The roots of Arabic uncovered

A German professor has started to create a first-of-its-kind Arabic etmological dictionary, a project that he thinks could outlive him.

Sometimes, words can have surprising origins.

Take marzipan, for example. One suggestion is that this term in English ultimately comes from an Arabic word, martaban, used to describe high-quality jars with lids in which luxury foodstuffs, ink, spices and other things were stored in centuries past.

These jars, possibly obtained by Arabs from trade with South-east Asia (Martaban is the former name of a town in today’s Myanmar), were, in turn, re-exported to Europe. Italians were said to have an especial fondness for their tasty contents.

“They used to put the marzipan into it. The product was called after the vessels,” said Prof Stephan Guth, of the University of Oslo’s Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages.

It is far from unusual for links between words of different languages to result, as in this case, from cultural ties from long ago; word origins often reflect history.

This makes a project Prof Guth is spearheading all the more interesting. He is developing an Arabic etymological dictionary that aims, ultimately, to describe the origins and links to other languages of thousands of Arabic words.

Although Arabic has about 250 million speakers – only Chinese, Spanish, English and Hindi have more – it is thought no comprehensive etymological dictionary of the language has been produced.

“All the major languages and even minor languages, they have their etymological dictionary, but not Arabic,” said Prof Guth.

“There’s been much research since the 19th century ... but it’s scattered all over journals.”

The aim of the EtymArab database is to show, for example, whether words that sound and are spelt similarly are related or have separate origins. In doing so, it is likely to give the lie to the view that Arabic is a pure language.

“We start with the vocabulary in modern standard Arabic but, from there, we try to go back through the history of the written language, as was attested in written sources, and try to find out where the words really come from,” said Prof Guth.

As an example, he cites the root sh-‘-r, which forms the basis of a number of Arabic words.

The Arabic word for hair, sha‘r, includes this root, as does the word for composing poetry, sha‘ara, the word for barley, sha‘îr, and the term for Sirius, the brightest system of stars in the night sky, al-shi‘râ.

By reading old accounts of the language, Prof Guth and his fellow scholars can find out what lexicographers thought and determine which words really belong together.

In the case of sh-‘-r, much is already known: sha‘r, sha‘ara and sha‘îr are thought to be connected.

“It is not unlikely that the feeling of poetry has something to do with the fineness of the hair, and barley is without doubt ‘bearded grain’, literally the hairy one,” said Prof Guth.

The meanings attached to sh-‘-r, namely hair, to be endowed with sensitivity for fine things and barley, are not exclusive to Arabic. Something similar can be found in Hebrew, for instance, and Syriac, a language once spoken widely in the Fertile Crescent and Bahrain. By contrast, the Arabic word for Sirius stands out and is believed to have a separate origin (from the Greek Seírios).

Another interesting case concerns the word for meat, lahm. In languages related to Arabic, the word means bread or simply something to eat.

“In Arabic, it’s a kind of specialisation of this proto-Semitic root,” Prof Guth said.

The etymological dictionary should, he said, be able to shed light on “many, many hundreds” of other such roots, although teasing out the various origins is far from easy, not least because some of the old articles detailing the origins of Arabic words are written in Latin.

Information about word origins is likely to be linked to eras of history from the pre-Islamic up to the present day.

“The process of taking words from outside Arabic has not stopped, for it has continued in Islamic times as Islam spread outside Arabia. Muslims came into contact with other cultures and religions,” said Prof Guth.

“Many terms for administrative things and agriculture are taken from other languages like Persian or Greek or even Indian [languages] because there was intensive trade from the east along the sea.”

There were, he said, many other links that led to linguistic transfer. Words therefore provide proof of lively interactions long before “globalisation” came to be used to describe today’s interconnected world.

“There’s been trading routes, caravan routes, going through the desert there have been periods of very intensive exchange in different areas,” said Prof Guth.

In many cases, the importation of words into Arabic, or the export of words from Arabic into other languages, was accompanied by the transfer of cultural practices as well.

“Each of these words is a story you can tell. It’s cultural history and that’s what makes it so fascinating for those who are working in these fields,” he said.

For Prof Guth, who is from Germany, the development of the dictionary represents a major step in a decades-long fascination with Arabic that started when he was a teenager in the 1970s.

Originally, his interest was in hieroglyphics from Egypt, before he began to read books on Arabic grammar. He perfected his skills in Arabic while living in Egypt and Lebanon.

EtymArab was launched more than two years ago and, so far, the database has only been open to a limited number of scholars but once technical issues are overcome, it is likely to be made available to researchers worldwide.

Drawing comparison with efforts to produce something similarly exhaustive for the English language, Prof Guth believes the project could outlive him, and indeed the rest of us.

“This is a huge thing that we will be able to initiate and maybe work on for the next 20 or 30 years, if God gives me that lifespan,” he said.

“After that it will continue ... if you think about the Oxford English Dictionary, they started what we are starting now but it took more than 150 years before they produced what you can find online now or in big libraries with 20-volume editions.”