The Arabic Contribution to English Robert Devereux – Part One

As is well known, English is basically a Germanic language, deriving its principal grammatical and syntactical characteristics, as well as a large part of its vocabulary, from its Germanic forerunners. But it has also borrowed words lavishly from non-Germanic languages, as is evidenced by the inclusion of such words in standard English dictionaries. Although alargepercentage ofthese loariwords derive from Greek, Latin and the various Romance languages, many lesser known and, to Americans, rather exotic languages are also well represented.

One such fertile source has been Arabic. At first thought, this may seem surprising, given the differences in structure and phonetics that exist between English and Arabic. Peoples the world over, however, have long had the habit of borrowing the words they need, or think they need, where they find them, without much regard for such esoteric subjects as structure and phonetics. They may have to change the borrowed words both in form and meaning, but they still borrow them. When the situation is viewed in this context, the presence in the English lexicon of rnanvArabic loanwords is quite natural. I frankly have no idea of the total number of Arabic loanwords that have found their way into English, but it must be very substantial indeed. In any case, I turned up 600 of them by leafingthrough the pages of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language (RHD), Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (W3) and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED). That, I submit, is not an insignificant number from any point of view, especially when one considers that the Basic English vocabulary, for example, includes only 850 words.

These 600 words range from ones like alcohol, cotton, crimson, jar, lemon, mattress and sash, which are surely known to every speaker of English, even the most uneducated, to ones like abelmosk (or abelmusk), dahabeah, ghawazee (or ghawazi), jazerant, maksoorah, nuphar and sakieh (or sakeih, sakia), which are obscure in the extreme and likely to be known, if at all, only by ortentalists and/or xenologophiles. Between these two ends of the spectrum are the moderately familiar (e.g., carafe, cofle, garbanzo (orgarbanza, gan)anzo), imam, lascar, macrame, martingale), which should certainly be in at least the recognition vocabulary of any educated English speaker, and the slightly unusual (e.g., aba, arrack (or arak, arrak), cadi, fakir (or fakeer, faqir. faquir), houri (or huri), mahdi, wadi (or wady, waddy), oued)), with which at least confirmed crossword puzzle fats should be familiar.

The loanwords include some whose Arabic origins would probably write as a distinct shock most Americans, were they to learn of them. For example, it would be difficult to come up with two words that seem more quintessentially Spanish and Italian, respectively, than ole and mafia. Lexicographers tell us, however, that both can be traced back to Arabic, the first to the phrase wa-llah, the second to mahyah, meaning boasting.

Of’ the 600 loanwords under discussion, 256 (42.6 percent) entered English directly froth Arabic. Thc remaining 344 travelled various routes to reach English: approximately 200 passed through only one other language, while the others passed, variously, through two, three, four or more. The immediate donor languages are headed by French, with 114, followed by Spanish, with .53; Hindi (and/or Urdu), with 50; Latin, with 39; Turkish, with 17; Italian, with 14; Persian, with 10; and Portuguese, with six. Languages from which only one or two of` my 600 exemplars entered English include Afrikaans (cush), Catalan (talayot), Dutch (monsoon), German (tarsia, marzipan), Hebrew, (almemar), Hungarian (kuvasz), Malay (adat), Provencal (tambourin), Russian (shuba), Twi (harmattan) and Yiddish (halva, or halvah, halavah).

I must stress that these figures, although quite valid for illustrative purposes, are by no means exact for the simple reason that lexicographers differ amongst themselves over the paths some loanwords have followed to reach English and even over the real origins of’ some of the words. The word sales is a good example. It derives ultimately, strange as it may seem, from the Arabic khusa ath-tha’lab (the fox’s testicles). On that point all lexicographcrs seem to agree; but the RHD gives its path as Arabic-Turkish-English, the W3 as Arabic-French or Spanish-English and the SOED as Arabic-Turkish-French–English. To cite another example, the W3 says that safari entered English direct from Arabic, while both the RHD and SOED say that the path was Arabic-Swahili-English.

