The shawm and its eastern cousins

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I have long been intrigued by the Chinese instrument called suǒnà 嗩吶 (double-reeded horn).  Because of the sound and shape of the name, and the fact that the characters used to write it both have mouth radicals, indicating that they are being used to convey pronunciation rather than meaning, I have always suspected that suǒnà 嗩吶 was the transcription of a foreign word.  This suspicion was underscored by the time (medieval period) and direction (from the Western Regions [as attested in wall paintings and plastic art]) that it entered the panoply of Chinese musical instruments.  There are at least half a dozen different combinations of various characters for transcribing the sound of this word (see Hànyǔ dà cídiǎn 漢語大詞典 [Unabridged Dictionary of Sinitic], 3.461b]).

After poking around in the online resources, I soon realized that suǒnà 嗩吶 is cognate with a long list of the names of instruments from Central Asia and the Middle East.  Thus we have Arabic zamr, Turkish zūrnā, and Persian surnāy.  There are even parallels in South Asia with Hindi-Urdu shehnai (there are many different spellings) and in Southeast Asia with Javanese saruni.  In Japan this instrument is called charumera or charamera, which comes from charamela, the Portuguese word for shawm (in modern Japanese the word for shawm is shōmu).  Cf. "Magi, myrrh, and mummies" (12/24/14).

The granddaddy of all these related instruments is Iranian.  The history of the Persian surnāy

dates back to the Achaemenid Dynasty (550-330 BCE), and was used to play at the end of the day from the city gate or from the local administration building. This custom persisted in England until the 19th century, the town waits playing shawms to mark the hours.

From the Wikipedia article on sorna, which also informs us:

The word sorna is a Pahlavi derivative of sūrnāy (literally "strong flute"), which is a compound of 'sūr-' (strong) and '-nāy' (flute).

Because of my studies of medieval and renaissance English literature in college, especially Chaucer, I was quite familiar with the shawm.  One can still hear it played at early music festivals as well as at medieval and renaissance fairs.  See here, here, and here.

Like the suǒnà 嗩吶, the shawm makes a loud, raucous, piercing sound, so — along with instruments like the bagpipe — it is particularly well suited for parades, processions, and other occasions for outdoor music.

The suǒnà 嗩吶 and its relatives have the typical raspy sound of other double reeded instruments.  See:

"The swazzle: a simple device for voice modulation" (10/11/15)

Eventually the shawm developed into the oboe family of instruments (see also here).

Now, with the wondrous assistance of YouTube, let us hear for ourselves what the suǒnà 嗩吶 and its closest relatives sound like:

A Turk playing a zurna (make sure your sound isn't turned up too high; this clip is a bit shrill).

A Chinese musical performance in which the suǒnà 嗩吶 features prominently; the music itself is distinctively East Asian sounding in terms of mode and melody.

It seems that the instrument is called zurna or sunay by the Uyhgurs, and apparently it's quite common to see sunay buskers.  Here, here, here, and here are some lively examples.

The sunay is also used for special occasions, such as weddings.
And here's a more formal performance.
It's even featured in pop-like music.

It's remarkable how much we can learn about language, people, and culture from the spread and adaptation of such a humble, quirky instrument as the shawm / suǒnà 嗩吶.  I remember making similar — though less virtuosic — sounds as a little boy by putting a blade of grass between by fingers and lips and blowing on it.  Perhaps that's how the ur-ancestor of this amazingly widespread instrument was originally invented.

[Thanks to Matthew Marcucci, Bo Lawergren, and Kelsey Seymour]


  1. Y said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

    The Arabic word zamr probably comes not from the Persian word, but from the Semitic root zmr 'sing'.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

    Many years ago I went to an Early [medieval] Music Concert in Ann Arbor, and were quite surprised to hear an instrument listed as a "shawm"
    which sounded very much like a suona. Aside from the lute, some of the the other instruments had been reconstructed from pictures, etc. After the concert I asked the shawm player where he got his horn, and was (not?) surprised when he replied that he bought it in Chinatown, as all other
    early music musicians also do.

  3. turanga said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 5:35 pm

    Bismillah Khan playing shehnai…

  4. peter said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

    There is an old story, too good to be true perhaps, of the long-winded Irish music critic and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, receiving a letter addressed to George Bernard Shawm. He complained to his wife that not only was his name misspelt, but the misspelling was not even an English word. His wife is supposed to have replied, "Oh, yes it is. It means, 'an old-fashioned wind instrument' ".

  5. Chau said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 6:54 pm

    @ Mair

    The mouth radical is also used in the Chinese name of trumpet, 喇叭 lăba, a very common musical instrument. It turns out that the word may have come from Old Norse (ON). ON blástr-horn is ‘trumpet, horn’: from the first element of the compound blástr and through declustering of the initial bl- to b- and l-, we derive *bastr and *lastr. These doublets then recombine to form a pleonastic compound *lastr-bastr. The final consonant cluster -str of both elements leaves a vestige in a stop final -h or -t in the Taiwanese name for trumpet, either as lâ-poa̍h (Barclay’s spelling) or lat-pa (Maryknoll’s spelling). Because of dissimilation one element loses the stop final. Thus,

    ON blástr-horn > blástr > *lastr-blastr > Tw lâ-poa̍h or lat-pa > MSM lăba 喇叭

  6. Chau said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

    Sorry, in the last line of the previous post, *lastr-blastr should read *lastr-bastr.

