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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

More Than Words

by The Media Office

© UAE calligraphy artist Khaled Al-Jallaf

The origin of many words found in European languages can be traced back to Arabic says Dr Shihab Ghanem

It is a well-known phenomenon that languages borrow from one another, and Arabic and English are no different. Although there are several theories about the origin of Arabic, it is an established fact that when Islam emerged Arabic was already a sophisticated language with highly developed poetry. It is said that the seven (some say ten) odes, which were the great Arabic poems of pre-Islamic days, were hung on the inner walls of the Kaba in Mecca, the holiest shrine to Muslims and even to the Arabs before Islam.

The Quran was revealed in the dialect of Arabic as spoken by the tribe of Quraish that lived in Mecca. Tribes from various parts of the Arabian peninsula travelled to Makkah to visit the Kaba and to trade, and thus became familiar with the Qureish dialect of Arabic. The tribe of Quraish also annually had a trading trip to Yemen in winter and another trip in summer to Ash-Sham, which is now Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. Whenever tribes disagreed over the meaning of words in the Quran the Qureish Arabic would be taken as the correct one.

Arabic became the language of Islam and spread rapidly as far as China in the east, Spain in the west and the Balkans in the north. Today there are about a billion Muslims of whom millions of non-Arabs recite the Quran in Arabic even though they may have a very limited understanding of what they read. Both the Persian and Urdu languages use Arabic script. The Turkish language was until early this century written in Arabic script.

The Quran has preserved the Arabic language and more than two hundred million Arabs today write their books and newspapers and broadcast their news bulletins using classical Arabic. Of course, there are many spoken dialects which differ from country to country or even between districts and towns within the same country, but the written language is just one. Islamic civilization flourished from the 7th century until the Middle Ages when Arabic was second to none as a language of learning. Some European kings are known to have sent their children to study in Islamic Universities in Andalusia such as the one in Cordoba in Spain.

The Arabs entered Spain in 711, ruled large parts of it and finally left their last position, Alhambra in Granada, in 1492. During this long period a large number of Arabic words entered Spanish, French, Portuguese and other European languages. The effect of Islamic civilization on the European renaissance was enormous. As Alfred Guillaume says about the Muslims in Spain in his book Islam: "They have left an indelible mark on the language and literature of the Peninsula. Such a hold had Arab civilization gained that it was found necessary to translate the Bible and Liturgy into Arabic for the use of the Christian community. Scholars from the West visited Spain to learn philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The oldest European universities owe an enormous debt to those scholars who returned from Spain bringing with them the knowledge they had gained at the Arab universities of that country".

Another reason for the proliferation of Arabic words in Europe were the eight crusades between the end of the 11th century and the latter part of the 13th century when the Europeans came into close contact with the Arabs and their language. Thus the word assassin, that comes from the Arabic hashasheen, entered the English language at that time. The hashasheen were an extremist group of Ismailis that believed in terrorism and assassinated their enemies under the influence of the drug hashish. They were controlled by Hasan ibn As-Sabbah of the hillfortress of Alamut. The hashasheen caused considerable trouble to both the great Islamic leader Saladin and the Crusaders. As-Sabbah used his men to assassinate his student-days friend Nizamaddin, the Vazier (Vazier was the highest position in government after the Caliph) and is also said to have tried to kill his other student-days friend and famous poet of the Rubaiyat, Omar Khayyam. Alamut is from the Arabic word almaut, meaning death. Notice the closeness of the Latin and English mort with the Arabic maut.

A large number of English names and words related to astronomy are also Arabic in origin. Similarly there are many words from other sciences developed by the Islamic Civilization that were adopted by the Europeans. The word logarithms was created from the name of the great mathematician Al-Kuwarizmi. Algebra is taken from the Arabic Aljabr. The Canon of Medicine, one of the books written by Avicenna (Ibn Sinaa) (980-1037), also known as the Prince of Physicians, was used at many European medical schools for centuries after his death. It was used in Montpellier in France as late as 1650. The word canon itself is taken from the Arabic qanoon, meaning law.

Many Spanish words that start with al or el, which is the definite article in Arabic, are of Arabic origin. Examples include: almacÕen (the store) which in Arabic is Al-makhzen. The English word magazine also comes from this; alcatifa (carpet) is from the Arabic alqatifah; almohad (pillow) comes from almokhaddah; al quitran (tar) is from the Arabic al-qataran; La acequia (canal) is taken from the Arabic as-saqiyah; elarrz (rice) is from the Arabic al-arroz; fonda (hotel) is from fundoq; tarifa (tariff) is from tarifa; adoquin (shop) from addukkan; azucar (sugar) is believed to be from the Arabic sukkarand not from the Latin Saccharum. Arabic itself may have come from a Sanskrit origin in this case. Jarabi (syrup or sharbet) is from the Arabic sharab. The word ojata is from the Arabic expression "in sha Allah" (if Allah wills).

The French word truchment or Drogman (dragoman) is taken from the Italian Drogmanno which in turn was taken from the Greek dragumanus which was possibly taken from the Arabic turjuman. The French word douane (customs house) was taken from the Italia doana, taken from the Arabic diwan (government office) which in turn was taken from Persian. The German word Erde (earth) is in Arabic ardh or erdh, but it is difficult to say the origin of this word which may nearly be as old as the Earth itself. The Quran tells us that Allah taught Adam all the names.

These examples show that languages take from one another and European languages have taken hundreds of words from Arabic. Some research claims that the number is in the thousands but the evidence is not always convincing.

Below is a list of some English words that are said to have been borrowed from Arabic. One should consider how a word sounds rather than its spelling . Of course, some of these words could have entered English from a third source. For instance "alphabet" could have come from the Greek Alpha-Beta rather than from Arabic.

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