Boko Haram and Peggy burrito

« previous post | next post »

From California, Julie Wei sends me "tidbits:  curious words":

1.  "Boko Haram" — the name of a radical Islamist group in Nigeria that is burning schools, preventing children from getting an education.

The name is indeed curious.  According to the New York Times (March 26, page 1 and page 9, "Wielding Fire, Islamists Target Nigeria Schools"), in Hausa "Boko" means "book" and signifies "Western education", while  "Haram" derives from Arab and means "forbidden", which we are familiar with as "harem", i.e., "forbidden quarters".

Other sources give more explicit and radical spins to the name:

  • BBC "Western education is forbidden"
  • Wikipedia states that the name in Hausa translates as "Western education is sacrilege", "a sin".

If the name really does mean something like "books are proscribed", that would seem to conflict with the well-known Islamic dictum about the "People of the Book" (Arabic هل الكتاب‎ ‎ ′Ahl al-Kitāb; cf. Hebrew עם הספר, Am HaSefer), i.e., the Jews, the Sabians, and the Christians, i.e., peoples of the Abrahamic tradition.  On the other hand, whereas kitāb is customarily translated in English as "book" and "book" is customarily rendered in Arabic (and languages heavily influenced by Arabic) as kitāb, the very fact that an Islamist group has outlawed "books" indicates that — at least for them — "book" certainly does not equate to kitāb.

But I think that something deeper may be going on here.  Quoting Omniglot:

Since the beginning of the 17th century, Hausa has been written with a version of the Arabic script known as ajami. Most of the early writing in Hausa was Islamic poetry or on Islamic themes. Ajami is still used, mainly to write poetry, but also for at least one newpaper and some books. There is no standard spelling system for Hausa written with the Arabic script so there is some variation in spelling between different writers.

A version of Hausa written with the Latin alphabet and known as boko began to emerge during the 19th century. Until the 1950s ajami and boko were both used, though since then boko has been the main alphabet for most Hausa speakers.

Thus we see that boko is not so much an overt reference to Western books and Western learning, but more specifically the Latin alphabet, which has displaced the Arabic alphabet in Nigeria.

More details are given in Wikipedia:

Boko (or bookoo, from English "book") is a Latin alphabet devised by Europeans in the early 19th century[1] for the Hausa language. It was developed and introduced in the early 20th century by the British (mostly) and French colonial authorities and used as the official script of the Hausa language. It was made the official alphabet in 1930.[2] Since the 1950s boko has been the main alphabet for Hausa speakers.[3] Arabic script (Ajami) is used now only in Islamic schools and in a big part of Islamic literature. In Nigeria Boko has been written in pan-Nigerian font since the 1980s.

This use of "book" to refer to writing reminds me of Norwegian Bokmål ("book language") and German Buchstabe ("letter [of the alphabet]").  Chinese shū 书 originally meant "to write", then later signified "letter (to be sent and received)", and now has come to mean primarily "book".

Julie's second offering:

2.  Today, in a crowded Mexican restaurant, I saw a counter-girl preparing a delicious-looking burrito (beans, rice, etc. in an orange-colored wrapper).  I asked "What is that burrito called?".  She said: "A Peggy burrito."  I searched for it in the menu, and found she meant "veggie burrito".

I don't really have anything much to add to this colorful expression, except to say that a web search turned up plenty of associations between "Peggy" and "burrito", so perhaps the counter-girl was auditorily influenced by one of them.

LATE NOTE:  Just at the moment I was about to make this post, Julie sent the following note:  "This restaurant has many kinds of burritos.  The one she was making was both beautiful and scrumptious-looking, and I wanted the name, to be sure I got the right one."


  1. maidhc said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 12:23 am

    In Mexican Spanish anyway (that's the only kind I hear), there's a lot of crossover between V and B. There's a farm I go by often that's had a sign "Se Bende Animales" for years. Most often words spelled with a V are pronounced as a B. My wife's name is Vicki, and our landscaper calls her "Beekee".

    I would guess that the woman was just saying "veggie" (which is, after all, an English word) with a bit of an accent.

    A burrito without meat is not usually called "veggie", "vegetarian" or anything like that in Spanish.

  2. Stefan said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 1:43 am

    this use of "book" to refer to writing reminds me of Norwegian Bokmål ("book language") and German Buchstabe ("letter [of the alphabet]"). Chinese shū 书 originally meant "to write", then later signified "letter (to be sent and received)", and now has come to mean primarily "book".

