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Arabic Words and their Meanings in English

By Rachel, published on 19/06/2018 Blog > Languages > Arabic > The Origin of Arabic Words in English

‘I am naturally a stern and silent fellow; even forbidding. But there’s something about etymology and where words come from that overcomes my inbuilt taciturnity.’ ― Mark ForsythThe Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

According to the Linguistic Society, there are more than 6,900 distinct different languages around the world. The Arabic language is the 5th most spoken language worldwide, falling just behind English, Chinese, Hindi and Spanish. The language has such a strong linguistic presence globally that it seems only natural that it should have an influence over the lexicology of Western European languages, such as French and English.

In fact, the English language is composed of a multitude of words and phrases that have been loaned from the Arabic language. Our whole alphabet, from A to Z, from algebra, alchemy and albatross right through to zenith and zero, English vocabulary is composed of hundreds of words of Arabic origin.

Thus, it is interesting to have a closer look at some of the foundations of our dictionary, alphabet, lexicography and phonetics by examining the different languages that have influenced them.

On a personal note, I did not suspect the international origin of certain words that I use almost every day – that is the beauty of linguistics!

Not only is becoming familiar with English versions of common words used in Arabic an intriguing endeavour, it is also a great way to learn Arabic and will even enable you to become a master multilingual speaker and Arabic translator!

English Words from Arabic – A Short History

A guide to understanding Arabic in English Learn to identify words from Arabic in English! (Source: Visual Hunt)

Loanwords

Artichoke, giraffe, divan (furniture)café or coffee – there are so many phrases that we use on a daily basis that are actually made up of words borrowed or translated from the Arabic language. More specifically, these are what are known as loanwords in the world of linguistics.

Many words from our English vocabulary are actually loanwords that have their roots in the Arab world and were derived from classical Arabic terminology many moons ago. A word or phrase may have evolved or altered slightly from the original, but it will have the same roots as is explained in any English-Arabic translation or etymology dictionary.

C.A.M.’s Fennell noted in the book, Stanford Dictionary of Anglicized Words and Phrases (1987), that Arabic is the ‘seventh-leading supplier of loanwords to English’. This makes it a keen contender for having one of the strongest influences over the English language, outrun only by languages such as French, Spanish, Greek, Italian and Latin.

But, we ask ourselves, how has this Semitic language of the Islamic world come to impregnate itself into the English language in such a long-lasting way? How have certain words derived their meaning from the phonetic Arabic pronunciations?

Arabic Enters Europe

Hundreds of years ago, the sheer global magnitude of the Arabic language as a result of the expansion of the Islamic civilisation during the seventh century meant that Arabic was able to easily infiltrate itself into other languages. The Arab world was able to extend out beyond the borders of Middle Eastern countries and develop a lexicon, phonetic system and etymology so distinctive that it is still present in English vocabulary today.

Thus, the Arab culture was able to linguistically dominate the Occident right up until the thirteenth century in an enormous number of domains, which we will learn more about later on.

After a period of a so-called linguistic explosion, Western countries, principally from the South, began to take the reins and Islamic Spain started to have a greater linguistic influence over the English language. This is why we still have so many words that are derived from Arabic terminology.

What was then to follow was of course colonisation, world migration, other languages and trades, which were to bring with them a whole host of new terms with their origins in the Arabic language.

Literature also played an important role in Arabic finding its way into the English language. Essentially, while Plato was translated and brought to us by Latin authors, the philosophy of Aristotle was largely imported by Arab thinkers and translators.

So one way of learning Arabic is to learn which English words have Arabic roots, even if the phonetics may have changed slightly from the original.

You may think you are a monolingual when in fact each one of us is bilingual and a walking talking Arabic – English dictionary!

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Common Arabic Phrases Used Day-to-Day in English

A handy list of useful English words from Arabic One word, one origin – Arabic! (Source: Visual Hunt)

English-Arabic Dictionary

We probably don’t think about it nearly enough, but several lexical terms that are used day in and day out by English language speakers around the world are actually derived from the Arab world and Arabic script and conversation.

