Friday, December 14, 2007

To the Moon

NASA has given a name to the vehicle it plans to shoot into the sky for America's proud return to the moon. The name is -- gasp -- Arabic.

Altair means, "the flying one" in Arabic.

Well, sort of. But you can bet someone somewhere is ginning up a blog post tonight titled "NASA's dhimmitude."

Fact is, most of the stars you can see in the sky at night in the city or suburbs have names. And most of them are mangled out of Arabic into some generic European form. Altair, for instance, is what's left of Al Nasr al Tair, the full Arabic name, which means "the Flying Eagle." The tair is the participle of the verb tara "it flew."

[The constellation it's in is one of the few where the star pattern actually looks like the thing it purports to be -- an eagle with wings spread. But you have to be able to see the fourth magnitude starts to hold it together, and they usually get washed out unless you're in a dark place.]

The star names got so deformed on the way from one language to another, I doubt most Arabic speakers would recognize them. Arabic Ibt al Jauzah, the name of the star that forms the right shoulder of Orion, means "the Armpit of the Central One." By the time the word got to English, it had become "Betelgeuse."

But the names aren't even originally Arabic. They're translations of the ancient Greek names in Claudius Ptolemy's catalogue. The path from Greek through Arabic to English is yet another reflection of the way ancient scientific culture was preserved and transmitted by Islamic scholars when it was lost in Europe in the Dark Ages.

When the Europeans began to recover the star lore from the Arabs, they had to struggle with the language. Greek was still obscure, so there was no possibility of re-translating them out of Arabic. It would have to be done directly, from one language to the other, in spite of the lack of proper corresponding letters and sounds.

Perhaps a monk and an Arab scholar sat down together and the Arabic-speaker read down the list while the European, quill in hand, did his best to render the sounds he heard in the language he knew. Perhaps a single speaker of both Latin and Arabic (perhaps a Jew of Andalusia) undertook the thing on his own, as a lark. Their names and faces are lost to us, but they must have been there.

By the same method of whisper-down-the-lane, the Arabic mathematical book titled Kitab al-Jabr w'al-Muqabala, "Rules of Reintegration and Reduction," ended up as "algebra."