    I further add, if I may, the Romanian buche, meaning "letter of the [old Romanian Cyrillic] alphabet" and, in plural form buchi, "alphabet" (now dated). The term comes from Slavonic buky which goes to the same IE root as the Germanic buch, book, etc.

  3. Ariadna said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 1:59 am

    All Spanish dialects make no distinction between the pronunciation of B and V. They are either /b/ – at the beginning of a word – or /β/, in intervocalic contexts.
    The mix-up maidhc mentions is a purely orthographic one, and very common among Spanish speakers. A funny example is the "a ver (let's see or let me see)/ haber (there is or there are)" confusion.
    As for the veggie/Peggy burrito thing, I'm with maidhc. I'll hazard a guess at what could've happened: as Spanish lacks aspirated Ps, the /p/ could be easily confused with /b/. So, the counter-girl said /begi/ and Julie Wei interpreted it as /pegi/. In the majority of Spanish dialects the phoneme /dʒ/doesn't exist.
    Finally, the adjective "vegetariano/a" is used indeed in menus to refer to meat-free dishes.

  4. Anton Sherwood said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 3:07 am

    Dad was amused to see, at a laundromat in Arizona (iirc), a sign that mentioned VOTEYAS (botellas).

  5. Kevin said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 3:36 am

    I spent a couple of years living in Kaduna city in northern Nigeria. It seems fairly common for native Hausa speakers to use "boko" (or "book" if they're speaking English) when they're talking about public (western-style) education. For example, "he no know book" would describe, disparagingly, someone who didn't go to school.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    My initial reaction was that something was very (beaucoup) forbidden mixing Arabic and French (with a little semantic drift and spelling liberty).

  7. Bobbie said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    Those of us "of a certain age" might think it had something to do with the British rock group, Procol Harum. The two phrases sound very similar.

  8. Keith said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 10:40 am

    There seem to be plenty of Boko Haram adherents in northern Nigeria… why not ask some of them to explain their ideology and the origin of the name?

    [(myl) For additional relevant quotes and discussion, see "Boko Haram", 7/29/2009.]

  9. julie lee said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 12:43 pm

    All the Mexican eateries I go to are manned– uh, staffed– by Hispanics. Next time I'll just order a "Peggy burrito" when I want a veggie burrito and I bet I'll get the right thing.

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    Yiddish has both the Germanic בוך (bukh) and the Hebrew ספר (seyfer) for 'book,' but the latter is used only for "holy" (biblical, talmudic, rabbinical) books.

    I believe that Malay/Indonesian has both buku and kitab, but I don't know if an analogous distinction is made.

    Bukva (буква) is the word for 'letter' in several Slavic languages. Both it and the Germanic cognates of book are related to beech, since beech bark was (according to what a teacher in Germany told me) used as a writing surface in northern Europe.

  11. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    Ariadna: So, the counter-girl said /begi/ and Julie Wei interpreted it as /pegi/. In the majority of Spanish dialects the phoneme /dʒ/doesn't exist.

    But neither does intervocalic /g/; it would actually be /beγi/, but more likely /beji/, since borrowed /dʒ/ is usually prononuced /j/, whether it's so transcribed (Tayikistán) or not (Johnny → /joni/).

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 2:21 pm

    There's also a Procul Harum reference in the comment thread to the prior post myl linked to! An interesting datum for any linguistic anthropologists planning on doing fieldwork among the enigmatic and little-understood Boomers, I suppose . . .

    From the other (and non-Muslim) end of Nigeria, has the lyrics to a Fela Kuti song from circa 1976 ("Mr. Grammarticalogylisationalism Is the Boss") that is bitterly critical of those Nigerians who were getting ahead (at the alleged expense of their fellow citizens) on the basis of Western style educational credentials and linguistic skills, although I don't think a violent solution to the perceived problem was necessarily being proposed (even if the Boko Haram would agree with Fela that "The better oyinbo you talk / The more bread you go get" was an accurate diagnosis of Nigerian society and a Bad Thing).

