Please and thank you (and sorry), part IV: forgive me

Sometimes a simple apology isn’t enough, let alone a simple “pardon me.” At those times you’ll need to talk the language of forgiveness.

The Arabic root that means “forgive” is غفر (GH-F-R, ghafara). There are a couple of other roots that could be used here but we’re sticking with this one because it’s by far the most common and because it gives us a chance to talk about a couple of grammatical items. The first is the imperative form of the verb, for when you say “forgive me” you’re making a grammatical command. Arabic forms the imperative by taking the second person imperfect, which in this case would be تَغفَرُ (taghfaru), dropping the initial consonant, and dropping that last short vowel. If what remains begins with a consonant followed by a short vowel, then that’s the imperative form. If, however, you’re left with a consonant followed directly by another consonant (as we have here), then a short vowel is added at the beginning of the word. Which short vowel depends on the vowels the verb uses in its normal imperfect form, but let’s not go down that road and just say that, for غفر, the imperative form is اِغفَر (ighfar). غفر takes an indirect object with the preposition ل, so “forgive me” translates to اِغفَر لي (ighfar lī). “I forgive you” would be أغفَرُ لَكُم (aghfaru lakum, or laka or laki if you want to use the singular/informal, gender-specific).

“Forgiveness” has a couple of forms, perhaps غَفر (ghafr), مَغفِرة (maghfirah), or غُفران (ghufrān). The one who does the forgiving is the active participle, غافِر (ghāfir), while the one being forgiven is the passive participle, or مَغفور (maghfūr; “to be forgiven” is the passive voice, غُفِرَ ghufira). Forgiveness being frequently tied to religion, there are several religious uses for غفر. For example, one of the 99 Names of God venerated in Islam is الغُفّار (Al-Ghuffār), The All-Forgiving. You might frequently hear the phrase غَفَرَ الله لَنا وَ لَكُم (ghafara Allāh lanā wa lakum), which means “God forgive us and you!” This sentence uses the optative mood, a grammatical mood used in situations where you wish or hope that something might happen (another example would be حَفَظَ الله المَلِك, ḥafaẓa Allāh al-malik, “God save the King!”). Arabic’s optative is simply the perfect (past) tense. The final item of note here is the Istighfār or Astaghfirullāh, the Islamic prayer of forgiveness, which consists of the Form X of غفر, which is استَغفَرَ, in the first-person imperfect, أستَغفِر (astaghfir). The full phrase أستَغفِر الله (astaghfir Allāh), means “I beg forgiveness of God,” and is uttered over and over in this prayer.


Does anybody out there have a favorite hiccup remedy? No particular reason…

“Hiccup” in Arabic, a word I did not know until I thought of it just now, again for no particular reason and certainly not because I am currently convulsing with them, is فَواق (fawāq) or possibly حازوقة (ḥāzūqah) but I think that فَواق is more common. The verb, “to hiccup” or “to have the hiccups” requires the use of a verb we haven’t seen yet, أصابَ (aṣāba), which is a Form IV verb meaning, among other things “to have.” The root of the verb, صوب (ṣawaba), is not commonly used, but means something like “to hit the mark.” In this case we have to use the passive form of أصابَ, which is أُصيبَ (uṣība), which means “to be afflicted”. The full phrase “I have the hiccups” is أُصيبُ بالفَواق (uṣību bil-fawāq), which literally means “I am afflicted with (by) the hiccups.”

Please and thank you (and sorry), part III: excuse me, pardon me

For situations where a milder form of apology is needed, we might say something like “excuse me” or “pardon me.” In Arabic the usual exclamation for a situation like this is something we’ve already encountered: عَفواً (ʿafwan), which is used as a response to شُكراً (shukran), “thank you,” the way we English speakers might say “you’re welcome” or “don’t mention it.” عَفواً is actually more properly used here, to mean “excuse me” or “pardon me,” given that it comes from a root, عَفا (ʿafā), that means “to excuse” or “to pardon.”

