July 22, 2011
Back in undergrad I double majored in Earth Science and Arabic Language & Literature. I am far from fluent in Arabic, especially since I haven’t formally studied the language for the past 5 years. However, I crack open my old Arabic vocabulary and grammar textbooks when time permits, and I try to learn more Arabic during my field seasons in Oman.
During my last Oman field season in January 2010, my fiance (who came along as my field assistant) and I encountered a strange roadsign along the road from Al-Wuqbah to Sohar:
We laughed when we saw the sign, and we pulled over the Land Cruiser so that we could take pictures of the sign. We wondered what a “Beer Jam” could possibly be. “Beer Jam” sounds like a good name for a beer and music festival, but we knew this could not be the case. Muslims in Oman are not permitted to drink alcohol. While non-Muslim foreigners can purchase limited quantities of alcohol in large cities such as Muscat, beer is not exactly a common beverage in Oman. We contemplated making a detour to Beer Jam to investigate, but we had limited time since we had to travel on to Sohar and Muscat in order to meet up with colleagues.
My fiance asked me what “Beer Jam” meant, so I looked up the Arabic “بير جم” in my Arabic-English dictionary. Despite much searching (Arabic dictionaries are not alphabetical, so you have to look up words by their roots, which are sometimes difficult to determine), I was unable to figure out the meaning. So, “Beer Jam” remained a mystery.
As I was reading a paper last night on lacustrine carbonate deposits in the Sahara Desert, I was reminded of the “Beer Jam” sign. The paper mentioned that carbonates were sampled at “Bir Tarfawi” and “Bir Sahara,” and I wondered if “Bir” could possibly be the same as “Beer.”
I was curious, so I asked native Arabic speaker and fellow geoblogger Selim of the GeoSelim blog if he knew what “Bir” or “Beer” meant in Arabic. Selim quickly replied that he thought the word was “بئر”, which means “well” as in a well which provides water. The Arabic word for well contains a glottal stop (called a hamza), which is something we don’t have in English. Properly transliterated, the Arabic word should be written something like “Bi’ir” or “B’ir.” The word “بئر” is the more formal Arabic word for well. Like many languages, Arabic has both formal and colloquial forms. Modern Standard Arabic is the formal written language and serves as a lingua franca among educated Arabs. However, no one really speaks in Modern Standard Arabic– except, perhaps, for Arab news reporters and foreigners trying to learn Arabic. Rather, Arabs speak in their local dialects, which vary greatly from country to country and even within a single country.
Selim informed me that “Bir” and “Beer” are simply colloquial ways of saying “Bi’ir.” Since the glottal stop is a bit difficult and slows the word down, it makes sense that the colloquial forms of the word are simpler and avoid the hamza. Arabic is usually written in its Modern Standard form, but sometimes colloquial Arabic is written down as well. The reason I could not find “بير ” in my Arabic-English dictionary is because this is a colloquial spelling of the more formal word “بئر .” Thanks to Selim, I now know that “بير ” simply means “well.” So, “بير جم” means “Well of Jam.” I’m not sure if the “Jam” means anything in Arabic; likely it is just a place name.
Apparently, using “Bir” or “Beer” or “Bi’ir” in place names is fairly common. I guess in the deserts of the Middle East, villages tend to be found in the vicinity of water sources such as wells.
I realize that this post seems more linguistic than geological, but in my own research I’ve found language to be a helpful tool in the field. As I mentioned above, I am far from fluent in Arabic. However, even simple Arabic can be useful in the field. For example, basic Arabic is very useful when asking directions to a particular town or field location as many locals in Oman do not speak English. Knowledge of Arabic is also useful when looking at place names on a map. I now know that every time I see “Bir” or some variation on a map, there will be a well and water there. Perhaps that information will be useful in some future geologic fieldwork and research.
If you’re ever in Oman and want to visit the Beer Jam sign, here are some Google Maps showing the road from Al-Wuqbah (A) to Sohar (B):
Reference: Sczabo et al., 1995. Age of Quaternary pluvial episodes determined by uranium-series and radiocarbon dating of lacustrine deposits of Eastern Sahara. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, and Palaeoecology, vol. 113: 227-242.