    Of course, Fela himself could speak perfectly standard English when he wanted and had a Western-style education (he had been sent off pre-independence to study for a medical degree in London), although he wrote most of his lyrics in the widely-understood Nigerian pidgin for a mix of commercial and aesthetic/political motives. "Oyinbo" is a Yoruba-derived word meaning something like "foreign(er), esp. white/European" and the sources seem to disagree as to whether it's intrinsically pejorative, or just (compare e.g. "gaijin" or "haole") pejorative in some of the contexts in which it is likely to arise.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

    It's funny that, as I was writing this post, the band name Procul Harum kept coming into my mind. Several times I thought of mentioning Procul Harum, but then decided against it as being too facile. I'm glad, though, that Procul Harum has come up in these comments, which shows that my mind wasn't deviously short circuiting when the rock group name kept occurring to me as I wrote.

    I just now checked, and it seems that — while the name appears to have come from that of a Burmese cat belonging to the band's original manager — its ultimate origin is unclear:


    The name has been said to be Latin for "beyond these things", but the correct Latin translation of "beyond these things" is Procul His. Alternatively, the name has been translated as "of these far off things". However, the feminine genitive plural harum means "of these women" (lacking an antecedent, it cannot mean "things"); moreover, procul would not be followed by a genitive in Latin. The name of the band is frequently misspelt; often with Procul, Harem, both, or other variations.


  14. Ariadna said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:13 pm

    Coby Lubliner,
    You are partly right. Intervocalic /g/ doesn't exist in Spanish since the soft G has an even softer variant that doesn't exist in English: G is realised as a velar approximant /ɣ/, as you pointed out, only that I was using the IPA symbols for English and not for Spanish. Besides, Julie Wei hearing "Peggy" is a proof that the girl was pronouncing "veggie" with a /g/ -or /ɣ/- and not with a /j/.

  15. Julie said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 7:28 pm

    I lived in Nigeria when I was a kid. I'm white. My family was told by Yoruba speaking people that "oyinbo" literally means "peeled onion", as in a white person has had their black skin peeled away. I always thought the description to be funny & creative & wonderfully clever.

  16. bloix said,

    March 28, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

    It's not obvious that veggie should be pronounced vehj-ee. Other double-g words followed by ie or y are pronounced with hard g: buggy, biggie, ciggy, soggy, craggy, piggy, doggie, etc. etc.

    Veggie, I think, is the exception. Fluent speakers recognize that it's short for vegetarian and understand from the etymology that the proper pronunciation is veh-ji. But a non-native speaker trying to work out the pronunciation from the orthography would be justified in concluding that the pronunciation is vehg-ee.

  17. maidhc said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 3:40 am

    I didn't mean to say that Spanish has no word for "vegetarian", only that the concept doesn't get used in down-home Mexican cooking. Those delicious beans are probably cooked with lard. They have the concept of "I can't afford meat, I'll just have beans", but that's not quite the same thing.

    My stepson is a vegetarian who has travelled in rural areas of Venezuela and Panama, but despite his excellent Spanish he was never able to get the concept across to people, so in the end he decided to eat fish when he was there. I'm sure if he had been in a nice restaurant in Caracas he would have had no problem.

    That's why I said that "veggie" is an English word. (Presumably if they advertise it as "veggie" they don't cook the beans with lard.) I speculate that the woman learned the word in the context of working in the restaurant, which is why she doesn't pronounce the G as in Spanish, but the B/V merger tripped her up.

    They say that when Anglos celebrate a cumpleaños, they always sing a song about green celery (apio verde).

  18. Abu Umaru said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 4:01 am

    Book is called 'littafi' in the Hausa language while 'boko' is anything ephemeral that do not last, infact a lie. As in western education which is only useful here; compare Quranic education which the Hausas believe is for this world and the hereafter.

  19. julie lee said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    Abu Umaru: How interesting that in "boko" there's a distinction between the temporal, ephemeral, and the timeless, everlasting.

    On another note: Like J.W. Brewer and Victor Mair, I was reminded of Procul Harum. It seems the name of the band is just as cryptic as the lyrics of its top-of-the-charts song, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (is it about a love experience or a drug experience?). I've always liked the first version best, particularly because of the drumming of Bill Eyden. Later I discovered he was described as "the great" Bill Eyden. No wonder.

  20. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 1:10 pm

    @Coby Lubliner and Ariadna: In a couple of trips to Mexico and a good number of conversations with Mexican immigrants to the U.S., I've never been able to detect the difference between allophones of /g/ and others that's supposed to exist in standard Spanish. Maybe it's because people pronounce words carefully for me. Maybe I'm missing something because of my lack of training, but if so, I think it's fairly subtle.

