Khalaf et al. (1995).

The second reason I was excited about discovering the word nabkha is that I immediately thought the word sounded Arabic in origin. I have a somewhat unusual background (for a non-Arab American, anyway) in that I double majored in Earth Science and Arabic for my undergraduate degree. My Arabic is rusty these days, but I can read basic Arabic well enough. I immediately tried to look up nabkha in my trusty Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary. This is hands-down the best Arabic-English dictionary out there. Thus, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed when I could not find the word نبخة (nabkha) in Hans Wehr. However, I did find the word نبكة (nabka), which translates to “hill” or “hillock.” I had never heard this word before. The word that I know for hill in Arabic is تل (tall). Exhausting my own resources, I decided to write to my old Arabic professor for help.

My professor responded swiftly and thoroughly. He managed to find both the words “nabka” and “nabkha” in Lisan al-Arab (The Tongue of the Arabs), the Medieval dictionary of the Arab lexicographer Ibn Manzur. He also explained that both the words nabka and nabkha are antiquated and not often used in modern Arabic speech.

In my professor’s words:

“About the word ‘nabka’, Hans Wehr reproduces his definition from the medieval dictionary Lisan al-Arab. The Lisan gives its meaning as a hill but specifies that this hill is shaped like a cone, with a pointed top. Other meanings listed in the Lisan are: (1) an elevation, (2) sand hill with pointed tops, (3) small hill.

As for its usage, it is not commonly used; it is used in medieval texts and also infrequently by modern writers who use medieval or ‘classical’ style of writing. They often explain it to modern readers. In the following article [available here; also see image below] on the city of Kashgar in Western China, the writer mentions in the beginning of the third paragraph:

‘The city was built in the middle of an oasis with abundant shades and on a nabka (murtafa3) min al-ard’

[Note: ‘min al-ard’ translates to ‘from the Earth.’ The number 3 is frequently used to denote a letter in Arabic that we don’t have in English. This is a sort of guttural “a” sound that is sometimes written “a’a.”]

Notice how either the author or an editor adds the explanation (murtafa3/elevation) in brackets; otherwise, most readers would not know what it is.

Regarding ‘nabkha,’ Lisan also lists it but without mentioning any relation of it to nabka–this is not uncommon in Lisan. It gives as one of its meanings: “an elevated land”. Also, “sand,” “earth that is not sand”.  The compiler of Lisan died in 1311. Since then, nabkha continued to be used, albeit in a limited, mostly academic context.”

A line from this encyclopedia entry showing how in modern Arabic writing the word “nabka” is usually explained by another word in parentheses.

Considering that the words “nabka” and “nabkha” have very similar meanings (perhaps they are related?) and seem to express an elevation or hill of some sort, I thought it very likely that the geology word nabkha was taken from Arabic. Perhaps a foreign geologist familiar with classical Arabic decided to borrow an antiquated word for hill to describe a desert feature. Alternatively, perhaps some modern Arabs call vegetated sand mounds nabkhas and brought the term into geology.

I shed some further light on the matter when I discovered this paper by Khalaf et al. (1995) on nabkhas in Kuwait.

They explain:

“Nabka or nabkha is an Arabic word denoting a small sandy hillock. It was used in Arabic literature before Islam, more than 14 centuries ago (Ibn Manzur, undated). Gautier & Chudeau (1909) used the same term for a mound-like accumulation of wind-driven sediments around vegetation.”

Note that the authors of this paper refer to Ibn Manzur and thus also looked up the word in Lisan al-Arab! The Gautier & Chudeau reference is in French. If anyone can find me a copy and help me translate the French, I would be most grateful. I’m curious to know if and why these French-speaking geologists chose an Arabic word to describe vegetated sand features.

Nabkha is certainly not the only word describing sand and sand features that has been taken from Arabic. Some other words I thought of are:

Seif– A long, narrow sand dune or chain of sand dunes. The word سيف (seif) means “sword” in Arabic.
Erg– Sand sea or sand dune. I think this is an English simplification of the Arabic word غرد (gurd), which translates to “dune” or “shifting dune” in Hans Wehr. However, this site says erg comes from the word عرق (‘arq), which means artery or vein. 
Haboob– An intense sandstorm. هبوب (haboob) means “strong wind or gale” according to Hans Wehr.
Zibar- a made-up Arabic-sounding word?
Rebdou- a large nebkha. I think this word also comes from Arabic.


Various Arabic dictionaries, mentioned above.

Keary, Philip. 1996. Dictionary of Geology. London: Penguin Books. 

Khalaf et al. 1995. Sedimentological and morphological characteristics of some nabkha deposits in the northern coastal plain of Kuwait, Arabia. Journal of Arid Environments, vol. 29:267-292

Gautier, E. F. & Chudeau, R. 1909. Missions au Sahara, 1: Sahara Algerien. Paris: Armand Colin.

Thanks very much to Hussein, the best Arabic professor in the world.

Thanks very much to Michael Welland, author of the book Sand: The Never-Ending Story, for providing the picture of Namibian nabkhas.