To teach

Following on from yesterday’s entry, let’s look at the word “teach.”

There are two verbs that mean “teach” in Arabic. Why? Well, recall from yesterday’s entry (on the verb “learn”) that in addition to تَعَلَّمَ (taʿallama, “to teach,” from the root عَلَمَ ʿalama, “to know”), you may also find the verb دَرَسَ (darasa, “to study”) being used to mean “learn,” since studying is the (a?) process of learning. Well, a teacher is someone who causes another person to know something, but they also cause them to study that thing, so the verb “teach” can be the form II (causative) derivation of either عَلَمَ (“to know”) or دَرَسَ (“to study”). Form II is formed by doubling the second consonant in the root, so for “teach” you have either عَلَّمَ (ʿallama) or دَرَّسَ (darrasa). You probably won’t go wrong with either (although watch for colloquial/regional variations if you’re speaking!), but دَرَّسَ has more to do with teaching at higher levels, like secondary and post-secondary.


“She teaches us Arabic” = تُدَرِّسُ لَنا اللُغةَ العَرَبيةَ (tudarrisu lanā al-lughah al-arabīyah)

“Last week I taught them the alphabet” = في الأُسبوعِ الماضي عَلَّمْتُهُم الأَبْجَديةَ (fī al-usbūʿ al-māḍī ʿallamtuhum al-abjadīyah, “in the last week I taught them—suffix “hum” added to the verb—the alphabet”)

NOTE: As our word “alphabet” is formed by mashing together the names of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta, the Arabic word abjad comes from mashing together the first four letter shapes of the Arabic alphabet (the ا shape, then the ب ت ث shape, the ج ح خ shape, and the د ذ shape). Abjad is actually a term in linguistics for an alphabetical system, like Arabic, where most or all of the characters represent consonants while vowel sounds are generally implied rather than written.

Related vocabulary:

“Teacher”: the same درس v. علم clash is seen here, with the active participles of both form II verbs, مُدَرِّس (mudarris) and مُعَلِّم (muʿallim) meaning “teacher.” Again, you will probably find مُعَلِّم used for teachers at lower (elementary, middle) levels (and as a sort of general term for “instructor”), while مُدَرِّس connotes something at a higher level, so probably a high school teacher or university lecturer, but not a professor, who is called أُستاذ (ustādh, fem. أُستاذة ustādhah, from the Persian استاد).

“School” is the infamous مَدرَسة (madrasah), which has taken on horrible connotations in the west as some sort of Islamic fundamentalist/terrorist training ground, when in reality the word just means “school.” “Primary school” is probably going to be مَکتَب (maktab) or كُتّاب (kuttāb), deriving from the root كتب (kataba), which means “to write,” reflecting the centrality that literacy has in Arabic primary education.


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