A journey of words: The pluralistic nature of language

A general photo of Alhambra Palace in Grenada. (Photos: Wikimedia Commons/ Shutterstock)
About 35 years ago, I began my career in the field of training.  I walked into Farnham Castle in Surrey, UK, to give my first lecture on Arab culture, called “The Arab Way”.  It was the first of many lectures which I took over from one of my earliest mentors, an Arabist by the name of Peter Aylett.اضافة اعلان

Peter had by then retired from the oil business, having served in many Arab countries, including Iraq, Oman, and Qatar. He ended his career in Tripoli, Lebanon.  His memories and, as we called them metaphorically, his “war stories” of the region were very revealing.  When he decided to finally retire from training, I was fortunate enough to be given many of his training notes, of which one piece remains etched in my memory.  It was a short story in English on A4 paper of around 250 words. He included as many English words derived from Arabic as possible in an attempt to show the enormous contribution of Arab culture to Western civilization.

Words such as algebra, algorithm, zero, alcohol, and alkaline are all scientific words that have found their way into many European languages, indicating the impact of Arab scientific learning and discoveries on sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, physics, and astronomy.  

A simple google can give an insight into Arab contribution to science, especially during the Abbasids’ era when Baghdad in modern Iraq was the enlightenment center of the Middle Ages. The Arab presence in Andalusia in Spain played a vital role in the subsequent European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries.  You can almost guess that any word in Spanish beginning with Al and El is from Arab origins, such as algodón (cotton), almohada (pillow), and aldea(village). 

Al is equivalent to the in Arabic. In fact, one of the most important Andalusian tourist monuments is the Alhambra Palace in Grenada — Alhambra derives from the Arabic Al-Hamra, meaning red. 

English words derived from Arabic

In terms of English words that derive from Arabic, some of my favorite words and expressions are those whose history is either doubtful, funny, or very weak, as that is where their magic lies. 

For example, my  British boss in a consultancy company that I worked within the 90s was adamant that the British fox-hunting phrase “Tally Ho!” meaning that a quarry has been sighted, is of Arabic origin and was introduced to English by the Crusaders “Taali Hone” which means come over here and when addressed to a female. However, according to Wikipedia, the origins of Tally Ho are French.

Another funny phrase that found its way into English from Arabic is the phrase “Take a shufti”, meaning “Have a quick look”.  Shufti is from the Arabic word “shuf” meaning to see. I gather that these words started being used in English by British, Australian, and New Zealander soldiers stationed during the World Wars in the Middle East, and this phrase is still used today.

However, this was a language exchange, so at the same time, Arabic words were being absorbed into English, the British and the French colonial presence in the Arab world — following the collapse of the Ottoman empire — left the Arabic dictionary with many new words.

Other languages influence Arabic

When I first lived in the Arabian Gulf, I was surprised by the number of English words used there, compared to the Levant.  For example, the words bottle and glass survived intact into Arabic, whereas “draiwel” is derived from driver and “laissen” from license.  My favorite word in the Kuwaiti Gulf vocabulary is “wanette,” which means a pick-up car. 
The first pick-up to arrive in Kuwait early in the last century was a Ford Model One Eight (18), and it was transformed into “wanette”.  In the Levant, the word “shofair” comes from the French chauffeur.

Another favorite of mine is the Iraqi job title “Lukaftari”. This word derives from the English phrase “Look after it” which is the instruction that British officers gave to young Iraqi men when they parked their cars unattended in the streets of Baghdad. Gradually a profession (Lukaftari) came into existence for young men who would look after parked vehicles while the owners were conducting their official business elsewhere.

Another example is the Ottoman influence on certain Arabic dialects, for example, oda (room), dolab (wheel), kupri (bridge), hanum (lady), and so on.  Reversely, the number of Arabic words in the Turkish language is far too many to count and some would go as far as to say that almost 40 percent of Turkish words are of Arabic origin.

Food and etymology

“Artichoke” is an English word that combines food and etymology. Artichoke is a vegetable that the Crusaders came across in the Levant in the 11th or 12th century. They took the vegetable back to Europe after combining two words into one and reversing their order.  

Artichoke comes from Arabic “kharshoof,” meaning fish scales. In Spanish today, it is called alcachofa (note the al prefix again). But in the Arab world, it is the same as the English word Arabized into “ardhishoke”, rather than the original Arab name.  

According to Amin Malouf in his book “The Crusaders through Arab Eyes”, the artichoke is one of several fruits and vegetables the Crusaders saw for the first time in the region, including shallots, aubergines, and apricots.  Surprisingly, finding locally-grown shallots in the Levant is now very difficult. 

Language borrowing

Some words have entered both Arabic and English, borrowing from one another that some have now more or less disappeared. For example, one present in the UK is mufti.  It used to denote civilian clothes worn by a soldier, sailor, or airman who was out of uniform. The same Arabic word means jurisprudent or religious legal expert.

More recently, many English and Western words have now entered into Arabic, such as radio, television, computer, tractor, etc. Today, in many Arab countries, instant coffee is simply known as “Nescafe.” Iraqis go a step further and call chocolates and sweets “nestalat” after the Swiss company Nestlé. 
In Jordan, there was a time when any assortment of sweets and toffees was called “mackintosh” from the British company Mackintosh, now owned by Nestlé.

Some in the Arab world resist the encroachment of foreign words into Arabic, whether English, French, or otherwise.  The reality is that Arabic and English are such dynamic languages that they are enriched rather than weakened when they import or borrow new words from each other or other languages. 

Jehad Al-Omari is a Jordanian entrepreneur working in Information Technology with an academic background in Engineering, Development Economics. He is also the author of a number of books on Intercultural studies.

This article was previously published on https://www.only-connect.co.uk/.

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