As for differences over origins, a number of examples are also available. In The Story of Language (London, 1952), Mario Pei asserts (p. 156) that both the word ballyhoo and the phrase so long have Arabic origins. He attributes the first to the Arabic b-Allah hu (`by Allah it is’) and the second to an adaptation by British colonial troops of the Malay salang, which, according to Pei, is corruption of the Arabic salaam. However, Pei’s eminence in the field of linguistics nothwithstandintg, his attributions have not, in fact, been established. They are certainly not reflected in the dictionaries I consulted (i.e., W3, RHD, JSOED), while in one of their works, The Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins (New York, 1967, Vol. 11, pp. 255-56), William and Mary Morris comment that although some people may attribute the ultimate origin of so long to salaam, they themselves considered this etymology to be “wildly far of the mark”. Another example of disputed origin is the word olibanum. The W3 says it derives front the Arabic al-luban; the RHD ascribes it to the Greek libanos, which in turn derived from some unknown Semitic lannguage; and the SOED ascribes it to either Greek or Latin.

Many, Arabic loanwords, especially those connected with Islam (e.g.,dhimmi, hafiz, ijma, khutbah (or khutba), madrasah (or madrasa), muezzin (or muazzin), murshid, waqf (or wakf , etc), are simply transliterations of the Arabic originals. But since different individuals have different ideas about how the Arabic alphabet should be transliterated into Latin characters, in many cases there is no single “correct” way to spell an Arabic loanword and, instead, dictionaries offer several – sometimes as many as seven – accepted variant spellings. Sense variant spellings have already been cited above. Other prime examples include: .sequin, zequin, zequine, zecchino, zechin, zecchin, zecchine; durra, dura, dhurra, doora, doura, dourah; gufa, guffa, goofa, goofah, kufa, koofah; shariat, sharia, shar, shar’, sheria; qadi, cadi, kadi, kadhi, gazi; ghazel, ghazel, gaze/, gasal, ghasel. Other examples are given in Appendix A.

These variant spellings of Arabic loanwords really do not create any serious problms, for the words, regardless of which variant you consider, are generally relatively close both in sound (allowing for English pronunciation) and meaning to their Arabic originals. The key word here is generally, for in more than a few cases loanwords have been altered beyond recognition both in form and meaning. The already mentioned sales is a case in point, and it is only one of the examples available. Few individuals, I hazard, would be likely, upon seeing the Arabic terms as-saqiyah, buraq, and kharrubah, to discerns therein the English acequia, baroque and garbanzo. As for changes in meanings, two examples frequently cited in books on linguistics are alcohol and algebra, which derive, respectively, front al-kuhl (the powdered antimony) and al-jabr (the bone-setting or, literally, the reduction). The chemical terms benzoin derives from luban jawi (frankincense of Java), mohair fronts mukhayyar (choice, select) and nacre front naggarah (drum). Rahah (palm of the hand) has somehow evolved into racket (or racquet) as well as into the anatomical terns rasceta (creases oil the wrist).

In some cases the original meaning of a word may have changed, but the link between the meaning of the Arabic original and its loanword version can be readily urnderstood. Arsenal, for example , derives via Italian front dar sinah (house of industry), and carboy From garrabah (demijohn). Coffle, a now obsolete term for a line of’ slaves chained together, derives from qafilah, meaning `caravan’, and halzoun, a type of throat disease, from halzun, meaning snail’ (the suspected cause of the disease) Sofa, therm for a piece of furniture to be found in most American households, comes from suffah, meaning ‘long bench’, and usnea, a botanical terra for a genus of lichens, from ushnah, meaning `moss’. Numerous other such examples could be cited.