    (In Costa Rica, I did hear several magnificent car-wreck velar fricatives from one waiter.)

    (I hope to be corrected if I'm wrong about allophones. I'd thought that in Spanish, [g] and [ɣ] were allophones of /g/.)

    By the way, although I know that in standard Spanish "b" and "v" are always pronounced the same, I've been told by several New Mexicans and at least one Mexican (a graduate of a Mexican university) that pronouncing them the same is a mistake. Here is a post by an Argentinean telling me the same thing and being surprised at what he found in the DRAE and the VOX dictionary. I suspect English influence in Mexico and Italian influence in Argentina, but maybe it's just a spelling pronunciation or something.

  21. Ariadna said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 4:50 pm

    Jerry Friedman,
    You're right, /g/ and /ɣ/ are allophones of /g/, and the difference between them is more than subtle, especially if G is followed by A or O, or the speaker's emphasising the syllable.
    As for B and V, pronouncing them differently is not only pompous and dated hypercorrection but also a mistake. School teachers have always been mocked for saying "lluVVVVVVVVia" and "burro" (imagine here the most tiny b). Maybe that difference exists now in Mexico, but then language is an ever-changing thing, isn't it?
    Couldn't find the post, or rather the one I found said there was no distinction in the pronunciation.
    By the by, I'm Argentinian and the Italian immigration had no effect whatsoever on B and V. It did have, however, an enormous impact on the way we speak. So much so that a study carried out a couple of years ago concluded that Rioplatense Spanish speakers had the same intonation as Neapolitans, a feature that set them (well, us) apart from the rest of the Spanish speaking world.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

    From Patricia Schiaffini (of Italian descent, but who grew up in Argentina) @ Ariadna:

    This is absolutely right, the Spanish of Buenos Aires sounds like Italian, even the gestures while speaking resemble those of southern Italians. I would say that Italian influence in Buenos Aires, at least, has been bigger than Spanish influence, even though Spanish is the main language.

  23. /df said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    Victor: "…[the name Procul Harum's] ultimate origin is unclear …"

    The quoted Wikipedia entry on Procul Harum misses the full story . In brief the name came from a pedigree cat whose Cat Fancy name was Procul Harun, Procul being the breeder's prefix.

    I'd always supposed that the namer remembered enough Latin to get the gender of an (understood) 'rerum' (gen pl res, thing, affair, etc) right even while using the genitive with procul instead of the ablative.

  24. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 30, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

    @Ariadna: Thanks for the comments. I don't think my Mexican friend actually pronounces "b" and "v" differently—he just thinks doing so is correct. Though come to think of it, he might distinguish between "nv" and "mb", which I believe is non-standard.

    The post I referred to was number 32. Here's what dov (whose name was Bernardo before he emigrated to Israel) said:

    Estoy totalmente confundido.

    Siempre supe que la letra V, llamada *ve* o *ve corta*, se pronuncia
    tocando con el labio superior el filo de los dientes inferiores; la letra B, llamada *be* o *be larga*, se pronuncia con los labios cerrados, y así nos enseñaron en el Buenos Aires, allí por los 50', sin ninguna afectación, y lo puedes escuchar en los tangos de entonces.
    Consulté el DRAE y el VOX (of-line) y de ahí mi sorpresa: nunca escuché el nombre UVE, y para colmo de males, dicen que no hay diferencia en la pronunciación, ni en España ni en Latinoamérica; que desgracia, parece que soy marciano, nomás.

    Si alguien tiene idea cuando y como se han producido estos cambios que me han convertido en marciano, le escucharé con toda mi atención.

  25. Alon said,

    April 20, 2012 @ 2:41 am

    @Jerry Friedman: your friend Dov/Bernardo is hypercorrecting. There has never been a /v/ phoneme in Spanish, not even in Old Castilian. The distinction between the written forms is preserved only on etymological grounds, although there are numerous cases in which incorrect etymological assumptions made at the time have led to inconsistencies (e.g., ‘barrer’ ← Latin ‘verrere’). The temptation to hypercorrect is quite understandable, though, when your native environment is populated by speakers of other languages (in this case, Yiddish) where the distinction is phonemic.

    @Ariadna: I've always found the use of [ɣ] for the intervocalic allophone of /g/ to be quite Castilian-centric. In Rioplatense there is no frication whatsoever in that consonant, which is clearly the approximant [ɰ].

RSS feed for comments on this post