BAM (1)


BAM (also written bām) “bass,” the lowest-pitched string in music. The seventeenth-century dictionary Borhān-e qāṭeʿ states s.v. bām that “people also say tār-e bām (the low string), which is the thick string set in musical instruments.” The New Persian word bam has been borrowed in Arabic as bamm and in Armenian as bamb. The contrary of bam is zīr (variant zīl) “treble.”

The explanation given by the present writer (and offered by him for discussion several years ago) is that the two terms refer to the way in which the performer’s fingers pluck the strings—from below for a high note and from above for a low note. NPers. zīr is derived from Mid. Pers. az ēr and OPers. *hača adari “from below.” NPers. bam is from Mid. Pers. *apam < OPers. *upama “highest.” Likewise in ancient Greek music hē hypatē (chordē) “the highest (string)” designated the lowest-pitched string, and conversely hē neatē or netē “the last” or “deepest” designated the highest-pitched string (W. Eilers, Die vergleichend-semasiologische Methode in der Orientalistik, Abh. Mainzer Akad. Wiss., 1973, pp. 62f.).

There are grounds to suppose that bam keeps its original meaning of “high” or “highest” in many names of places in the southeast of Iran. The following list is taken from Razmārā, Farhang VIII and IX: Bam, Bampūr/Bambūr, Bambūyān, Bam-moḡān (see Eilers, Das Volk der Makā, AMI Ergänzungsband 10, Berlin, 1983, p. 114), Bamrūd, and, with bam as the suffix, Āhūbam, Dehnowbam, Salūbam. There are also some place-names with the lengthened form bam: Kalātabām, Bām-čenār, Bām(a)kān (in the province of Yazd). All are settlements or localities in mountainous country.

NPers. bām “roof” is generally thought to be derived from OPers. *pāna “shelter,” but the Mid. Pers. form bān “roof” (e.g., in the Frahang ī Pahlavīk) has initial b and could well be a variant of bām “high.” Just as bam “lowest-pitched string” has the attested variant bām, so might OPers. *upama have had a lengthened form *upāma (cf. OInd. katama “which” and NPers. kodām). The form bān found in Pahlavi and some dialects might thus be a secondary offshoot of bām.

The word bām under discussion here must not be confused with bām “radiance” found in NPers. bāmdād “dawn, morning,” in Mid. Pers. bamī “glowing” (root bhā-), and in geographical names such as Bāmīān “belonging to radiant (Balḵ)” and the widespread mountain name Kūh-e Bāmū, which (like Kūh-e Ṣabā) means “mountain in the sunrise,” i.e., in the east.

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بم   bam     

(W. Eilers)

Originally Published: December 15, 1988

Last Updated: December 15, 1988