There is, however, a second root that can be employed here: عذر (ʿadhara), which means “to excuse” or “to absolve from guilt.” Instead of عَفواً, you could say مَعذَرةً (maʿadharatan) or اعذَرَني (aʿdharanī); the latter uses the first person objective pronoun ending ني. Someone who is excused would be called مَعذور (maʿdhūr).

Please and thank you (and sorry), part II: you’re sorry, so sorry

As in English, in Arabic there are two usual ways to apologize (and I mean a real apology for having wronged someone, not in the sense of “pardon me,” which we’ll cover in a later post), the simple “I’m sorry” and the more emphatic/formal “I apologize.” These two words, “sorry” and “apologize,” though they are very closely related, come from two completely different roots. “Sorry” comes from the Old English sārig, whose root also gives us words like “sore” and “sorrow,” and means to be pained or distressed. “Apology” comes from the Greek apologos, from which we also get apologia, and which means “to speak in defense.” As it is in English, so it is in Arabic.

Without a doubt, you will be much more likely to use and hear “I’m sorry,” which is أنا آسِف (anā āsif), or just آسِف (āsif). This comes from the root اسف (asafa), meaning “to regret” or “to feel sorry for” something. It’s not often encountered as a verb, but the verbal noun آسف is very common. This is a simple declarative sentence, with the verb “to be,” which you should recall is almost always just implied in Arabic when in present tense, so this is a literal translation, not an idiomatic one. “I am sorry about that” would be أنا آسِف لِذٰلِك (anā āsif li-dhālik). Much less frequently used (in Arabic, but important in Persian) is مُتأسِف (mutaʾassif), the active participle of the form V of اسف, which is reflexive and really emphasizes the idea that I, myself, am sorry.

However, if you want to sound more formal or be more emphatic, you may want to say that you apologize. In this case you will turn to the root عذر (ʿadhara), which itself means “to absolve from guilt” or “to excuse.” Form VIII of that root, and remember that form VIII usually has a reflexive meaning, is اِعتَذَرَ (iʿtadhara), and with its reflexive aspect it means “to absolve oneself from guilt” or “to excuse oneself”; i.e., to speak in one’s own defense, or “to apologize.” “I apologize to you” would be أعتَذَرُ لِكُم (aʿtadharu likum) while “I apologize for this (that)” would be أعتَذَرُ مِن هٰذا (aʿtadharu min hādhā). “Apology” is اِعتِذار (iʿtidhār), and “I offer my apology” would be أقدَمُ اِعتِذاري (aqdamu iʿtidhārī).

If you’re just saying a quick “Sorry!”, you may want some variation of عذر, either عذراً (ʿadhran) or مَعذِرةً (maʿdhiratan).

عاشوراء (Ashura)

Sundown today marked the beginning of the Islamic holiday known as Ashura or عاشوراء (ʿāshūrāʾ), notable primarily for its significance in Shiʿi religious identity. This post by Dr. Michael Collins Dunn at the Middle East Institute describes the meaning behind the holiday. This is the tenth day of the month of Muharram (محرم), or in other words the tenth day of the new Islamic year, and it takes its name from the name of the Arabic numeral ۱۰ (our 10), عشر (ʿashr).

Both Sunni and Shiʿi Muslims recognize Ashura as a holiday, the provenance of which goes back to Muhammad who advised his followers to fast on this day (he identified it as the day when the Israelites escaped from Egypt). He may have intended that it would correspond to the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which is also the tenth day of the new year on the Hebrew calendar. However, the day has far deeper meaning for Shiʿa, as it was on this day in the Hijri year 61 when Imam Husayn (حُسَين), the son of Ali (علي), was martyred in battle with the armies of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I (يَزيد) at Karbala, in modern Iraq. Because it is such an important holiday for the Shiʿa, and Shiʿism is so much a part of the Iranian national identity now, and mostly because I always do these explanations of Islamic holidays here on the Arabic blog even though there’s no particular reason why that should be, I decided to write more about Ashura at my Persian blog. If you’re interested, please go check it out.

