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How to speak Arabic - and not know it

by guest writer Linda Smolik

Lesson One: Walk into Starbucks and say, “One café mocha with sugar.”

Congratulations, you have successfully acquired an Arabic vocabulary of three words!

Little do many Anglophones know that dozens of contemporary English words have their origins in Arabic. Most of these, however, have evolved over the centuries through adaptations in Latin, Greek, Persian, and French, all predecessors of English. That is to say, the English word does not necessarily resemble the original Arabic in such a way that a speaker of modern Arabic would understand.

So what did you really say at Starbucks?

To start off, it’s not surprising that such popularized foods as coffee, mocha, and sugar found their way to Europe through the Arabs. The three are native to hot climates, particularly the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and Asia. During the 8th century, the Islamic conquest brought the Golden Age of Arab culture, when migrants from the Persian Gulf and North Africa expanded their empire to Al-Andalus (Andalusia) in Spain. Scholars, scientists, mathematicians, poets, architects, and merchants developed one of the greatest civilizations during an era when many European countries suffered the Dark Ages, an outpouring of disease, poverty, and lack of education. In Al-Andalus, the Arabs introduced agriculture and trade, which involved the importation of plants and spices from their own native lands. And we all can see that to this day, as Folgers and Maxwell House have made their mark with arabica coffee (that is, coffee from the Coffea arabica species). Legend has it that Muslim clerics would drink coffee all night in the mosque in order to stay awake and pray. The word café, or coffee, was adopted, via Turkish kahveh, from the Arabic qahwah, which Arab etymologists say originally meant "wine" and derives from a root qahiya meaning "to have no appetite". This can be understood when one realizes that even today, diet pills use caffeine as an appetite suppressant. You can enhance your qahweh with a little al-Mukha, or mocha, a fine variety of coffee named after the city in southern Yemen where wild Ethiopean coffee beans were brokered.  Incidentally, only since the mid to late 20th century did mocha come to mean chocolate-flavored coffee. And two spoons of sukkar, I mean sugar, please.

Good work. Lesson Two.

If you ever failed algebra, forgot your algorithms, or struggled in chemistry, you might blame it on ancient history instead of your highschool teacher. Al-jabr (algebra), al-khowarazimi (algorithm), and al-kimiya (achemy/chemistry) all originated from the Arab civilization in what is now modern-day Iraq. After the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century, Baghdad became the capital of scholarship in the Near East. Merchants, scientists, and other intellects from as far as China traveled there, making it one of the most diverse and advanced cities of the time. Baghdad is one reputed bithplace of the Arabic-speaking mathematician Abu Abdullah Mohammed ibn Musa. Some sources say that he was born in Khwarizm, hence his other name: Al-kwarizmi ("the man from khwarizm"). It was one of Al-kwarizmi's books (known in Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum) which introduced algebra, algorithms, and "Arabic" numerals to the Western world. Not only did the title of this book the provide our word algorithm but it also explains why the Spanish for "digit" is guarismo. Before Algoritmi de numero Indorum appeared on the scene, European mathematicians had nothing but Roman numerals. Have you ever tried multiplying Roman numerals? How about deriving square roots? All such operations became a lot easier with a positional notation using Arabic numerals and the new concept - zero. Zero comes from the Arabic sifr, meaning “empty” as the symbol for "zero" represents an "empty" place in the positional notation. Some scholars believe that sifr comes from the Sanskrit shunya, "empty" as the Arabs did not invent their numerals, they borrowed them from the Indians. But, to be fair, the Indians got the idea from the Babylonians so we end up back in Iraq. Even closer to sifr in sound is cipher (which has two meanings: "a code" and "zero") and the French verb chiffre, "quantify".

Whew. Enough math. Just lay back, relax. What's that you say? You'd like some chai with lemon and a magazine? Since when do you speak Arabic so well?

Chai, as you might know, is the very word in Arabic for "tea", also called atay in some dialects. Lemon comes from the Arabic laimun, still present in the modern vocabulary. Magazine originates from makhazin, meaning "storehouse", one of the many Arabic words that has also maintained itself in the French language, as magasin, or "shop". An English magazine is a storehouse of information or, in the case of firearms, it is a storehouse of ammunition.

