You'll be surprised at the source and influence these Arabic words have
Illustrations: Zain Mullah
By Ennis Jalal
Culture 12 February 2018
Whether you’re an Arab who speaks Arabic fluently, an Arab who understands but doesn’t speak the language or a non-Arab who only knows a few words that have filtered their way into mainstream society, we are about to surprise you.
To start off it’s worth noting that Arabic is an Ancient language, alongside Latin and Ancient Greek and yet unlike the latter two it is still spoken today by over 400 million people. Arabic is also one of the six official languages of the UN and the fifth most spoken language in the world.
It’s also common knowledge that Arabic is a diglossic language. This means it has two modes of communication. A higher or formal written Arabic called فصحى / fus-ha, and a less formal spoken Arabic called عامية / ‘aamiya used for speaking in one of six main dialects or many other sub dialects.
The Arabic alphabet is not actually an alphabet at all but something called an أبجد / abjad, a set of letters comprising 28 consonants. Other markers and symbols are placed around a word to form vowels.
All of these things you may know, and yet there are much simpler concepts in Arabic that you may not know. Basic words can have a much deeper meaning making them culturally, conceptually and grammatically incredibly interesting and amusing.
Once you know their source and influence, the meanings of these next five words will change your understanding of their definition, making them mean much more to you.
Hello / Welcome
One of many simple ways to say hello in Arabic, this version is made up of two words أهلا / ahlan و / and سهلا sahlan. أهلا / ahlan comes from the word أهل / ahil meaning people or more specifically kin, while سهلا / sahlan comes from سهل / sahil meaning easy or simple, among many other definitions and variations. So what this welcoming greeting traditionally means when said to someone is, be at ease, you are with kin / family.
Something / Unknown
The word شيء / shay’, or when coupled with the definite article ال / al, meaning ‘the’ in Arabic الشيء / al-shay’ – the unknown, is a very simple word with no secret or hidden meaning. What is extraordinary about this word is its history. What it was used for and how it was used throughout the ages, had a substantial impact in Europe and subsequently the rest of the world.
During the middle ages, when mathematics and science flourished due to Arab scholars developing different theories and systems, such as الجبر / al-jabbra, (which became algebra) the word الشيء / al-shay was used extensively within mathematical texts containing explanations and definitions to describe ‘the unknown’ most likely a number being put through an equation or defined within a rule.
This wisdom was passed into Europe and was translated into the language of the region, Spanish. However, the sound ‘sh’ does not exist nor was there any character that could represent this word or sound in Spanish. So translators and transcribers dropped the word الشيء / al-shay and instead adopted the ‘k’ sound from classical Greek with its letter kai ϗ.
After some time when this information was translated throughout the rest of Europe into the more common European language, Latin, this letter was replaced from the Greek kai ϗ into the Latin x. After all the mathematic material was translated into Latin, it formed the basis of all mathematical teaching and books until this day. The reason we use x in maths and the reason x in popular culture means ‘the unknown’ is because الشيء / al-shay’ in Arabic means some-thing.
The word for heart in Arabic is قلب / qalb, which comes from the root ق/ل/ب / q/l/b associated with the idea of turning over or flipping. The reason that heart comes from this root and meaning is because metaphorically speaking our hearts are in a constant state of turning over, whether it be our emotions or opinions or making decisions. Rather than describing our hearts as physical organs with the purpose of pumping blood throughout our bodies, Arabs rather used the poetic or emotional qualities to describe our hearts.
Most non Arabs know the most common Arabic word for love حب / hob only once it was used to refer to someone specific, turning it into the word حبيب / habib meaning darling. And moreover when the possessive suffix ي / i, meaning ‘my’ is attached to form the word habibi, my darling. What most people don’t know is that the root of the word حب / hob is ح/ب/ب and an entirely different word formed from this same root, which looks identical to love is حب but pronounced hab, literally meaning seed. The reason the two are related is because they can both be defined as: that which has the potential to grow into something beautiful.
Any definition of Arab on the Internet will say something along the lines of, a group of Semitic people living in western Asia originally from the Arabian Peninsula who identify with the Arabic culture and who speak Arabic. But what of the actual word عرب / ‘arab?
There are many accounts of the etymology of the word ranging from being a derivation of Ya’rub, known to be the father of Arabs and who was supposedly the first person to speak Arabic in ancient Yemen, to a derivation of Gharab meaning west, supposedly what the Mesopotamians called the Bedouins who lived west of Mesopotamia.
A common misconception is that Arab means nomad or nomadic, which would fit the description of the early Arabs, the Bedouins, because to be nomadic is to move around or to cross over lands, which comes from the root ع/ب/ر / ‘/b/r, meaning to cross over both in Arabic and Hebrew. This root in Arabic was used to create the word ‘abri, Hebrew man, literally meaning ‘the one who crossed over’, referring to Abraham’s crossing of the Euphrates river.
When defining Arab linguistically, the mistake is made because the same three letters are used for the root of ‘arab, but for the difference in placement of the letters ‘r’ and ‘b’.
If we look at the root of ‘arab, which not surprisingly, is ع/ر/ب / ‘/r/b, we can, from this, derive a different set of words and meanings. A detailed search into any Arabic dictionary will reveal that most meanings of words from this root have something to do with speaking or using one’s tongue correctly. Take for example the word عربا / ‘araban, which means the ability to speak after a period of having a speech impediment or paralysis, or the word إعراب / i’raab, which has a literal meaning and a general one. Literally it refers to the linguistic term ‘declension’ in the Arabic language and how vowels at the end of each word will change depending on where that word is placed in a sentence, something that has to be vocalized correctly when reading out loud. The general or metaphorical definition refers to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. This is not surprising when you know that when the Bedouins comprehend someone’s speech they refer to them as عرب / ‘arab and to those they don’t comprehend they refer to as عجم / ‘ajam.
The Arabic language developed through a predominantly oral and poetic tradition, giving rise to a culture rich in poetry and storytelling prior to the emergence of Islam.
For this reason and for the many similar definitions of the mentioned words, which derive from the same root, I would humbly, having studied the Arabic language for most of my adult life, define the word ‘arab linguistically as, ‘the one who speaks with a clear tongue.’
Ennis Jalal BAS, March prof (Hons) UoA is an architect living between Auckland and London who is working towards becoming a literary translator. Having spent the last eight years studying and teaching the Arabic language, he is currently working towards his first translation of an Arabic novel into English.
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