  7. AG said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 9:26 pm

    I just read another extremely far-flung Persian possibility, but it's a reference in a language I don't know, about a language I don't know – maybe someone can help:

    Google Translate is terrible for Thai, but It seems to suggest that the Thai word for male sarong / belt / all-purpose cloth, "pah kah mah", is basically from "cummerbund". However, I think it also mentions a native Thai word later.

  8. Matt said,

    November 16, 2015 @ 11:44 pm

    Chau: But what is the motivation for lastr and bastr to recombine like that? And what conveyed the word from Old Norse (or a descendant) to Taiwanese?

    Incidentally, the NKD's earliest attestation for 喇叭 rappa it is Saikaku's "Koshoku Nidai Otoko" (1684), where it is mentioned alongside the charumera, actually. They quote two sources on etymology:

    1) Umegaki Minoru 楳垣実 in his "Dictionary of loanwords" 外来語辞典 (1966) suggested that it might be from either Chinese (passing the buck, etymologically speaking) or Dutch roeper (apparently an old word for "speaking-trumpet", see p387 here).

    2) Arakawa Sohei 荒川惣兵衛 in his "Dictionary of loanwords" (1941) suggested that it might be from Sanskrit rava, which basically means "sound," so the semantics are terrible even if you ignore the extremely low probability of a word for a musical instrument being borrowed directly from Sanskrit in the 1600s.

  9. Bill Benzon said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 6:13 am

    Here's an ethnomusicological study of zurna players (and their drummers) in contemporary Macedonia:

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 8:54 am

    Psalm 98 in the Prayer Book (Coverdale) version, once regularly sung at Evensong, has 'with trumpets also and shawms, O show yourselves joyful before the Lord our King', so one segment of the population was always familiar with the term. The Authorised (King James) Version, however, changes it to 'sound of cornet', suggesting that by the 17th century shawms were considered out of date.

  11. Jeff DeMarco said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 9:34 am

    The German word for shawm is schalmei.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 12:06 pm

    Jeff DeMarco: The German word for shawm is schalmei
    Both of which derive from Old French chalamie and ultimately from the Greek kalamos 'reed'.

  13. Travis said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 1:19 pm

    For whatever it's worth, the Japanese reading of 嗩吶 is given as そない (sonai) in a number of Japanese encyclopedias, including the Digital Daijisen and Daijirin. (嗩吶)

    Given the instrument's role in China, you might not be surprised that it was traditionally used in Ryukyuan parades & processions as well. You can see & hear it being played in this year's Shuri Castle Festival here:

    I'd be curious if there are citations to be had for the idea that "the shawm makes a loud, raucous, piercing sound, so — along with instruments like the bagpipe — it is particularly well suited for parades, processions, and other occasions for outdoor music." I'm studying these processions, but have little background in music, so I'm looking to learn more about why certain instruments were well-suited, or the kinds of impressions they would have made. Thanks!!

  14. Rod Johnson said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:12 pm

    It's one of the primary instruments in Burmese hsaing waing music, where it's called the hne (နှဲ). Same root word as shanai etc. The Burmese word is thought to be a borrowing from Mon sanai (initial *sC clusters became devoiced initial C in modern Burmese).

    Burmese traditional vocal styles can be (in)famously quite hne-like, as you can hear at the beginning of this video.

  15. Rod Johnson said,

    November 17, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

    Replace that last link, which starts glitching after a couple minutes, with this one, which is virtuosic and hilarious even if you can't understand a word.

  16. maidhc said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    The Authorised (King James) Version, however, changes it to 'sound of cornet', suggesting that by the 17th century shawms were considered out of date.

    Cornetts in the time of the King James Bible were not much like any modern instrument, and had been in use for a long while also:

    I think it's more that the translators had differing opinions about the meaning of the original Hebrew word. But I don't think at the time anyone had much idea about what instruments the ancient Hebrews actually played. We know more about it now thanks to modern archaeology.

  17. AG said,

    November 18, 2015 @ 5:53 pm

    Wikipedia tells me that the Japanese biwa has a fascinating Silk Road history as well, possibly extending to its name having a connection to the Persian "barbat", but I don't know how plausible that link is. (Linguistic link, not hyperlink. Well, maybe both.)

  18. Chau said,

    November 19, 2015 @ 1:47 pm

    @Matt: (1) The motivation for creating pleonastic compounds is to disambiguate. In a world of so many monosyllabic homophones, a disyllabic word provides better precision than a monosyllabic one. (2) As regards the second question, I should have clarified that it was not Old Norse per se, but an older language ancestral to Old Norse (Proto-Norse or other Germanic) that passed the word to an ancestral form of Taiwanese. The ancestors of the Taiwanese migrated from the Central Plains of China to Fujian from the 4th to 7th centuries, and whence to Taiwan starting in late Ming dynasty. Hsiao Wun Ti of the Wei (魏孝文帝) ordered his nomadic Hsian-bei (鮮卑) people to move from Daijun (代郡, present-day Shanxi) to Luoyang (洛陽). I guess that was where the language contacts may have taken place.

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