Disaster in the Philippines

I’m very late on this, but the devastation caused in the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan is enormous, with at least 10,000 killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, most undoubtedly into refugee camps or worse. Please give what you can, if you are able. I gave to UNICEF this evening and also sent an SMS donation to the World Food Program, but there are many ways to contribute. See here, and here, for lists of organizations, and if you have any other suggestions please leave them in comments.


Another new year

This blog has previously covered the Gregorian New Year, and on my Persian blog we’ve talked about Nowruz, which is also celebrated in many Arab countries, but sundown today marked the start of the new year on the Islamic calendar. So happy 1435 everybody!

There’s not a lot to talk about in terms of holiday customs, because the Islamic New Year is usually marked quietly, perhaps with some prayer and reflection on Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, the هِجرة (hijrah), which is the event that marks the year 1 in the Islamic calendar. The next ten days, the first ten of the year, are not particularly celebratory, especially for the شيعة (shīʿah) community, which commemorates the anniversary of the events leading up to the martyrdom of إمام حُسين (Imām Ḥusayn, ʿAlī’s son and the third Imam) on the tenth, the day known as عاشوراء‎ (ʿĀshūrāʾ).

As was the case at the Gregorian New Year, “new year” is is رأس السَنة (raʾs al-sanah) or رأس العام (raʾs al-ʿām). To specify that you are talking about the Islamic New Year, you might want to say رأس السَنة الهِجرية (raʾs al-sanah al-hijrīyah) or رأس العام الهِجري (raʾs al-ʿām al-hijrī), هِجري being the name of the Islamic lunar calendar whose year 1 is commemorated by the Hijrah. That kind of specification is only important on the occasions when the Islamic and Gregorian New Years fall around the same time; most of the time the Hijri lunar calendar is out of phase with our solar calendar and it’s pretty obvious which New Year you’re talking about.

If “raʾs al-sanah” sounds familiar to you, maybe that’s because it sounds so much like the name of the Jewish New Year, “Rosh Hashanah,” and that’s about right, since Hebrew and Arabic are branches of the same Semitic root language.

“Happy New Year!” = سَنة جَديدة سَعيدة (sanat jadīdat saʿīdah) or عام جَديد سَعيد (ʿām jadīd saʿīd)

Please and thank you (and sorry), part I: Thank you and you’re welcome

Now here’s a topic that’s so basic I can’t believe I haven’t done it yet. Sheesh.

The Arabic verb “to thank” is شَكَرَ (shakara), which also means “to be thankful.” After last time you should be familiar with the idea that you can take this root and derive other words from it, yes? Well, شكر has a pretty limited set of applications but the vocabulary is useful nonetheless.

“Thank you” is شُكراً (shukran). “Thank you very much” or “thanks a lot” is usually شُكراً جَزيلاً (shukran jazīlan), though colloquial variations do exist. Technically the full phrase is شُكراً لكم (shukran la-kum, “thanks to you”) but the specification “to you” is almost always omitted except in very formal talk.

That structure at the end, the اً (-an) is something we should talk about. It’s called a تَنوين (tanwīn), and it is the indefinite marker (i.e., it means you’re talking about “a” thing and not “the” thing). It’s written as a doubling of the final short vowel (which determines case: ُ  marks the nominative, َ  marks the accusative, and ِ  marks the genitive–we can maybe cover this at some point in more detail). When a noun in whichever case is indefinite, it ends with a تنوين in the appropriate case, and the effect is to add an “n” sound after the vowel. For the فَتحة (fatḥah), however, you can only add the تنوين directly to the feminine marker (ة); for all other letters you have to also add an alif (ا) and then tack the تنوين on to that. The reason I haven’t really mentioned this before is that, in everyday speaking, you almost never articulate the case endings to anything (nor would you usually encounter them in writing since short vowels are usually omitted), but in the case of شُكراً it is always spoken.