A special kind of deformation has occurred in the case of Arabic loanwords beginning with al, which represents the Arabic word for `the’. Almanac, for example, derives from al-manakh (the almanac, calendar), so when we say “the almanac”, we are, in a sense, really saying, “the the almanac”. This deformation is usually associated in people’s minds, at least in those of people who know anything about language, with loanwords that have entered English through Spanish. That belief is well grounded, but not all such words have travelled that route. Algebra, for example, reached English via Middle Latin (ML), algorism and algorithm via ML, Old French and Middle English (ME), alkali via ML and ME, almemar via Hebrew and albacore (or albacora, albacore) via Portuguese.
The incorporation of the Arabic al, it should be noted, does not occur only in loanwords having an initial al.Azimuth, for example, dervies from alsumut (the directions) and the aforementioned acequia from al-sagiyah. Arroba, a unit of weight, comes from al-rub (the quarter) and azoth, the alchemic term for mercury, from al-za’ug (the mercury). The explanation lies in a peculiarity of Arabic: in pronunciation, Arabic words beginning with one of the so-called Sun letters (t, th, d, dh, r, z, s, sh, s, d, t and n) assimilate the l of a preceding al. Thus, the aforesaid words are written as shown but are pronounced as-sumut, as-sagiyah, ar-rub and az-za’ug. Even if a Sun letter is not present, a phonetic change can occur, as in artichoke, which derives via Italian from al-khurshuf, and in aubergine, which derives via Catalan and French from al-badhinjan.

Some such loanwords do not even have a as their initial letter. Lute, which derives from al-‘ud (the wood), and laskar, which derives from al-‘askar (the army), represent cases in which only the l of al was retained. In the case of’ hazard, a letter (h) has been added, since the word derives from al-zahr (or azzahr, per above).

Al-badhinjan, mentioned above as the origin of aubergine, is also the source of the English brinjal. There are, in fact, numerous examples of an Arabic source word having spawned two or more different loanwords in English, although in some cases it is a question of one word including the Arabic al (as in aubergine) and another excluding it (as in brinjal). Zero and cipher (or cypher), for example, both derive from sifr (empty). The Arabic girmiz/al-girmiz has given us alkermes (an insect), carmine (chemical, color) and kermes (type of dye), while another form of the word, girmizi, has spawned cramoisie (or cramoisy) (color, type of fabric) and crimson. Qawwas (bowman) is the source of both kavass (consular guard), via Turkish, and kuvasz (breed of dogs), via Turkish and Hungarian.

The different routes that have been followed by loanwords frequently
explains why two different loanwords with different meanings deriving from the same Arabic word have ended up in English. For example, nacaret (color or clue) and nacre (mother of pearl) both are traceable back to the Arabic naggarah, but the first reached English via Old Spanish, Middle French and French and the second via Old Italian and Middle French. In some cases, an Arabic word travelling the same route call end up in two different versions in English, for example, tabl (drum) reached English via Spanish, Old French and French both as timbal (drum) and timbale (pasta shell). Other examples of’ different loanwords derived from the same Arabic original are given in Appendix B.

As is probably clear from the examples already cited in this article, the Arabic loanwords in English relate to a wide variety of subjects. Of rny 600 exemplars, roughly 60, or 10 percent, do not readily lend themselves to categorization and can most conveniently be lumped together under the rubric “miscellaneous”. These range from the more or less very familiar (e.g., assassin, hackamore, garble, martingale, massage, popinjay) to the very obscure (c.g., alforja, fardel, machila (or rnachilla), mastaba, satinay, tahona). As for the remaining 540, the largest group consists of ‘words which relate in one way or another to Islam (itself a loanword) and have meaning only in an Islamic context, for example, fatiha (or fatihah), fatwa, hadith (or hadit), hajj,(or hadj, haj), ijtihad, mutakallimun, etc. A much smaller but closely related group iucludes words that have meaning in the context of Islamic history as distinct from Islam as a religion (e.g.,jahiliya, Kharjite, Mozarab, Mudegar, etc.).

