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!”