Other useful words that derive from شكر include the passive participle مَشكور (mashkūr), “worthy of thanks” or “praiseworthy,” the active participle شاكِر (shākir), “thankful” or “grateful,” and تَشَكُّر (tashakkur), which also means “gratitude” or “thanks” but is more emphatic and is really important when we come to Turkish (and Persian, though it’s less important there). There’s also مُتَشَكِّر (mutashakkir), which also means “grateful” or “thankful” but doesn’t come into play much in Arabic (it’s more important in Persian).

The response to شُكراً, usually, is عَفواً (ʿafwan), and note that this also vocalizes that indefinite ending. The verb عَفا (ʿafā) means “to excuse” or “to pardon,” and the expression عَفواً can be used when you want to say “excuse me” or “pardon me,” but it also means “you’re welcome” in a “don’t mention it” sense.

جمع = “to gather”

The way this blog ought to work, if it were really “Arabic Word a Day” like I named it, is that in between all the special holiday occasions when I write long, periodically interesting things about whatever occasion is at hand, and the grammar lessons, which I hate writing as evidenced by the fact that it’s been months since I wrote one, we’d also cover, you know, words. Just random words, whatever, pick a root out of the dictionary and toss it up there on the old tubes. That’s the way it ought to work, but of course it doesn’t. Except for right now!

Let’s take a look at an Arabic root, جمع or J-M-ʿ. You should know, or recall from reading it here, that the basic unit of Arabic, and indeed all Semitic languages, is not the word but rather the root. A root is like a word in that it’s an arrangement of letters, in Arabic usually three of them, that represents a thing or idea, and in fact every root is its own word (provided you add some short vowels). But roots are more than just the one word; if you know the right patterns, like the various verb forms or the ways in which participles are formed, you can plug in any given root and derive a whole bunch of other words that are related in some way to the original definition of the root itself.

The root we’re looking at today is a great example of the root concept because you can derive a number of important words from this root. Let’s start with the verbs:

  • Form I (root, “to do it”): جَمَعَ (jamaʿa)–to gather, to unite, to combine, to convene, to bring together, to make plural

Basically, the core meaning is “to take something and add stuff to it,” right? Now see how that plays out in the other verb forms (not every root uses every verb form, and some roots have forms that are now obsolete):

  • Form II (usually means “to cause someone to do it”): جَمَّعَ (jammaʿa)–to amass, to accumulate, to compile, to bring together
  • Form III (associative, “to do it with”): جامَعَ (jāmaʿa)–to have sex
  • Form IV (also causative, but more focused/intensive than Form II): أجمَعَ (ajmaʿa)–to agree (on something)
  • Form V (reflexive of Form II, “to cause oneself to do it”): تَجَمَّعَ (tajammaʿa)–to congregate, to assemble, to rally, to band together
  • Form VIII (reflexive of Form I: “to do it oneself”): إجتَمَعَ (ijtamaʿa)–to assemble, to meet, to convene, to come together
  • Form X (“to request or consider that it should be done”): إستَجمَعَ (istajmaʿa)–to gather, to collect, to summarize

Now, each verb form can be further manipulated to derive verbal nouns, participles, and other words that all will have some connection to the original root concept of gathering or combining. Some of the most important:

  • جَمع (jamʿ): gathering, crowd, throng, assembly, aggregation, collection, combination
  • جامِع (jāmiʿ): comprehensive, universal; the large mosque where public prayer is performed on Fridays
  • جُمعة (jumʿah): Friday, derived from the above for Friday communal mosque
  • جَمعي (jamʿī): collective, collectivist (also جَماعي/jamāʿī)
  • جَمعية (jamʿīyah): club, association, assembly, organization
  • جَماعة (jamāʿah): community (may also be مُجتَمَع/mujtamaʿ)
  • جَميع (jamīʿ): whole, entire, all
  • مَجمَع (majmaʿ): place of meeting, junction
  • إجماع (ijmāʿ): agreement, consensus
  • إجتِماع (ijtimāʿ): meeting, assembly, convention, rally
  • جامِعة (jāmiʿah): league, union, association, federation, university
  • مَجموع (majmūʿ): collected, gathered, whole, total

Get the idea?