Another large group consists of Arabic words absorbed by Hindi during the British India era which subsequently became recognized by English dictionaries as good English words, for example, hookum, maidan (or meidan), mofussil, malik, mutsuddy, ryot (or raiyat), shroff, tahsil, etc. (The writer has not tried to determine how many, if any, of such words are still current in Hindi.) Still another large group consists of words related to government and administration, many of them titles of one sort or another (e.g., emir, alcalde (or alcayde), mukhtar, .sultan, wali (or walee, vali), wazir) and names of governmental or administrative bodies or functions (e.g., irade, gabelle, majles (or majles, mejlis, mejliss), tariff). Arabic loanwords are also numerous in the field of’ astronomy, although my 600 exemplars include only three – almucantar (or almacantar), azimuth and nadir- that can logically be assigned to this field. The Arabic contribution has been largely in the field of star names. In his The Story of the English Language (New York, 1967), Pei notes (p. 225) that a precise count of 183 star names showed 125 to be Arabic and another nine to be Arabic-Latin.



A. Additional Arabic Loanwords with Variant Spellings

alchitran, alkilran jargon, jargoon rail, rein
alkarnna, alkenna jihad, jehad rava, ravah
ben, behen jubbah, jubba ratarna, retama
berat, barat kabyle, kabyl retem, raetem
camaca, camaka kaffiyeh, keffiyeh salat, salah
camlet, camblet karmouth, karmout sanad, sunnut
camleteen, camletine kibbe, kibbeh sarsar, sansar
chott, shot kismet, kismat sateen, satine
dhikr, zikr kiswa, kiswah shaitan, sheitan
dhow, dow leben, leban sirocco, scirocco
feterita, federita marabou, marabout sunna, sunnah
figh, fikh marrano, marano sura surah
gandura, gandourah minbar, mirnbar tagiya, tagiyah
genet, genette mattamore, matamoro tarsia, intarisa
gerbil, gerbille maugrabee, maugrabeen tawhid, tauhid
ghazi, gazi maghrebi, maghribi ulama, ulema
haik, haick mojarra, moharra vakeel, vakil
hamal, hammal mudiria, mudirieh vizier, vizir
hammada, hamada munshi, moonshee zaptiah, zaptieh
hamza, hamzah mutessarif, mutassarif ziarat, ziara
hashish, hasheesh naggar, nuggar zibet, zibeth
howdah, houdah omdeh, omda  
jabali, javali rak’a, rak’ah  
alfilaria, alfileria, alfilerilla medino, medin, medine
barberry, berberry, berbery muharram, moharram, mohurum
attar, atar, athar mullah, mulla, mollah
bedouin, beduin, bedowi muslim, moslem, muslem
casbah, kasbah, kasba nashki, neski, nashki
darabukka, tarabooka, tarbouka sambuk, sambouk, sambuq
haji, hadji, hajji sumbul, sambul, sumbal
jibba, djibbah, jibbah sumac, sumach, shumac
kohl, cohol, kohol sug, souk, suk
lohoch, lohock, looch taluk, talooka, taluka
makhzen, makhzen, maghzen zamouse, gamous, gamouse
mamluk, mameluke, marneluk zareba, zariba, zeriba
maulvi, moulvi, moolvi  
algarrobilla, algarobilla, algarobillo, algarovilla
almah, alma, alme, almeh
emir, amir, ameer, emeer
burqa, burka, burkha, bourkha
dahabeah, dahabeeyah, dahabiah, dahabieh
galabia, galabieh, galabeah, gallabiya
galingale, galangal, galanjale, calangail
harem, hareem, haram, harim
hegira, hijra, hijrah, hejira
kaaba, caaba, ka’ba, ka’bah
kaffir, kafir, caffer, caffre
moucharaby, mouchrabieh, meshrabiyah, mushrebiyeh
qibla, kibla, kiblah, qiblah
ryotwar, ryotwari, ryotwary, raiyatawri
sebkha, sabakha, sebka, sabkha
sharif, sherif, shareef, shereef
Shi’ite, Shi’i, Shiite, Shia
tariqa, tarekat, tariqah, tariqat
algarroba, algarrobo, algaroba, algarobo, algeroba
jinn, jinnee, djin, djinn, djinni
kat, khat, qat, quat, cat
kef, kif, keef, kaif, kayf
sayyid, sayid, seyyid, seyid, sidi
sheikh, sheik, sheykh, shaikh, shaykh