My wife and I were at a cooking class this evening – well, really a sitting, watching, listening, and eating “class” – and the menu was Indian. There was a rice dish (which the cook called pilaf but her husband, who was giving very interesting historical commentary, called pullao – they’re cognate words for the same thing). Of course the rice used was basmati.

Ah, basmati rice. The name is so obviously richly foreign: it ends in i, after all. It brings to mind Bangalore, Bombay, or maybe Basra, perhaps the blue-berobed Benazir Bhutto or maybe a baiser from Mata Hari. One may imagine being bathed in the steam arising from its warm surface, the /a/ an “ahhh”. Never mind automatic rice cookers and their plasmatic output; this is the base, this is what matters, this is the blessed beauty of good foreign-sounding high-quality rice. Just smell it – how fragrant it is. And look! I’ll tell you, I could see at twenty feet that it was basmati rice, with those long, elegant grains.

But when the cook said basmati, I noticed how she said it. Now, how do you say it? Probably with stress on the second syllable and the s voiced. The cook, being originally from India, said (in her high, always-smiling voice) /ba:s ma ti:/ – that is, with the stress on the first syllable and the s as actually [s], voiceless. She also said the first and last vowels longer than the middle one, which would seem like a matter of course for such a stress pattern in English but is actually a phonemic distinction in Hindi.

The Hindi word bāsmatī means “fragrant”. It’s the name for that kind of rice, because it’s fragrant. I find that the word, pronounced the Hindi way, has a bit of a different feel from the usual English way, in part because of the voiceless [s], which is like a soft hiss of steam, and in part because of the strong “boss” replacing the weak “buzz”. But also because it makes me think of the similar-sounding Russian word посмотри posmotri, which I know only because it’s used in the song “Moskau” by Rammstein. As it happens, while bāsmatī refers to the smell, posmotri means “look!”

One response to “basmati

  1. Balsam’ is cognate with ‘Basmati’!
    Find it in Exodus 30:23, pronounced first as ‘bessem’, then as ‘bossem’, the usual modern pronunciation for the modern Hebrew word for scent as in Chanel # 5.The accent is always on the first syllable.

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