[Pp]esh ?[Mm]erga

« previous post | next post »

Tim Arango, "In Chaos, Iraq’s Kurds See a Chance to Gain Ground", New York Times 6/19/2014:

I was surprised to see the spelling "pesh merga", written as two words and not capitalized, since I'm used to the version "Peshmerga" as used in the Wikipedia entry, written solid and capitalized:

Peshmerga or Peshmerge (Kurdish: Pêşmerge, Persian: پیشمرگ‎, Pishmarg) is the term used by Kurds to refer to armed Kurdish fighters. Literally meaning "those who confront death" (Pesh front + marg death) the Peshmerga forces of Kurdistan have been in existence since the advent of the Kurdish independence movement in the early 1920s, following the collapse of the Ottoman and Qajar empires which had jointly ruled over the area.

The NYT's past practice has been erratic:

6/17/2014: Kurdish Peshmerga forces clash with militants from the the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant near Kirkuk.
2/6/2013: Members of the new bloc have started to field militias, with Mr. Jumaa saying the union has about 1,500 fighters in Syria and will ultimately take control of thousands more troops being trained by Kurdistan Regional Government forces, the Peshmerga, in Iraq.

9/13/2013: Later that month, as The Lede reported, state-controlled television channels tried to discredit that footage, claiming that it was either staged to undermine the government or filmed in Iraq and showed abuses by American soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
8/23/2013: He recently threatened to send his own security forces, known as peshmerga, to defend Kurds in Syria.

6/12/2014: Unlike the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are disciplined and loyal to their leaders and their cause: autonomy and eventual independence for a Kurdish state.

And to my surprise, I find that the rest of the English-language press is also uncertain. Thus the Washington Post, in one and the same story, has a photo caption that spells it one way ("Kurdistan's Peshmerga forces secure an area in Kirkuk city") and a story body that spells it three different ways:

Kurdistan’s military forces, known as the pesh merga […] 

“As the Iraqi Army has abandoned its posts . . . Peshmerga reinforcements have been dispatched to fill their places,” Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs, said in a statement.

And later in the same story,

“In most places, we aren’t bothering them [ISIS], and they aren’t bothering us — or the civilians,” said Lt. Gen. Shaukur Zibari, a pesh merga commander.  In his statement, Yawar said,

“There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas.”

The Guardian is no more consistent — a 6/12/2014 story has many capitalized and uncapitalized versions of the one-word version,

But these are far from normal times, with Kurdish Peshmerga forces now in control of Kirkuk as the war with al-Qaida-linked fighters rages on just a short distance away. […]

Large numbers of peshmerga troops can be seen in the back of armoured personnel carriers, being moved around the city.

And in earlier years, the Guardian had

PUK peshmerga fighters opened fire, but not before the guerrillas had hurled several grenades, killing one pesh merga and wounding three.

His two army divisions, drawn from the experienced and rather well equipped Pesh Merga militia, are considered on a par with the best fighters the government could muster.

You'd think it was the 17th century or something.






  1. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 8:15 am

    Given that this is both a proper noun and also has meaning, varying capitalization would be expected (although in the samples provided, there does not appear to be any rhyme or reason to the actual use)….you will find both "army" (used generically) and "Army" (short for the U.S.Army, especially the sports team).

    I guess splitting the word is consistent with the etymology, but it seems to be relatively rare (and sloppy).

  2. Jens Fiederer said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 8:16 am

    Better example than "army" would probably be "assassins", capitalized when referring to the agents of Hassan-il-Sabah.

  3. Orin Hargraves said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    What is also not clear from the varied use in English is its countability status. As an attributive noun it hardly matters but is peshmerga (however spelled) a singular count noun, mass noun, or a plural? All of the above, judging by usage. I heard it used by Kurdish speakers in London as a single count noun, e.g., "He was a peshmerga," which is also seen in one of the Guardian quotes above. But the preferred English construal seems to be analogous with "force" or "guard" in the mass noun sense.

  4. languagehat said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 10:12 am

    I've seen "pesh merga" written as two words fairly frequently, and I don't see the problem with a little variation (though as a copyeditor by profession I would prefer to see it consistent within a single text). As for "Pesh front," my Kurdish (Kurmanji) dictionary has "pêş prep before, against" and "pêşî f front side; wave" ; the preposition certainly makes more sense in this context.

  5. Daniel Barkalow said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 10:43 am

    The usage "members of the pesh merga" seems odd to me. Membership would suggest talking about an organization, and the organization could either be referenced by name or by description; Pesh Merga or Peshmerga could be names of an organization, but pesh merga would seem to describe the people rather than the organization. While I would be unsurprised to see pictures of either "marines" or "members of the Marines" on a NYT story, a picture of "members of the marines" suggests to me a different sort of website.

