"Sound" at the center, "horn" at the periphery: the shawm and its eastern cousins, part 2

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For a good example of how music and musical instruments, together with the words to designate them, could travel long distances in antiquity, we have already taken a look at the case of the shawm:  "The shawm and its eastern cousins" (11/16/15).  Since writing that post nearly seven years ago, a few more interesting facts about the shawm family have come to light, so it's time to revisit this raucous instrument.

I first encountered this melodic noisemaker in the guise of the Chinese suǒnà 嗩吶.  Inasmuch as the Sinographic form has two mouth radicals, that could be to emphasize that it has to do with making sounds, which is definitely true, but that might also indicate that it is a transcription of a foreign word, which is certainly the case.  The latter is underscored by the fact that it has the variant orthographic form with a metal radical on the first character:  鎖吶.

So where did the suona come from, and how did it get to China?  By investigating suona's linguistic ancestry, we can get a pretty good idea of the route by which it came to the Middle Kingdom.

Wiktionary says that Sinitic suona was borrowed from Persian sornâ سورنا‎.

And whence cometh Persian sornâ سورنا‎?

Borrowed from an unknown Indo-European cognate of Luwian (zurni, horn), Sanskrit शृङ्ग (ṡṛṅga, horn), Latin cornū, English horn, probably ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *ḱerh₂- (though Kloekhorst disagrees). Folk etymology explains the word as سور(sur, banquet, feast) + نای(nây, pipe, flute, nay)



There is our Sinitic suona at the bottom of the list.

Ultimately, these words are related to English "horn":

Old English horn "horn of an animal; projection, pinnacle," also "wind instrument" (originally one made from animal horns), from Proto-Germanic *hurni- (source also of German Horn, Dutch horen, Old Frisian horn, Gothic haurn), from PIE root *ker- (1) "horn; head."


Now, back to tracing the roots of "shawm":

In English the name first appears in the 14th century. There were originally three main variant forms, (1) schallemele (shamulle or shamble), (2) s(c)halmys (shalemeyes or chalemyes, all plural forms in Middle English), and (3) sc(h)almuse (or schalmesse), each derived from a corresponding variant in Old French: chalemel, chalemie, and chalemeaux (the plural of chalemel), each in turn derived from the Latin calamus ('reed'), or its Vulgar Latin diminutive form, calamellus. (The name of a somewhat different reed instrument, the chalumeau, also shares this etymology.) The early plural forms were often mistaken for a singular, and new plurals were formed from them. The later reduction in the 15th and 16th centuries to a single syllable in forms such as schalme, shaume, shawme, and finally (in the 16th century) shawm, was probably due to this confusion of plural and singular forms.

In German the shawm is called Schalmei (or for the larger members of the family Bombard—also in English in the 14th century—later corrupted to Bombhardt and finally in the 17th century to Pommer).This is borne out by the very similar names of many folk shawms used as traditional instruments in various European nations: in Spain, many traditional shawms with different names can be found, such as the Castilian, Aragonese, and Leonese dulzaina (sometimes called chirimía, a term that derives from the same Old French word as shawm); the Valencian and Catalan shawms (xirimia, dolçaina, or gralla) or the Navarrese gaita.[what language is this?] In Portugal there is an instrument called charamela; and the name of the Italian shawm is ciaramella (or: cialamello, cennamella).

However, it is also possible that the name comes from the Arabic salamiya (سلامية‎), a traditional oboe from Egypt, as the European shawm seems to have been developed from similar instruments brought to Europe from the Near East during the time of the Crusades. This Arabic name is itself linguistically related to many other Eastern names for the instrument: the Arabic zamr, the Turkish zūrnā, the Persian surnāy, the Chinese suona, the Javanese saruni, and the Hindu sahanai or sanayi.


Stephen Jones has a virtuoso article onShawms around the world” (8/20/21).  He also has a book concentrating on shawms in North China:

Jones, Stephen (2007). Ritual and Music of North China: Shawm Bands in Shanxi Province. SOAS Musicology Series. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing.

Now, I have to confess that the real reason for my writing this particular post at this particular time is that I used the word "sonata" in a long book review I'm writing as a metaphor for the quality of the book.  As soon as I saw the word "sonata" written down on the page, it made me think of "suona", I stopped writing the book review and turned to this post.