This has been one way that Arab culture has been imported across to the West. Little by little, it has transformed itself into the vocabulary we all know and use today. This is just a simple question of etymology, morphemes and locution!

An English – Arabic dictionary is a tool that both helps to inform us of the origin of words and allows us to learn Arabic. The idea here is to take certain words and understand their dialectal variations, derogatory and colloquial definitions, phonetics, etymology and quite simply, their fundamental meanings.

Example of English Words from Arabic

A short and very simple example that we can all remember is as follows:

If I order you a coffee without sugar and also a carafe of orange juice, how many of the words in the sentence I use will be derived from Arabic?

Four! It’s as simple as that!

So, let us have a look at the terms allow us to gain a better understanding of the etymology of our lexicography and the roots of particular words.

  • Café or Coffee – this drink – the English noun for which is now so famous in the UK -originated in Yemen in the 15th century and got its name thanks to its Arabic counterpart qahwa. The word qahwa evolved to kahve as it reached Turkey and then again to caoua in Algeria before moving on to becoming café in France and finally, transforming into the coffee that we know and love today. In Arab speaking countries, the word signified a grain of roasted coffee and the associated hot drink that would have been prepared at the time. This linguistic origin also refers to the drink that was discovered in Europe in the seventeenth century thanks to Venitian merchants. Those who enjoy history may also be interested to know that the first coffee house was introduced to the UK in 1651. Another theory as to the origin of the word also suggests that there is a consensus among some geographers that it originates from a province in Ethiopia called Kaffa. Thus, it is called K’hawah, which means invigorating in Arabic.
  • Sugar or Sucrose – at the end of the twelfth century, the Italian locution, zucchero, began to be used. The term is itself actually derived from the Arabic equivalent, sukkar, that comes from Sanskrit (meaning grain).  For all the versions of the noun (for example, be it sugar or sucrose, or even the French, sucré), each nickname, each meaning, ultimately originates from the Arabic. It is the Arab world who began to refer to sugar through dialogue and speech in the way that we know it today in European languages. Pfeifer, a linguist specialising in Germanic languages, explains that Arabs and the Arabic speaking world brought the sugar cane culture to Andalucia, Egypt and Sicily.
  • Carafe – originating from the Arabic word, gharfa, which meant a form of ladle to hold water, not much is known about the history of this loanword. From gharfa of medieval Arabic, the word travelled to Sicily in the fourteenth century and later to Northern Italy where it morphed into caraffa and eventually to British shores where it became a carafe (a drinks vesicle usually made of glass).
  • Orange – the first use of this noun dates back to the thirteenth century. Originally, the orange was a fruit from China that was introduced to the rest of the world by Portuguese sailors in the fifteenth century.
    In Arabic, the word Orange actually means… …Portugal!
    The evolution of the term into the English noun we now use has been quite an incredible etymological adventure. For several centuries, the term Orange travelled many linguistic paths and took on multiple definitions before it eventually began to refer to the fruit and finally, the colour it refers to in modern English. In short, after having given us words like arancia in Italian, naranjaen in Spanish, or even laranja in Portuguese, the term Orange that we now use in English has been given its name from the Arabic equivalent and refers to oranges that are sweet rather than bitter.

Thus, it is safe to say that the Arabic language has an etymological richness that always keeps one guessing!

List of Common Arabic Phrases Employed in English When Arabic and English find themselves interconnected! (Source: Visual Hunt)

Unexpected Etymology

Not to mention the phrases in the list above (we can also recall aubergine, gazelle or even hazard as being English words translated from Arabic), we can say with some confidence that the Arabic language is an inexhaustible source of morphemes, colloquial language and lexical meanings that covers a large number of areas:

  • Clothes: jumper, cotton, mohair, satin, gilet, etc,
  • Games: hazard, chess, checkmate, racket, etc,
  • Musiclute, guitar, tanbur, tabla etc,
  • Mathematicszero, algebra, etc.

