Is there a word in English for the snake-charmer's instrument?

The been, that is. Here’s a linky:

Surely flute is too non-specific, right? Also, various recorders look a lot like pictures of snake-charmers unless you get close enough to see all the differences. Fifes are usually more transverse (played off to the side rather than down in front), but that might also work as a substitute name.

If you had walked up to me and said “Have you ever seen an Indian snake charmer?” I would most likely say “You mean the guy with the flute?”

Hope that helps a little. It can’t be much.

It’s a reed instrument, so it’s not a flute or a recorder, neither of which use reeds.

It uses a fixed beating reed with an air reservoir, so the closest Western equivalent would be to a bagpipe, but it’s not a bagpipe, if you define bagpipe as “a pipe with a bag”. The empty gourd fulfills the same function of air reservoir as the bagpipe’s bag.

Question: why does it need an English name? Why not just call it what it is, which is a pungi? We don’t try to find English names for instruments like the oud and the bouzouki–why for the pungi? (Not meaning to sound pissy, I assume you were just curious. :slight_smile: )

All the websites I looked at said that “bin” is not the correct name for it, BTW, being a corruption of “vina”. All the Indian folk music websites use “pungi”.

It’s a reed, so members of the flute family aren’t a real good match for it. This site calls it a “bungi” rather than a “pungi” and lists it as a “clarinet variation”:

The clarinet is probably the standard orchestral instrument best capable of imitating it, or rather, two clarinets, one with the boring job of playing the drone pipe part.

I think if we had an urgent need to refer to the thing in English all the time we would simply take “punji” as a loan word.

It may be that many uninformed people (like me) just never think to look for more precision in the names of musical instruments, but if you enter “snake charmer flute” into a Yahoo! search you get over 40,000 hits. Some of them mention been as being the more proper term, but if the typical English-speaking person on the street (the type Jay Leno learns don’t know the current President’s name or gender) were asked to name the tootling thing snake charmers blow at snakes, I bet the Family Feud #1 answer would be flute.

Well, the term for the “flute” part of the bagpipes is chanter, so that is what I would call the instrument you mention.

Heh, adding, either chanter shawm or “reed flute” is what I’d call it.

Even if “been” is not the correct term for it< I think I will stick with it. I think if I said “phungi” around the people I normally say it, they either wouldn’t recognize it or look at me like :dubious:. We’ve always called it *been, *and probably will continue to do so, even in the face of a million experts. looks sheepish We’re stubborn like that.

And I’ve always heard North Indians who sometimes are and sometimes are not music professionals refer to it as been. Hindi is my first language, and I’ve not heard the other term.

As for why in English, I was just wondering. No real reason. Mostly because no one knows what it is, if I use its real name. I was wondering if there was a more accepted term in the Western world…being that I live there!

“reed flute” sounds rather oxymoronic, given the standard taxonomy of instruments in western music (flute = a specific instrument or a general class of reedless woodwinds such as piccolos or recorders), but it does seem to be an accepted term for referring to this sort of instrument when encountered in other cultures. Go ahead and call it a “reed flute” if you like, I guess. That would be a large class of instruments. I suspect you still need to use the Indian name as a loan word if you want to be more specific.

Isn’t “pungi” or “been” good enough? There’s no English word for lots of ethnic instruments.

Chandra and David (the OP’s link) were at one point my teachers. Nice people, been to their house many times and played out with David a bunch too. I’m even on one of their albums.

edwino, guest sitar player.

Many years ago, my music tecaher told us that one of the flute’s characteristics was that you blow over it, rather than into it, which makes it unlike a recorder. I wouldn’t know how to classify a recorder then.

I’ve seen recorders defined as a type of “end blown flute” often enough that I’m willing to just go along with it. The term “fipple flute” appears to apply also:

I suspect different sources will yield different ideas as to what exactly constitutes a “flute”. The wiki article classifies an ocarine as a “vessel flute”:

Thw wiki article on “flute” admits a broad classification:

I’d call it a type of shawm.

I have no idea what a “real” middleeastern snake charmer would use, but most of the examples provided by Hollywood have used a bagpiper’s practice chanter. Same finger hole spacing but plays a lot quieter and an octave lower than a pipe chanter, due to straight rather than tapered bore.

The Hobson-Jobson Anglo-Indian dictionary is a good place to look for answers to “What is the English word for [this specifically Indian thing known in the colonial period].” Searchable online at Hobson-Jobson. I couldn’t find anything in a quick search, but maybe someone with more of a clue about instruments could.

Zabali_Clawbane and yBeayf are correct that the generic name for this type of instrument in English is shawm. “Clarinet” usually refers to the specific instrument of European design by that name, while “shawm” could be an instrument from anywhere in the world that shares a similar design. Likewise, the generic name for oboe-like instruments around the world is hautboy. For violin-like instruments: fiddle. For drums around the world: membranophone.

The article linked by Anaamika says the word bin comes from Sanskrit vina. It seems obvious because in Hindi the change of Sanskrit v > Hindi b is a regular sound shift. However, the etymology in the Oxford Hindi Dictionary, while it points out that bin is a regular Hindi variant for the stringed instrument vina, derives the homonym bin meaning the double shawm from a different Sanskrit word, venu. Both words share the retroflex /n/, which is probably how they got confused.

Venu means ‘a bamboo, reed, cane; a flute, fife, pipe’. The web page’s author is mistaken. The original word for the bin meant reed or flute, not stringed instrument. The word venu probably altered its vowel from e to i because it became assimilated to the vina, the more prestigious instrument with a similar sounding name. The origin of the name vina is “of doubtful derivation” according to the Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary.

The word phunkni comes from the Hindi verb phunkna meaning ‘to be blown’.The Oxford Hindi Dictionary gave three meanings for it: 1. a bamboo or metal blowing-tube (for a fire). 2. a bellows. 3. colloq. obs. a pistol. Nothing about being a musical instrument. Maybe this word is used for the shawm thingy in another related modern Indo-Aryan language.

As for this specific instrument the bin or phunkni, if it needs a different name in English, what about the sitar, vina, tanpura, tabla, mrdangam, etc.?

While I was at it, I looked up how to say violin, piano, cello, etc. in Hindi. Guess what. Hindi uses the English names for these.

Sorry, I was wrong about phunkni, I thought it might be close because it means a blowpipe. I looked for it under ph- because Anaamika spelled it that way. (In Devanagari writing, <p> and <ph> are two different letters.)

Then I found pungi, which the dictionary says is a variant of paungi. OK, so I flipped the pages till I found paungi: a pipe; snake-charmer’s pipe or drone. The definition it gives for bin (the reed variety) says: Snake-charmer’s flute, made from a gourd. There are your answers to the OP, Mika.

Pungi Page with sound file link

I wrote to the web site owner and got this E-mail in response today.

Dear Johanna

Thank you VERY much. This makes much more sense.

I have corrected the page.


David Courtney


Due to Presidential Executive Orders, the National Security Agency
may have read this email without warning, warrant, or notice; and
certainly without probable cause. They may do this without any
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Woodwind player’s nitpick:

A shawm, ancestor of the oboe, has a double reed that you insert directly into your mouth. A pungi has the reed isolated at the end of the air chamber (the gourd), and the player’s mouth never comes anywhere near it; you blow into the gourd and the reed at the other end of it vibrates. The two are similar only in that they both utilize reeds, but they’re as different as an oboe and a harmonica.