‘I am naturally a stern and silent fellow; even forbidding. But there’s something about etymology and where words come from that overcomes my inbuilt taciturnity.’ ― Mark Forsyth,
According to the Linguistic Society, there are more than 6,900 distinct different languages around the world. The Arabic language is the 5th most spoken language worldwide, falling just behind English, Chinese, Hindi and Spanish. The language has such a strong linguistic presence globally that it seems only natural that it should have an influence over the lexicology of Western European languages, such as French and English.
In fact, the English language is composed of a multitude of words and phrases that have been loaned from the Arabic language. Our whole alphabet, from A to Z, from algebra, alchemy and albatross right through to zenith and zero, English vocabulary is composed of hundreds of words of Arabic origin.
Thus, it is interesting to have a closer look at some of the foundations of our dictionary, alphabet, lexicography and phonetics by examining the different languages that have influenced them.
On a personal note, I did not suspect the international origin of certain words that I use almost every day – that is the beauty of linguistics!
Not only is becoming familiar with English versions of common words used in Arabic an intriguing endeavour, it is also a great way to learn Arabic and will even enable you to become a master multilingual speaker and Arabic translator!
Learn to identify words from Arabic in English! (Source: Visual Hunt)
Artichoke, giraffe, divan (furniture), café or coffee – there are so many phrases that we use on a daily basis that are actually made up of words borrowed or translated from the Arabic language. More specifically, these are what are known as loanwords in the world of linguistics.
Many words from our English vocabulary are actually loanwords that have their roots in the Arab world and were derived from classical Arabic terminology many moons ago. A word or phrase may have evolved or altered slightly from the original, but it will have the same roots as is explained in any English-Arabic translation or etymology dictionary.
C.A.M.’s Fennell noted in the book, Stanford Dictionary of Anglicized Words and Phrases (1987), that Arabic is the ‘seventh-leading supplier of loanwords to English’. This makes it a keen contender for having one of the strongest influences over the English language, outrun only by languages such as French, Spanish, Greek, Italian and Latin.
But, we ask ourselves, how has this Semitic language of the Islamic world come to impregnate itself into the English language in such a long-lasting way? How have certain words derived their meaning from the phonetic Arabic pronunciations?
Hundreds of years ago, the sheer global magnitude of the Arabic language as a result of the expansion of the Islamic civilisation during the seventh century meant that Arabic was able to easily infiltrate itself into other languages. The Arab world was able to extend out beyond the borders of Middle Eastern countries and develop a lexicon, phonetic system and etymology so distinctive that it is still present in English vocabulary today.
Thus, the Arab culture was able to linguistically dominate the Occident right up until the thirteenth century in an enormous number of domains, which we will learn more about later on.
After a period of a so-called linguistic explosion, Western countries, principally from the South, began to take the reins and Islamic Spain started to have a greater linguistic influence over the English language. This is why we still have so many words that are derived from Arabic terminology.
What was then to follow was of course colonisation, world migration, other languages and trades, which were to bring with them a whole host of new terms with their origins in the Arabic language.
Literature also played an important role in Arabic finding its way into the English language. Essentially, while Plato was translated and brought to us by Latin authors, the philosophy of Aristotle was largely imported by Arab thinkers and translators.
So one way of learning Arabic is to learn which English words have Arabic roots, even if the phonetics may have changed slightly from the original.
You may think you are a monolingual when in fact each one of us is bilingual and a walking talking Arabic – English dictionary!
Do you know some of the most beautiful Arab cities?
One word, one origin – Arabic! (Source: Visual Hunt)
We probably don’t think about it nearly enough, but several lexical terms that are used day in and day out by English language speakers around the world are actually derived from the Arab world and Arabic script and conversation.
This has been one way that Arab culture has been imported across to the West. Little by little, it has transformed itself into the vocabulary we all know and use today. This is just a simple question of etymology, morphemes and locution!
An English – Arabic dictionary is a tool that both helps to inform us of the origin of words and allows us to learn Arabic. The idea here is to take certain words and understand their dialectal variations, derogatory and colloquial definitions, phonetics, etymology and quite simply, their fundamental meanings.
A short and very simple example that we can all remember is as follows:
If I order you a coffee without sugar and also a carafe of orange juice, how many of the words in the sentence I use will be derived from Arabic?
Four! It’s as simple as that!
So, let us have a look at the terms allow us to gain a better understanding of the etymology of our lexicography and the roots of particular words.
Thus, it is safe to say that the Arabic language has an etymological richness that always keeps one guessing!
When Arabic and English find themselves interconnected! (Source: Visual Hunt)
Not to mention the phrases in the list above (we can also recall aubergine, gazelle or even hazard as being English words translated from Arabic), we can say with some confidence that the Arabic language is an inexhaustible source of morphemes, colloquial language and lexical meanings that covers a large number of areas:
It is quite clear that among the multitude of words whose origin or etymology is rooted in Arab culture and the Arabic speaking world, there are some words whose roots are rather more unexpected and surprising than others.
Part of what makes up the richness of literary Arabic and Arabic from the dictionary is that it has such a diverse etymology and rare phonetic system, which has resulted in some words being indispensable, either for the simple reading of a historical dictionary or for learning of Arabic vocabulary online.
One way of learning a language is by discovering certain words of the same origin or with similar pronunciations and going from there!
The existence of a locution, or a morpheme (defined as ‘a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided (e.g. in, come, -ing, forming’), can sometimes be more surprising than simply being a bit of terminology that is part of the English language and has the same origin as Arabic words.
So get out your reading glasses and your travel dictionary as we take a closer look!
Are you looking to get a tattoo in Arabic?
Arabic, a language which has given many words to the English language. Now dogs can learn the origin of English words too! (Source: Visual Hunt)
Well, it is safe to say that learning the Arabic origins of English words also makes for quite a journey in itself! The terms above are just four examples among many of common Arabic words used in English.
It is true that whilst learning the Arabic language and learning the English language may seem like polar opposite activities nowadays, the English dictionary is a testament to the fact that several English morphemes and phrases come from the same root as those of many Arabic terms. This is probably not really enough vocabulary to turn us into fluent Arabic speakers or foreign language experts but at least it gives non-native Arabic speakers something to get their teeth into and start the learning process!
Learning Arabic from English words in this way can pave the way for making your very own dialectal and etymological dictionary, which takes into account the literal sense of words that can be found in any phonetic English dictionary. Apart from the abovementioned terms, we can also easily see that many many terms we use all the time like chemistry, massage and fanfare, all come from Arabic.
To summarise, there are so many words in the English language that we use daily and that we would never really have expected to have foreign roots let alone the same linguistic roots as Arabic words.
All this talk of Arabic is enough to make me want to take some Arabic classes!
That is the beauty of language and the captivating power of etymology!