Wednesday 11 March 2009


A ghazal is
“a species of Oriental lyric poetry, generally of an erotic nature, distinguished from other forms of Eastern verse by having a limited number of stanzas and by the recurrence of the same rhyme.” (OED)
It is found in the literature of Persian, Urdu and other south Asian cultures.

And how do we pronounce it? It’s not in any of our three pronunciation dictionaries. The OED says it’s ˈgæzæl. But the OBGP gives “guz-ul /ˈgʌzʌl/”. So it’s one of those words like pandit/pundit, in which an a-like vowel in a foreign language, or a ə-like vowel of Hindi/Urdu, can be mapped either onto æ, following the spelling, or onto ʌ, following the pronunciation in the language of origin.

What about the initial gh spelling? We pronounce it g in English, as in ghost, ghastly and ghoul, but what is it in the source language(s)?
As far as I know it is not a voiced-aspirated Hindi/Urdu plosive such as we find in the words ghat, dhobi, Bharat. Rather, it is a voiced velar fricative, ɣ (or perhaps somewhat further back, as far as ʁ). In Arabic script the word is written غزل and in Devanagari ग़ज़ल. Both غ and ग़ stand for ɣ. (I am sure someone will write to tell me if I have got this wrong.)
All this musing is prompted by the comment in Wikipedia that
The Arabic word "ghazal" is pronounced roughly like the English word "guzzle", but with the first, g-like consonant further back in the throat.
This is unfortunately a piece of phonetic ignorance: the gh-sound might be “further back in the throat” than g (though that is not necessarily the case). But the important thing is that it’s not a plosive but a fricative. How do we explain that in a way that would be meaningful for the layman?

Here’s part of an English-language ghazal from Wikipedia.
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?
Those “Fabrics of Cashmere—” “to make Me beautiful—”
“Trinket”— to gem– “Me to adorn– How– tell”— tonight?
I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates–
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.
God’s vintage loneliness has turned to vinegar–
All the archangels– their wings frozen– fell tonight.
Lord, cried out the idols, Don’t let us be broken
Only we can convert the infidel tonight.
Mughal ceilings, let your mirrored convexities
multiply me at once under your spell tonight.


  1. "But the important thing is that it’s not a plosive but a fricative. How do we explain that in a way that would be meaningful for the layman?"

    I recommend asking the layman to make a "hard G" sound, then saying, "Now do it while letting more air come through."

    I've had success with this technique at bakeries and sandwich shops when the sales assistant doesn't know how to pronounce "challah" properly - although of course the unfamiliar consonant in that case is [k], "but with more air coming through" to produce [x].

    (I pronounce "challah" with the uvular [X], but [x] is close enough. Beats hearing it pronounced as "holly.")

    You'd be surprised at how quickly people catch on.

    (I also tell new clients that "x" is the universal symbol for "hairball." Just imitate a cat coughing one up.)

  2. As an Indian, I feel the sound [g] in ghazal as a fricative, but not as a stop. It is same with karma: [k] as a fricative, like [k] in worker.

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  4. It took me till the last part of your post to realize that this word might actually be pronounce with the same [X] i use all day -- I'm a Dutchman.

    @Amy Stoller :
    Love your hairball remark!

  5. I think it would be fair to say that the ghazal achieved its greatest stature in Persian literature (particularly in the poetry, or Divan, of Hafez). "Erotic nature"? Hmm. A more exact description would emphasize the interplay between the mystical & the ostensibly amatory/disreputable subject matter.

    The chief phonetic interest of the word's pronunciation in modern (Iranian) Persian (ie Farsi) is that in isolation or phrase-initially the "gh" is pronounced [G\], lower-cap G in IPA, the rather rare voiced uvular plosive. With a preceding vowel this becomes the standard fricative [G]. These allophones are not, of course, unique to the word "ghazal", but rather a basic feature of Persian phonology. The letter Qaf (as in the town of Qom) is not distinguished from Gheyn in (standard Tehran) Farsi, & therefore exhibits the same allophonic behaviour.

    (Writing this on a steam computer, so can't access the fancy fonts for Persian & IPA ...)

  6. If it's any consolation, I've corrected the Wikipedia entry. I said that the initial sound is like /g/ but "without a complete closure between the tongue and the soft palate".

  7. vey nice information



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  9. as you have said that GHazal is generally erotic...that is wrong you can say it romantic in nature and in INDIA, trend of ghazal is entirly changed poets are selecting social topics for GHazals..

  10. I am a very fluent arabic speaker.
    first of all the /g/ sound you are talking about, is exactly /r/ sound found in french. if your able to describe that, then this is what your looking for. hope it helps

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