Multiculturalism meets international trade

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From Bill Thomas via John Rohsenow:

What a strange concatenation of languages and symbols!

The objects pictured seem to be a set of earrings and a necklace, all sporting the Confederate flag.  At the bottom right are three figures that look like a cheesehead (?), an upside-down strawberry (?), and a lovable little snail (I almost missed that little bugger when I first looked at the ensemble, but the snail is my logo and I've actually kept a pet snail for years, so I was very happy when I finally noticed that jaunty gastropod).

Wait a minute!  That's SpongeBob and his friends Patrick Star and Gary the snail!  Other than the fact that they are popular and cute, however, I have no idea why they are on this package.

But what does the writing in Arabic script say at the top?  According to Peter Golden:

It’s Arabic: ابراج الصين abrâj al-Ṣîn “towers / castles of China”; abrâj is the plural of burj, an old borrowing from Greek πύργος.

I'm really grateful to Peter for mentioning "burj", which immediately made me think of the Burj Khalifa (known as the Burj Dubai before its inauguration), the world's tallest skyscraper.  Digging into the etymology of burj via Wiktionary, I was gobsmacked by all of the interconnections emanating from that innocent seeming little word:

Borrowing from Classical Syriac ܒܘܪܓܐ(burgāʾ), from burg in Middle Persian, or from Ancient Greek πύργος(púrgos) which may be an ancient borrowing from Proto-Germanic*burgz, , from Proto-Indo-European *bʰerǵʰ-(fortified elevation), then the English words borough and burg, German Burg and Berg, Dutch burg and others.

Ancient Greek πύργος(púrgos) is first attested in Homer's Iliad 7.206. Believed to be a borrowed word, probably from Urartian [script needed](burgana, palace, fortress); compare also Old Armenian բուրգն(burgn, pyramid). Ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *bʰerǵʰ-(high), with cognates including Sanskrit बृहत्(bṛhát, lofty, high, tall), Old Armenianբարձր(barjr, high) and Old English burg (English borough). Kretschmer suggested a borrowing from Proto-Germanic *burg-(fortified town, hill-fort) mediated through some Northern Balkan language (Macedonian?). However, according to Beekes the abundance of Pre-Greek placenames (e.g. Πέργαμον(Pérgamon)) seems to indicate a Pre-Greek origin.

Since, however, "burj" and its cognates seem to be securely embedded in several Semitic languages and has what looks like a classical triliteral Semitic form (brj), I questioned whether it really was a borrowing from Indo-European.  Unsure, I asked a number of specialists in Arabic and Semitic languages their opinion.  Here are the results.

Joe Lowry:

Borrowed words, if they are old enough and conformed enough to the triliteral root system, behave like normal Arabic plurals.  Qaṣr (palace), for example, which is also from Indo-European, has the plural quṣūr.  Words often have more than one plural, so burūj and abrāj are both valid plurals of burj.

Roger Allen:

Here's another instance where the lack of a historical dictionary of Arabic becomes a problem…

So, the dictionary lists the verbal root B _ R _ J, as meaning "to be manifest, evident" and, in particular "to be high / elevated."

The specific word "burj" is listed as being linked with the Greek word "purgos" meaning "a tower."  Two plurals are given for that word: "buruuj" as a plural of multiples; and "abraaj" as a plural of paucity.  "Burj" is also listed (secondarily) as "a sign of the Zodiac" (in which case, either plural form is found, but "buruuj" is the more common).

The question of precedence and the timing of possible linguistic borrowing is complicated  by the fact that the word "buruuj" occurs three times in the text of the Qur'an (probably meaning "constellations"): 15 v. 16;  25 v. 62; and 85 v. 1.

From John Huehnergard:

Yes, ˀabrāj is one of the plurals of burj (the other is burūj); so ˀabrāj aṣ-ṣīn is something like ‘towers of China’; burj can also mean ‘constellation’ and ‘sign of the zodiac’, if that would make more sense of the package and/or Mr. Spongepants and friends. I’m no good at Arabic calligraphic writing, so can’t tell you what the logo to the left of ˀabrāj aṣ-ṣīn says.

Non-Semitic loans into Arabic are assimilated to the root+pattern system where possible, and then outfitted with one or more of the “broken” plurals; a common example is film ‘film’, pl. ˀaflām. (Patterns also exist in the language for loans that have more than 3 consonants, as infabrīka ‘factory’, pl. fabārik.)

We now have a good understanding of the linguistics of abrâj al-Ṣîn ابراج الصين (“towers / castles of China”) though there's still the conundrum of what they have to do with Confederate themed jewelry and SpongeBob and his friends.  And what is that ornate symbol at the top left?

[Thanks to Brian Spooner and Devin Stewart]


  1. Thorin said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 5:53 pm

    أبراج صينية (abraj Siniyah) is also the Arabic term for Chinese astrology.

  2. James Bradbury said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 8:49 pm

    That’s the same morpheme that you (and/or other Sino-Platonic Papers authors) have in the past argued might have been borrowed from early IE into Sinitic (as represented by Mandarin 堡 bǎo). It is of particular interest to me because its OE reflex burh is the second part of my last name (

  3. Victor Mair said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    @James Bradbury

    Thanks for mentioning that. This appears to be an IE morpheme that has travelled far and wide. There are undoubtedly good reasons for its high degree of mobility.

  4. Timothy Friese said,

    December 24, 2016 @ 11:54 pm

    I am an Arabic speaker and I read the title as "Chinese horoscopes/astrology" and not "Chinese towers". The symbol at top left is definitely Arabic calligraphy, probably the name of the company that makes this, but I can't quite make it out.

    As for Spongebob, I have no earthly idea!

  5. Levantine said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 12:01 am

    The fancy text at the top left reads ابو غربي, "Abu Gharbi", a surname that is presumably functioning as a brand name. To add to the multicultural references, the name's literal meaning is "father of a Westerner".

  6. Stephen Hart said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 2:19 am

    That's the Confederate Battle Flag, or, more properly, as it's rectangular, The Second Confederate Navy Jack:

    "Despite never having historically represented the Confederate States of America as a country, nor officially recognized as one of its national flags, the rectangular Second Confederate Navy Jack and the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia are now flag types commonly referred to as the Confederate Flag. They both have become a widely recognized symbol of the Southern United States."

  7. Vireya said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 5:13 am

    But who is the target market for this product? Where was it on sale?

  8. CuConnacht said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 9:37 am

    Borrowings need not be old to have a "broken" plural in Arabic if their shape is Arabic enough. The plural of فلم (prononced and meaning "film") is اقلام (aflam).

  9. CuConnacht said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    "Pronounced" even.

  10. ohwilleke said,

    December 25, 2016 @ 5:19 pm

    Weirdest. Package. Ever.

    I honestly cannot fathom how such a thing came into existence.

  11. Douglas Bagnall said,

    December 26, 2016 @ 3:52 am

    This image has been around for a while, gathering 15 thousand retweets in September 2015.

    Outside of an American context the resemblance to some sort of African shield precedes the Confederate association, which perhaps makes it weirder when you see it the other way.

  12. rpsms said,

    December 27, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

    Could this be someone's little in-joke about for "China Town"?

  13. A. Dagli said,

    December 28, 2016 @ 10:53 am

    The word has been taken into Turkish in both its Arabic and Greek forms. "Burç" is the Turkish word for a defensive tower as well as for a sign of the Zodiac. "Burgaz" is an old word for a defensive tower that survives primarily in place names; I can think of three around Istanbul off the top of my head: "Kemerburgaz", "Kumburgaz", and "Lüleburgaz".

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