Eid Mubarak (عيد الأضحى)

This evening marks the second religious festival of the Islamic calendar, after the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast, عيد الفِطر (ʿīd al-fiṭr, Eid al-Fitr), that follows Ramadan. It is called the Festival of the Sacrifice, عيد الأضحى (ʿīd al-aḍḥá, Eid al-Adha), and is the more important of the two, informally known as the “Greater Eid” (عيد الكَبير, ʿīd al-kabīr).

The festival commemorates an event that should be familiar to anybody who has some knowledge of the Bible, the episode in Genesis known as the “Binding of Isaac” (Genesis 22). God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son and Abraham, understandably conflicted, ultimately chooses to obey God even at the cost of his son, only to have an angel stop him just as he’s about to kill the boy, Abraham having proved his devotion to God by his willingness to obey even such a difficult command. This story was retold in the Qurʾān (37:100-109) and is part of the Islamic narrative about Abraham (إبراهيم, Ibrāhīm). Mainstream Islam says that it was Ishmael (إسماعيل, Ismāʿīl) who was supposed to be sacrificed by Abraham, rather than Isaac (إسحاق, Isḥāq “is-haq”), though early Muslim scholars argued over this point because the identity of the son is not specified in the Qurʾān’s version of the story.

Eid al-Adha is intimately connected with the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which is itself very closely connected to the Islamic narrative of the life of Abraham/Ibrahim. If you’re familiar with the rituals of the Hajj then you know that the pilgrims celebrate Eid al-Adha after descending from Mount Arafat and returning to Mina, where they stone three pillars or walls meant to symbolize the three times that Satan attempted to sway Ibrahim from obeying God’s command, then segue into the traditional festival celebration. Muslims around the world, not only on Hajj, celebrate this festival at the same time. Our discussion of the customs and rituals involved with this Eid will focus on what believers who are not on Hajj do to commemorate the holiday. The celebration has its roots in the Qurʾān (2:196), which commands that all believers who are not on Hajj nevertheless commemorate this festival with animal sacrifice.

It is the sacrifice of the best herd animals, often cattle, but also other حَلال‎ (ḥalāl, “lawful”) animals like sheep, goats, camels, etc. (not pigs, obviously) that marks the festival. These “sacrificial” animals are called أضحية (aḍḥīyah). Tens of millions of animals are slaughtered worldwide over the holiday, and their meat is divided into three parts: one for the family to keep, a second to give to friends and relatives, and a third to be given to the poor. No Muslim is allowed to go hungry during the festival, and it is incumbent upon all Muslims of means to provide for the poor. I am here neither to condone nor condemn the sacrifice, though I will note that these animals are killed for food, not enjoyment. I am also not here to render a discourse on how humane halal butchery is or is not as compared with Western methods. Just here for the vocabulary and a little context.

There are other customs around the holiday. The celebration begins with a special Eid prayer, to be performed after the sun is fully risen but before the noon prayer. This must be performed in a communal mosque if at all possible. The holiday usually lasts at least 4 days, but local custom may extend it beyond this (I think the UAE takes at least a week, for example, but I don’t know how many days other places celebrate). Friends and family members will visit one another and offer Eid greetings. The same greetings that are used for Eid al-Fitr also apply here: عيد مُبارَك (ʿīd mubārak, Eid Mubarak), “Blessed Festival (Eid)” and عيد سَعيد (ʿīd saʿīd, Eid Saeed), “Happy Festival.” Gifts are often given to children, something simple like candy or a little cash.