Thursday, December 10, 2009

Got Juice? A Greek Loan Word in Tibetan.

I was working on a translation today and confronted with the ever unsatisfactory rendering of dwangs ma into english. Generally, I translate it as "extract" because dwangs ma has the sense of something being refined, as opposed to snyigs ma, which means waste product or residue which is left over after processeing. Of course in Ayurveda they have a similar problem, having to translate rasa in similar ways. For example, some have translated it as "plasma", others as "chyle", still others as "chyme", and yet others as "nutriment"-- none of which hit the mark, IMO, and of the first three, chyme is the best. But this post is not about rasa/dwangs ma.

So what's it about? Well it's about "khu ba" and "ku ya". The first word means juice, broth, or semen, depending on context. The second word refers to the sediment observed in urine during its lukewarm phase. At first glance, the first word, khu ba, seems perfectly content as a native Tibetan word....but is it? The second word is most definitely a loan word since only appears in that context, and according to an oral communication by Gen Yang Ga, most likely comes from Greek -- but he was not sure of which greek word it might be from.

I don't have much proof of my following speculations, but I feel compelled to belabor my faithful readers with them anyway. While reviewing possible choices for the ever pesky "dwangs ma"  this morning, I noticed something I had not noticed before - chyle and chyme respectively come from the Greek khūlos and khūmos meaning respectively raw juice, and juice produced by digestion. These two words come from the Proto Indo-European root gheu-, which means to pour out, of which the word "ghee" is also a derivative. We seem to have a serendipitous correlation with the Tibetan word khu ba, the substance which in Tibetan medicine is the product of final stage of digestion, sukra or semen. In terms of pure phonetic resemblance, I think ku ya cannot help but be derived from Greek as well.

Well, this is all highly speculative, but food, or rather juice, for thought...


Dan said...

Dear Malcolm,

That's really fascinating stuff. Very soon a conference paper ought to come out that shows with abundant clarity that one old Tibetan text (the So-ma-ra-dza) derived its entire outline for discussing urinalysis from a Graeco-Islamic text on that subject. The paper is by Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim of the Welcome Institute in London.

So given that there is a wider context for such word borrowings that makes them more worth entertaining, more likely even. I'm no Greek expert, but you do have to keep in mind that 'y' and 'u' are often interchangeable in that language. Thyme is for 'courage' (thumos, perhaps related as has sometimes been suggested with gtum-mo — see Todd Gibson's dissertation of 1991, page 84, where he argues that it means a swirling internal heat in Greece, also), after all.

We have another medical term that probably stems from Greek used in Tibetan (& Mongolian, with slight difference) medicine. It's a fairly well-known idea, at least, that bad-kan descends from the Greek word phlegma (the systemic humour, and not just the stuff we tend to cough up this time of year, as I guess everybody here knows anyway).

Speaking of east-west medical exchange, I think you would find this PDF article entertaining if you haven't seen it yet:

Keep on writing. Cheers!


Malcolm Smith said...

Fascinating stuff, Dan. It is interesting to see the way in which Hippocrates discusses phlegm in terms more or less identical to those later found TTM.

Thanks for the article!


Dan said...

Which, anyway, is not to say that Sanskrit śleṣman is not itself ultimately, in some PIE level, related to the Greek. Just that the Tibetan is not explained by the Sanskrit, and is so much closer to the Greek.

I think there is something about this 'phlegm' connection in this article by the late Marianne Winder, Tibetan Medicine Compared with Ancient and Mediaeval Western Medicine, Bulletin of Tibetology n.s. vol. 1 (1981), pp. 14-15. And I think this article can be found in a PDF here (even if you've likely already read it, I thought some of your readers might find it interesting for addressing Greek-Tibetan medical comparison):

Dan said...

It just struck me as I was leaving. We're talking about gooey stuff. Goo, in fact. Hmmm...

Choler is kholos?

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