Sonata (/səˈnɑːtə/; Italian: [soˈnaːta], pl. sonate; from Latin and Italian: sonare [archaic Italian; replaced in the modern language by suonare], "to sound"), in music, literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata (Latin and Italian cantare, "to sing"), a piece sung.


From Italian sonata, from the feminine past participle of sonare (modern suonare), from Latin sonāre (to make sound).


[Italian, from feminine past participle of sonare, to sound, from Latin sonāre; see swen- in Indo-European roots.]


To sound.

(oldest form *swenh2).
1. Suffixed o-grade form *swon-o-.
a. swan1 from Old English swan, swan, from Germanic *swanaz, *swanōn-, "singer";
b. sone, sonic, sonnet, sound1; unison from Latin sonus, a sound.
2. Basic variant form *swenə-. sonant, sonata, sonorous; assonance, consonant, dissonant, resound from Latin sonāre, to sound.

[Pokorny su̯en- 1046.]

(American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition)


also swenə-, Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to sound." 

It forms all or part of: assonance; consonant; dissonant; resound; sonant; sonata; sone; sonic; sonnet; sonogram; sonorous; sound (n.1) "noise, what is heard;" sound (v.1) "to be audible;" swan; unison.

It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit svanati "it sounds," svanah "sound, tone;" Latin sonus "sound, a noise," sonare "to sound;" Old Irish senim "the playing of an instrument;" Old English geswin "music, song," swinsian "to sing;" Old Norse svanr, Old English swan "swan," properly "the sounding bird."


Thus I was misled by the superficial resemblance between "sonata" and "suona".  The two are completely unrelated.  Nonetheless, it has been a productive exercise, and I have learned a lot about the relationship between sound and sound-maker.

Having completed this post on sonata and suona, it is time for me to go back to the book review, which is about information science.  This has been a most pleasant divertissement.


Selected readings


  1. Gene Anderson said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 1:40 pm

    One need only add that the oboe is a "high wood" (haut bois) shawm, the bassoon is "low sound" (bas son) shawm. Shawms and nackers, shawms and small drums (Arabic word), remain the classic ceremonial combo from east Europe to Korea (where I was just watching them played at changing of the guard ceremonies at Seoul palaces). They remain universal in the Middle East and India.

  2. CuConnacht said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 2:44 pm

    While shawm didn’t make it into Arabic as the name of a musical instrument, the root, Greek kalamos, does appear in Arabic as qalam, قلم = pen, with Ge'ez käläm as a probably intermediary. And from Arabic it got into Persian and Urdu.

  3. Rod Johnson said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 5:14 pm

    Burmese နှဲ hnè comes through Mon, I think, and ultimately from Persian.

    (Oh, I see I already said that here.)

  4. Chris Button said,

    August 19, 2022 @ 7:53 pm

    @ Rod Johnson

    That makes good sense. The -e vowel reflects earlier -aj too.

  5. martin schwartz said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 2:40 am

    It is unclear which what Kloekhorst disagrees: the borrowing
    from Persian sūrnā (sic recte) or Luwian zurni as cognate with
    Eng. horn etc. Mention should be made of Alan Nussbaum's
    Head and Horn in Indo-European. I don't know what to do with
    Greek syrinx (surigks), which surely has nought to do with 'horn'.
    One should have a look at "Oxus trumpet" in Encyclopaedia
    Iranica online, though if Av. sußra- (suvra-) is indeed 'trumpet'
    as per Duchesne-Guillemin (I have my doubts), it surely is not
    related to Avestan srū- 'horn' cognate of Eng. horn etc.), for which Perisan has surū, surūn, which may perhaps metafthetically explain the sūr-element of Pers. sūrnā(y), from which the z- Turkish and then Balkan words proceed; note however Ukrainian surma 'trumpet'.
    There is also the wind instrument(s) called in Mod. Greek
    souravlí from Anc. aulos 'flute'. According to Babiniotis, the first element is a variant of the syr- of syrinx.
    Martin Schwartz

  6. martin schwartz said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 2:49 am

    On a purely jocular note, in ref. to Language Log's discussion of
    the giraffe word, perhaps sūrnā originally refer to the leg-bone of a giraffe used as a musical instrument, cf. Lat. tibia 'leg-bone, flute'.
    And (seriously, now) Catullus' "tibicen canat Phryx gravo calamo" vel sim. remind me (@CuConnacht) that Greek kalamos 'reed'
    was likely borrowed directly into Arabic as qalam, one of various such technical loans, rather via Ge'ez intermediation, which is inherently unlikely.
    Martin Schwartz