It is quite clear that among the multitude of words whose origin or etymology is rooted in Arab culture and the Arabic speaking world, there are some words whose roots are rather more unexpected and surprising than others.

Part of what makes up the richness of literary Arabic and Arabic from the dictionary is that it has such a diverse etymology and rare phonetic system, which has resulted in some words being indispensable, either for the simple reading of a historical dictionary or for learning of Arabic vocabulary online.

One way of learning a language is by discovering certain words of the same origin or with similar pronunciations and going from there!

The existence  of a locution, or a morpheme (defined as ‘a meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided (e.g. income-ing, forming’), can sometimes be more surprising than simply being a bit of terminology that is part of the English language and has the same origin as Arabic words.

So get out your reading glasses and your travel dictionary as we take a closer look!

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Arabic in English – Phrases that you Wouldn’t Think Were Arabic!

A quick run-through of the origin of English words Arabic, a language which has given many words to the English language. Now dogs can learn the origin of English words too! (Source: Visual Hunt)

  • Jumper – this noun, which now is such an important part of our everyday clothing vocabulary was actually loaned from the Italian term giubba, which was itself adapted from the Arabic word jubba or giubba. The literal meaning of the word is a kind of men’s gown or robe or a kind of undergarment like a vest. From its previously usage making reference as a masculine garment, it has since changed meaning under English hands to become a unisex item that keeps us all warm in the winter months!
  • Spinach – a plant that we know of today as something with which to make delicious soups and become as strong as Popeye actually has a long and quite fascinating history. The ancient Greeks and Romans were unaware of its existence and it wasn’t until Arabs migrating to Spain in medieval times brought the leafy vegetable over for trading that the Arabic term isfanakh began to circulate around Europe. Slowly but surely, the term eventually transformed into the word spinach in English after the vegetable was introduced to England in the 1400s.
  • Magazine – the origins of magazine are still fairly recognisable when looking at its Arabic counterpart makhazin. It is actually more the word’s meaning that has changed rather than its phonetics. It initially referred to a storeroom in English, originating from the Arabic verb to store khazan. Magazines in England were actually places where military items such as gunpowder and bullets were stored, the French term for shop magasin has perhaps retained more of the original meaning than the English. Around the seventeenth century, the term started to refer to information on goods and topics relating to the army and the navy until it finally evolved to mean our favourite copy of Cosmo, Bliss, Men’s Health or even National Geographic!
  • Safari – adventures around the Australian outback or through grasslands in Kenya are probably what spring to mind when you see this word, which makes its foreign roots perhaps not that surprising. However, the word actually originally comes from Arabic rather than from any indigenous African or Australian languages as we might have thought! Whilst the term did probably reach us through the Swahili version safari meaning journey, it ultimately came from the Arabic noun safar that also signifies a journey.

Well, it is safe to say that learning the Arabic origins of English words also makes for quite a journey in itself! The terms above are just four examples among many of common Arabic words used in English.

It is true that whilst learning the Arabic language and learning the English language may seem like polar opposite activities nowadays, the English dictionary is a testament to the fact that several English morphemes and phrases come from the same root as those of many Arabic terms. This is probably not really enough vocabulary to turn us into fluent Arabic speakers or foreign language experts but at least it gives non-native Arabic speakers something to get their teeth into and start the learning process!

Learning Arabic from English words in this way can pave the way for making your very own dialectal and etymological dictionary, which takes into account the literal sense of words that can be found in any phonetic English dictionary. Apart from the abovementioned terms, we can also easily see that many many terms we use all the time like chemistrymassage and fanfare, all come from Arabic.

To summarise, there are so many words in the English language that we use daily and that we would never really have expected to have foreign roots let alone the same linguistic roots as Arabic words.

All this talk of Arabic is enough to make me want to take some Arabic classes!

That is the beauty of language and the captivating power of etymology!

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