Many of the common English words with Arabic roots begin with the prefix al, the only definite article in Arabic, also adopted into the Spanish language. For example, almanac comes from Spanish-Arabic al-manakh, meaning "calendar" (though the word manakh occurs nowhere else in Arabic and so its etymology is not known). Similarly, alcohol comes from al-kohl, a black metallic powder often used as eyeliner, which was obtained from antimony via sublimation. The word evolved to mean anything obtained by sublimation, and such derivatives were also known as quintessence. Alcohol of wine was also the quintessence of wine, the product of distillation, and by the 18th century the word alcohol by itself was being used to refer to the intoxicating component of strong liquor. The chemical definition (a molecule with a hydroxyl group bound to a hydrocarbon group) arose in the 19th century. And if you're going to try distillation at home you might use an alembic, a distillation apparatus. Its name derives from the Arabic al-anbiq but the anbiq portion comes originally from anbikos, the Greek for "cup" (which may or may not be related to beaker - opinions differ).

So taking the al concept into consideration: “I al-ways eat fettuccini al-fredo with Al-bert. Did I al-ready tell you that we al-most went to Al-buqerque?” Wait—that doesn’t work.

But if you want to talk crime, look no further. Let’s take the sentence, “He’s an assassin in Alcatraz.” What you really said in Arabic is, “He’s a hashish-eater in the pelican.” Perhaps if you were a hashish-eater you’d find yourself talking like that. The word assassin comes from hashishin, a name used to denote a certain branch of the Nizari sect of Ismaili Muslims. Although hashishin means "hashish-eater", they were very abstemious and it is unlikely that they ever used drugs. In fact, they called themselves assassiyun ("[those who are] faithful to the foundation"), and it is thought this word was deliberately mangled by detractors of the sect, pronouncing it as hashishin.

The word alcatraz comes from the Spanish and Portugese word for "pelican", which derives from the Arabic al-qadus, referring to the bucket of a water-raising irrigation wheel. The bird was so named because it was thought to scoop water into its beak pouch to transport to its young in the desert. This word was later mistakenly applied to the Frigate-bird in the form albatross, not to be confused with albacore, another offspring of Arabic. The Portugese albacor comes from al-bukr, meaning, oddly enough, a young camel. Might want to check the ingredients in your tuna sandwich!

That being said, let’s go to Lesson Three.

Next time you go to the county fair, try asking for qutn qandah and sharbah. Etymology, ah, how sweet it is! The two English words cotton and candy come directly from the similar Arabic equivalents (qandah was borrowed by the Arabs from Persian qand "sugar"). Sharbah, meaning "to drink", later entered the English language as sherbet, sorbet, and syrup. Between Starbucks, Budweiser, Chicken of the Sea, and the local candy shop, you could make a whole meal out of foreign language practice.

If you do find yourself in the Middle East, you’ll see that the game of sheikhs is popular. Have you guessed it? Another clue: no need for a language dictionary when you say checkmate, the Anglicized version of the original shah mat, Farsi for "the king is dead". The Arabs adopted the phrase from Farsi (you might recognize shah as a Persian word; remember the Shah of Iran?) although the Persians took mat ("he is dead") from Arabic.

Lastly, a little vacation advice. Perhaps you lust to see a zarafah, or giraffe, and go on a safari — from the word safar, ‘journey’ (coming to English via Swahili) or simply wish to trek in the Sahara, actually just the Arabic word for "desert". Be sure not to call your tour guide a “nice fellah,” unless he’s taking you for a ride on his tractor. Fellah means ‘farmer’ or ‘peasant’ in Arabic and derives from falaha "to till the soil" (but it is not related to English fellow, which is sometimes pronounced "fella").

At least in knowing our languages aren’t too different, we and our Arab neighbors can feel a little closer to one another. So let’s get together and sip a Kooka Koola, Coca Cola, or whatever your tongue might dictate. Some pleasures are simply universal.

--by guest writer Linda Smolik, edited by M&M

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