Some introductory notes about Arabic and about Arabic Word a Day

Hello! أهلاً و سهلاً (ahlan wa-sahlan, “welcome”). This blog is for anybody interested in understanding a little bit, or little bit more, about the Arabic language. I am no linguist, I’m not a native speaker, I’m just someone who’s studied the language some and would like to build up his vocabulary, and if anybody else finds that useful then that’s awesome.

I am going to try to maintain this blog alongside two related ones, Persian Word a Day and Turkish Word a Day. They are “related” in the sense that all three are languages of the Islamic World, and I happen to have studied all three, which is why I’m not doing an “Urdu Word a Day” blog or “Indonesian Word a Day” blog or “Tamazight Word a Day” blog, etc (this is also why I’m not doing a “Hebrew Word a Day” blog despite the obvious Middle East connections). They are also related in that all three share a stockpile of common words that have been loaned from one to the other, and sometimes from one to the other and back to the first in a different form (the Persian gawhar or “gem” goes into Arabic as jawhar for “gem,” comes also to mean “essence” and is then loaned back into Persian as jawhar for “essence”). To the extent possible, I will try to make the Persian and Turkish words of the day either be words that derive from the Arabic root of the day, or have the same meaning or conceptual role that the Arabic root has (one day might look at the numbers in all three languages, or “left and right” in all three, or something like that).

I will primarily be looking at roots, which anyone who knows a Semitic language will understand but with which newcomers will not be familiar. Semitic languages are formed around the consonantal “root,” in Arabic’s case usually three consonants, that form a verbal root from which a number of related verbs and nouns can branch off. Each Arabic verb can have potentially 15 “forms,” although forms 11-15 are extraordinarily rare and not every root will have a meaning in each form. Each verb form follows a specific structure in the way it alters the original (form I) root, and in how it changes the meaning. For example, form II verbs double the middle consonant and can either serve as a more emphatic version of the form I root or can have the meaning of causing someone to perform the action described by the form I verb (form I qatala, “to kill,” becomes form II qattala “to massacre,” and form I darasa, “to learn/study,” becomes form II darrasa, “to cause someone to learn/study; i.e., to teach”). Another thing worth noting is that there is no infinitive structure for the verb like the English “to study”; what stands in for that form in a dictionary entry is actually the third person masculine singular past tense, so darasa technically means “he studied” rather than “to study.” The grammatical role played by what we call the infinitive is actually filled by nouns derived from the verb, the aptly named “verbal noun.” Occasionally I will take a break from this to look at connecting words, loanwords, things outside the tri-consonant root structure. I may talk grammar sometimes but hopefully not much, because it’s hard for me to talk with clarity about grammar in this kind of setting (as this paragraph amply demonstrates). This blog will, for the most part, stick to form I verbal roots and the most common nouns formed from those roots. If it actually lasts long enough, we can get into the other forms down the road. Because my training is in history and not language, I may from time to time digress into historical digression or talk about where particular words came from or went to as they meandered from one language to another. I apologize in advance.

I will be writing Arabic in both Arabic script, which reads right to left, and in Latin script transliteration. There are as many methods for transliterating Arabic as there are people trying to transliterate it, but I hope the system I use (mostly adhering to the system used by the International Journal of Middle East Studies) is simple enough to follow. My rule of thumb is that someone who knows the language should be able to unambiguously reconstruct the Arabic script from my transliteration, which occasionally means sacrificing nuances of pronunciation in order to keep to the strict written structure. I’ll try to note when that takes place.

Finally a warning about the “a day” part of this, in that it’s more a hope than a rule. I can’t promise a daily word, particularly given trying to do three of these as a non-paying lark, but I will do my best.