  6. Jonathan Lundell said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 11:03 am

    Think you meant '[Pp]esh ?[Mm]erga'.

  7. Jonathan Lundell said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    …though it's hard to capture concisely the precise range of choices (one would like to exclude 'pesh ?Merga').

  8. cameron said,

    June 20, 2014 @ 8:18 pm

    In Persian pish (pronounce with continental vowel please), means before, in front of, or next to. So, unless it's used differently in Kurdish (which is quite likely, what with it being a whole nother language and everything) the translation as "front" is OK so long as front is taken to mean in front of.

  9. Michael Dunn said,

    June 21, 2014 @ 12:50 am


    For what it may be worth

  10. The Finn called Rêga said,

    June 21, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    Well, you're quite right about the 17th-ish century looks.

    Kurds as a people have been divided in different countries and thus in different language areas for centuries. Even though the spoken dialects don’t seem to follow the political borders, spelling system usage does: Kurds in Turkey use Turkish (Latin) alphabet while Kurds in Iran and Iraq use Persian (Latin) alphabet, both somewhat modified. As an example of this could be seen the Bahdinî dialect of northern Iraq, facing the Turkish border, and that is, at least in theory, pretty much same than Kurmancî, that is spoken on Turkish side. Bahdinî uses Arabic script and Kurmancî Turkish alphabet.

    I have been told that the word “peshmerga” appeared first in Iranian Kurdistan, and then spread to Iraqi Kurdistan. As far as I understand the word is not in native use in Turkish Kurdistan; at least PKK fighters call themselves guerrillas, not peshmergas, apparently claiming that they use(d?) a different fighting style. Thus, the word is in native use more or less exclusively in areas that use Arabic script style alphabet.

    Just as Persian and Arabic have different amount of letters, also Persian and Soranî, the major Kurdish dialect spoken in Iraqi and Iranian Kurdistan have different amount of letters. Kurds have taken the Persian alphabet and modified it for their needs – mainly adding vowels. One of these modifications is splitting the Persian letter h in two. In Persian this letter has two different forms, one to be used in the middle of a word and other in the end, but in Soranî these two forms are treated as different letters representing different phonems.

    This alphabet modification causes no problem when one’s writing by hand. However, as Kurds as a nation have been a sore spot in several countries, using and investing in Kurdish language has been seen as a very politically incorrect thing to do. The big companies have avoided – or not paid attention to – the language, and still now Kurdish, at least Soranî, is missing from both Google translator as well as Microsoft’s products. Most of the software development has been done by individuals, who more often than not had more enthusiasm and (political) ambition than knowledge in either linguistics or programming. The fonts that have been used have thus been less than perfect – the above mentioned word-final-h, for example, has required (or added) an extra space in several font sets that I have seen. As a result it has often been impossible for the content creators, writers, to write totally correct sentences even if they wanted to. And of course most of these font sets have been either software, OS or something else specific, so many had opted using unmodified Persian fonts instead.

    Even though there has been some education offered in Soranî even before, it hasn’t received much resources, and pretty much no cooperation between countries. There were a couple of radio stations people could listen to, but the satellite TV was the first media that actually managed to create any standardization whatsoever in Kurdish language(s). Now, after Saddam’s fall, the usage of Kurdish is actually being promoted for the first time in since the invention of the printing press. There’s more enthusiasm and interest than knowledge, and though the Regional Government has put a lot of work in language standardization, terminology and so on, the masses still haven’t really caught on.

    The often uneducated writers with with no understanding or interest in spelling standardization, using old tools or at least having a habit of seeing words spelled with wrong letters as well as extra spaces added here and there, the texts that are published are .. well, often a mess. And even if the original text had been perfect, the transliteration from Arabic style alphabet to Latin style alphabet, again with a different number of letters, capitalization and different pronounciation patterns depending on the intended target language adds to the trouble its own spice. The users of Arabic and Persian script are seldom aware of capitalization rules, as their alphabet has none, and often struggle with punctuation as well, being used to different standards. A couple of transliteration standards (or rather styles) exist, but again, people tend to write whatever feels right at the moment.

    It's pretty much 17th century Internet kid chat room language at this point. Give it a decade or two, and they will probably get it sorted out just fine.

  11. JB said,

    June 21, 2014 @ 4:03 pm

    ([Pp]esh ?m|Pesh M)erga

  12. Aristotle Pagaltzis said,

    June 23, 2014 @ 10:12 pm

    [Pp]esh(?!M) ?[Mm]erga

  13. laclassic said,

    June 24, 2014 @ 7:53 am

    Do you need a best star hotel in India. You have to come Bangalore, will get a luxurious hotel with a hifi facilities . I am sure that you will never seen like this hotels in India.

RSS feed for comments on this post