kyabuka, kiabooca

How do you pronounce kyabuka?

How about kiabooca?

Are you sure?

You get that they’re two spellings of the same thing, of course. But what thing, now?

I’m watching the Oscars and drinking sparking wine right now (Santa Julia, from Argentina, a Champagne-tasting $15 bottle), so I’m going to mess with you a bit more. How do you pronounce Genghis Khan?

Yeah, maybe not. Kahlil Gibran?

Yeah no.

Here’s the thing. English expectations regarding pronunciation of non-English names, including transliteration of non-English names, have changed very much over the last century. Back when Kahlil Gibran was writing, a name pronounced /d͜ʒɪbran/, which we would now render as Jibran, was automatically spelled Gibran, because g was used for that sound before high front vowels, just as was the rule in English spelling. And the name that was really more like “chingis” but was taken as “jingis” was spelled with a g as well.

And then we started to be more aware of how other languages spelled things, and – more to the point – more accommodating of it, and everything changed. Except for spellings that were already established. Which we have come to reinterpret according to our current standards, where, in non-English names, g is always /g/ regardless of what it’s before.

Obviously kiabooca is an old-style English spelling. But while kyabuka looks really “foreign,” with its double k’s and that additional angular y – so stylish – it, too, relies on an old-style convention. If we were to borrow in this word today, we would take it straight from Malay, which, after all, is spelled (now) with the Latin alphabet. We would spell it kayu-buku. In Malay, kayu means ‘tree’, and buku means ‘knot’. If it grew in England we’d call it knotwood. It’s a tree that’s very knotty. It makes a nice ornamental wood.

But the problem of representing in English spelling what those who first wrote it down were hearing – after all, the phoneme we represent as /u/ doesn’t sound the same in all places in all languages – was also knotty. Other recorded spellings since it was first written in English in the early 1800s include kiabouka, kiabuca, kyabuca, and kyaboka. What do they all have in common? They all spell /aɪ/ as i or y rather than as ay. They spell it assuming the English “long i” – which is particular to English and came about as the result of the Great Vowel Shift in the 1400s and 1500s, before which English pronounced “long i” just like in, for instance, machine.

The spelling is very ornamental, of course. So many ways of putting it down. English is a bit knotty that way, eh? Or naughty, anyway. Well, it wood be.

Oh, did you want to know more about kyabuka wood? Here’s a bit from Edward Balfour’s 1885 Cyclopedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia:

The kyaboka wood of commerce is brought from Ceram, N. Guinea, the Aru and other islands of the Moluccas, to Singapore, being much esteemed as a fancy or ornamental wood for cabinet-work. Of late years its estimation seems to have decreased in Europe, but it is still much valued by the Chinese, and is sold by weight. It is sawn off in slabs from 2 to 4 feet long and 2 to 8 inches thick. It resembles the burr of the yew. It is used for making small boxes, writing-desks, and other fancy ornamental work. It is tolerably hard, and full of small curls and knots ; the colour is from orange to chesnut-brown, and sometimes red brown.

2 responses to “kyabuka, kiabooca

  1. i/y/ay etc raises an interesting shift I’ve noticed in popular spelling, mainly in social media but also in advertising, for example. Eh, as in “not bad, eh?” is often appearing as “aye”. The first few times I ran across it I was baffled, till younger folks put me right. Then I started encountering “yea” — intended to be pronounced “yeah”. I guess aye and yea in their earlier senses have simply fallen off the radar, being little used …or are we seeing emerge a generation of folk who write more than they read, and read mainly what they and their peers write?

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