en zh es ja ko pt


Young Reader's World

From Arabic to English
Written by Alan Pimm-Smith

Are there any Arabic words in English? Definitely! Some are almost identical to the Arabic original, while others are different in sound or meaning. For example, mosque doesn’t sound much like its Arabic counterpart masjid, and bedouin, which refers to one person, comes from bidwan, a plural form of bedawi, which translates as “desert dweller.” Dhow, the name for a traditional Arab sailing vessel, derives from dawa. But if you ask any of your Arabic-speaking friends, you’ll find they don’t know the word, as it’s no longer in common use.

So far, no surprises: The three words mentioned refer to aspects of Arab or Islamic life, so naturally they are expressed in Arabic. But it may come as a surprise to learn that more commonly used words, such as names of well-known fruits and vegetables, were once considered exotic. Apricots, oranges, lemons and limes, and artichokes, spinach and aubergines (eggplant) all have Arabic names. Lemon, for instance, came into medieval English from Middle French, and before that into Middle Latin from the Arabic laymun. Artichoke, on the other hand, is hardly recognizable. It entered English by way of Italian from the Arabic al-khurshuf.

Tor Eigeland
This bedouin heads one of several families in Jordan’s Badia region. The word bedouin entered English from bidwan, the plural of bedawi, which means “desert dweller.”

There are hundreds of Arabic loan words in the English language. For the most part, they have come disguised as French, Spanish, Italian or Latin words. For the past 1000 years, English has adopted and adapted thousands of foreign elements, and French- and Latin-origin words account for approximately half the modern English vocabulary. French became the language of the English court, the nobility and parliament for at least 300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the Normans from northern France occupied England. It remained the language used for legal matters in England until 1731.

Brynn Bruijn
This name of this fruit in English as is almost the same its Arabic moniker: laymun. But lemon or laymun, you can almost taste its lip-puckering flavor in either language.

In the medieval times, then, it was largely through French that Arabic words entered the English language. What is especially interesting about these words is that the majority of them are technical terms relating to mathematics, astronomy and chemistry. The word alchemy, which entered English in the 1300’s, comes almost unchanged from the Arabic al-kimya, which itself is derived from Greek. Alkali and almanac entered the English lexicon about the same time. The syllable al- in these words comes from the Arabic definite article al (the). So, for example, alkali is derived from al-qili, defined as “the ashes of the saltwort plant.” Almanac, which comes from Arabian astronomy, is derived from al-manakh, defined as “the climate.”

Arab-Islamic civilization was at its height during the Middle Ages, which lasted to the late 1400s, and for 500 years or so Arabic was the language of learning, culture and intellectual progress. Most of the classical Greek scientific and philosophical texts were translated into Arabic during the ninth century. From this foundation, Arab scholars, scientists, physicians and mathematicians made great advances in learning that were then passed on to western Europe via the Islamic universities in Spain. For example, we owe the decimal system of computation to Arab mathematicians, based as it is on the Indian concept of zero. And the word zero, like its synonym cipher, comes from the Arabic sifr, meaning empty.

Arabic learning was widespread in England from the 11th to the 13th century, and indeed beyond. One of the foremost scholars in Europe was Abelard from the English city of Bath. He translated the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi, who is credited as the founder of algebra, from Arabic into Latin in the early 1100’s. Two mathematical terms entered the language in this way: algebra and algorithm. The latter word is taken from al-Khwarizmi’s name itself, while algebra comes from al-jabr, a word in one of al-Khwarizmi’s mathematical treatises that translates as “the reunion of broken parts.” Curiously enough, both the Arabic al-jabr and the English word algebra also refer to the surgical treatment of fractures or bone-setting. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the original meaning of algebra as “the surgical treatment of fractures” and quotes a citation from 1565: “This Araby worde Algebra sygnifyeth as well fractures of bones, etc. as sometyme the restauration of the same.”

One of the greatest contributions Arab scholars made to science was the development of astronomy. If you look at a modern star chart, you’ll find hundreds of stars whose names derive from Arabic: Altair, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Vega, Rigel and Algol, to name a few. Algol comes from the Arabic al-ghul, a word meaning “demon,” from which the English noun ghoul and its adjective ghoulish are derived. Algol was named “the ghoul” by the Arabs because of its ghostly appearance, for it appears hazy and varies in brightness every two days.

Carets galore! The word caret is derived from girat, for a small measure of weight. Added all up, the carets look pretty substantial here.
Waseem Tchorbachi
Carats galore. The word carat is derived from girat, for a small measure of weight. For gold, however, carats measure purity: the higher the number, the finer the gold, and 24-carat gold is 99 percent pure.

Today, we weigh precious stones in carats and measure paper in reams thanks to Arabic: girat is a small unit of weight; rizmah is a bale or bundle. Two other words of interest in this category are average and alcohol. Average, our word for a commonplace mathematical concept, is derived from an Arabic word awariya, meaning damaged goods. This came about because costs relating to goods damaged at sea had to be averaged out among the various parties involved in the trade.

And alcohol? This word is derived from al-kohl, the fine black powder that is used in the Middle East as a sort of medicinal eye shadow. The relationship between the black powder and alcohol as we know it is not readily visible. You can see the link, however, if you think of the powder as the essence or pure spirit of a substance.

The fact that many technical and scientific terms entered English from Arabic during the Middle Ages suggests the general superiority of Arab–Islamic civilization in the area of scientific achievement during this time. Revealing, too, is the fact that the next broad category of Arabic words suggests an advantage in terms of luxury and creature comforts and, thus, a higher standard of living.

By the time Elizabeth I (1533–1603) ruled England, English merchant seamen were discovering the world beyond Europe and bringing back rich and exotic objects, materials and customs from the Middle East and beyond. Significantly, many of the Arabic words that travelers brought back with them at this time suggest a gracious, even luxurious style of living. Sugar, syrup, julep, sherbet and marzipan are all Arabic in origin, though the average housewife at the time would not have included any of them on her weekly grocery list. Coffee comes from the Arabic gahwah, which originated in Yemen, and mocha from the Yemeni port city. Added to this are the fragrant spices caraway, saffron, and cumin, all of which have Arabic names.

There are many other interesting words—adobe, crocus, genie and popinjay, for example—that are all more or less garbled versions of Arabic words. Even the word garbled can be traced to Arabic. It comes from gharbala, meaning “to sift or select,” and refers to spices for sale. Over time, the meaning of garbled shifted to the idea of mixing and confusing. But garbled or not, the store of words derived from Arabic has greatly enriched the English language.

click here to view the original article

Alan Pimm-Smith

Alan Pimm-Smith is a free-lance writer who worked as a teacher and journalist in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries for many years. He now lives in Turkey.