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Seminars and Colloquia

Humanities and Social Sciences

Setting the World on Fire: Syphilis and Capsicum in Early Hindvi Vocabularies 
Fri, Mar 16, 2018,   12:00 PM to 01:00 PM at Seminar Room 24 (Main Building)

Prof. Walter Hakala
Associate Professor, SUNY (Buffalo)

Hindi-Persian vocabularies produced before and especially after the advent of Mughal-Timurid rule in South Asia document changes to the material culture of South Asia in the aftermath of European explorations of the New World—including the spread of syphilis and capsicum.  While one pre-Columbian vocabulary identifies the Persian atishak (literally denoting a ‘little fire’) as the firefly or glow worm, texts from the turn of the sixteenth century begin using the phrase atishak-i farangi (‘Little Fire of the Franks’) to describe the symptoms of syphilis.  With the introduction of New World chilies, the semantic range of Arabic-Persian filfil, like its English cognate pepper, expands to include the fruit of three plants—the long, round, and chili peppers—despite being derived from the Sanskrit pippali, denoting the now forgotten long pepper.  This paper will examine the ways in which these and other New World objects were re-situated as they were absorbed into, and glossed in, preexisting linguistic, medical, and material cultures.  Unlike more obviously literary works whose aesthetic framing of conventional literary themes (mazamin) often occlude direct views of underlying material realia, multilingual vocabularies provided a space in which unfamiliar terms denoting real things could be semantically equated with other, more familiar, objects and terms. 

Walter Hakala is an Associate Professor at SUNY Buffalo and specialises in the literature and languages of North India and Central Asia, their lexicography. He also works on the Mughal and early colonial history of South Asia.