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Baba ghanouj is a delicious Middle Eastern dip made from roast eggplant and garlic. I've found the name spelled a multitude of different ways on the internet, but there are two peculiar things about its pronunciation:

  1. The name is always spelled with "j" as the final consonant
  2. I've always heard the name pronounced with a final "sh" sound [ʃ]

How did this peculiar situation arise? The word is obviously borrowed, though I don't know the source language, yet it seems like any reasonable transliteration would use a symbol other than "j" for [ʃ].

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I dunno, I've always pronounced it /VEE-neh-tah/. :-) –  Marthaª Dec 9 '10 at 20:03
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For the record, I've never seen it spelled with a j. Always sh. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 9 '10 at 20:03
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@Mr. Shiny, Wikipedia actually has it under "ghanoush", but Google shows a similar number of results for both the -j and the -sh variants. In any case, the question about devoicing remains. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 9 '10 at 20:09

1 Answer 1

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The name "baba ghanouj" is Arabic, and is written differently depending on how you convert the Arabic script into English. Sometimes it is written with an "sh" instead of a "j".

The final consonant in "baba ghanouj" is ج ; in Arabic, this is usually pronounced [dʒ] (as in the English "j" sound) or [ʒ] (like "Jacques"). (In Egypt, this even gets a [g] pronunciation.) So, the "j" spelling of "baba ghanouj" reflects a certain standard transliteration of Arabic spelling. For some reason, the [dʒ] or [ʒ] was devoiced (a.k.a. neutralized) into [ʃ]. However, this is not normal in the common Arabic dialects that I am familiar with, so I seriously doubt that Arabic has anything to do with the cause.

In any case, final consonant devoicing occurs in a number of languages as a broad and general process, and occurs in many more languages in one-off instances from time to time. So, either the word originally came into English via another language that neutralized the final consonant, or we neutralized the final consonant ourselves. The most likely candidate to take an Arabic word, neutralize the final consonant and then pass it on to English? Turkish. (This is my educated guess.)

Short version: for some reason, the sound became devoiced, but the spelling with a "j" reflects Arabic spelling.

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Side note: we also pronounce the "gh" as a [g] sound, even though in Arabic it is pronounced like [ɣ], which is what the "gh" represents. So the word is reflecting Arabic orthography in two ways that are not retained in the English pronunciation. –  Kosmonaut Dec 10 '10 at 13:20
    
The two ways are a bit different, though. Since we don't have [ɣ] in English, there's not really any way it could avoid getting approximated to [g]. But we do have [ʒ], and even word-finally, so we could use that if wanted to. (Though I guess we don't have [ʒ] word-finally after short vowels - so if we didn't devoice it in baba ghanouj, maybe we'd end up lengthening the vowel to make it rhyme with eg rouge?) –  PLL Dec 26 '10 at 17:42
    
"Since we don't have [ɣ] in English, there's not really any way it could avoid getting approximated to [g]." Right, but since we borrowed the word into English, with Latin orthography, there was also no reason — in terms of pronunciation — to include the "h" at all in the spelling. The "gh" digraph is in the word only as a nod to the Arabic spelling, as a way to represent غ. –  Kosmonaut Dec 27 '10 at 1:19
    
@PLL We do have [ʒ] word-finally after short vowels, as you’d surely know if there were enough of an interior design in you that you regularly had to zhuzh things up. Incidentally, I’ve always heard and pronounced baba ghanouj pronounced with a final [ʒ], and a long [u] preceding it. I also pronounce it with a [ɣ], but I realise that’s probably just my own affectation. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 19 at 15:03

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