  7. martin schwartz said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 3:02 am

    p.s. I cannot imagine a route of transmission across the many centuries for Luw. zurni (which I know can mean 'drinking horn')
    yielding the words under discussion.
    The Latin verse I quoted has ubi as second word. which I accidentally omitted.
    Martin Schwartz

  8. maidhc said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 3:30 am

    To complicate things, there are a couple of different instruments made of animal horns, without using reeds. One is an instrument of the trumpet kind, which can also be made from conch shells and various similarly shaped objects. The other is an instrument more along the lines of a recorder, usually known as a gemshorn.

    There are a couple of instruments usually called trumpets, found in ancient Egyptian tombs. In the 1930s the BBC recruited a famous trumpeter to play one, but the mouthpiece was far wider than any modern trumpet. So there was some kind of kludge set up to mount a modern mouthpiece in the ancient trumpet, which apparently resulted in the ancient instrument being damaged. Although the BBC got their program, it probably doesn't tell you much, and nobody has tried since.

    Some ancient metal instruments have been found in Irish bogs, now in the National Museum. No one knew how they were played, but apparently it was Rolf Harris who suggested that they may have been played like a digeridoo. Some recordings have been made on replica instruments.

    Syrinx comes from a Greek myth about a nymph Syrinx who was pursued by the god Pan and transformed into reeds, from which he fashioned panpipes. But panpipes are made from much larger reeds, and you blow across the top. Nowadays they are mostly made of bamboo.

    The aulos was an instrument played in ancient Greece. It had a double pipe. References I've found say it had a single or double reed. So that's like saying "Who knows?" A single reed is like a saxophone or clarinet, a double reed is like an oboe, bombard or shawm. Not the same thing at all.

    Looking at existing folk instruments, I think there is a good argument that double reed instruments came into Europe during the Crusades, based on Asian examples. Single reed instruments, I really don't know.

  9. Chris Button said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 6:15 am

    @ Rod Johnson

    I thought I’d check Hla Pe (1967) for the Mon loan into Burmese and, sure enough, it’s there. He further notes an ultimate Sanskrit and Persian parentage. He dates the loan to the 15th century.

  10. Martin Schwartz said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 3:42 pm

    @maidhc: Gimme a break. The myth about the nymph follows from the instrument syrinx, which has the same suffix as Gr. salpinx
    'trumpet', phorminx 'a kind of lyre', among instruments whose names are foreign. Such foundation myths are common;
    cf. the baby Hermes beckoning tortoise to come over to Hermes' crib for an immortal voice, and Hermes making the hapless critter into a lyre. I wonder if there was an origin myth for charangas made of armadillos.
    Martin Schwartz

  11. David Deden said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 5:09 pm

    This word shawm/suona is remarkable to me, being similar to a "paleo-keyword" I have worked on for years, 'xyuambua'*, at googlegroups sci.lang, under the scorn of linguists et al. I won't detail my quest here, but I associate the term with sieve, quaff, chamber, kufa/coracle/kyphos/cup (drinking horn) etc. I haven't checked the links yet to find what a shawm actually is. Might there be an etymological link to 'swan' via the long syrinx of the trumpeter swan? And to the cornet (I once played)? Quite curious indeed. Thanks!
    *Xyuambuatlachyah long form arid climate,
    *njambuangdualua long form humid climate

  12. David Deden said,

    August 20, 2022 @ 9:43 pm

    Greek kalamos 'reed', probable source of 'shawm'. Hmm, just coincidental resemblance. Perhaps also source of calumet, and possible distant relative to Dakota chanunpa, smoking pipe of reed & bowl.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 6:05 am

    For Nepali kalam ("pen"), see "Learn Nepali" (9/21/16).

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 6:25 am

    Transmission by stages / intermediaries

    Things, ideas, words travel by stages, even / especially on the Silk Road and its predecessors, as Valerie Hansen has demonstrated in her many books and articles.

  15. Otonymous bbd said,

    August 21, 2022 @ 1:23 pm

    Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u3jm97RWcvg something to corroborate the post and may entertain many…

    A guy using his own voice to mimic a sorna, playing Indian music “Lumbini forest"!!! This is amazing!

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