Arabic Loanwords In English

It is considered quite normal for languages to borrow words from other languages. When a language takes words from other languages, these “new arrivals” are usually called borrowings or loan words. But these so-called loans are neither repaid, nor are they meant to be returned as they become property of the borrowing language.

English is unusual in that it has very liberally borrowed from other languages. “English, perhaps more than any other language, is an insatiable borrower. Whereas the speakers of some languages take pains to exclude foreign words from their lexicons, English seems always to have welcomed them,” writes David Crystal in his The Cambridge encyclopaedia of the English language. “Over 120 languages,” he adds, “are on record as source for its present-day vocabulary and the locations of contact are found all over the world”. One of the sources of English words is Arabic and many of Arabic loan words have become an integral part of the English language.

But in the process of adoption and assimilation, some changes have occurred in the pronunciation of loan words due to linguistic and phonetic limitations. In some cases, this change in pronunciation is so drastic that it has become very difficult to recognise the original words. The reason is ‘double adoption’ since natives of England had but a little direct contact with the Arabic language and before these words found their way into the English language, they had already been assimilated into some other European language. As Robert Claiborne has beautifully summed it up in his brilliant work ‘The life and times of the English language’: “Since England, unlike the Mediterranean lands of Christendom, had little direct contact with the Arab world, it borrowed few Arab words ‘from the source’.

Its borrowings were at second hand, via French or Latin, meaning that by the time they had passed into English they had been phonetically (and sometimes syntactically) assimilated not once but twice.

As a result, the English word often has a tenuous resemblance to its Arabic original”.

Here are a few Arabic loan words that, in most cases, have appeared in English dictionaries as headwords. In addition to the books referred above, I have consulted some other books too, especially dictionaries, to ascertain the roots, but citing them all here would have been ponderous.

Some Arabic words have shown little change in pronunciation hence they are easily recognisable. They are used in English almost in the same sense, too. For instance (original Arabic words have been shown in parenthesis), ‘alchemy’ (al-kimia), ‘alembic’ (al-ambiq), ‘alkali’ (al-qali) ‘amber’ (ambar), ‘algebra’ (al-jabr, the full name: al-jabr-w-al-muqabila), ‘Aldebaran’, or the first-magnitude red star of the Hyades, (ad-dubran,), ‘kohl’ (kohl), ‘alcohol’ (al-kohl), ‘cipher’ (sifer),‘orange’ (naranj), ‘sherbet’ (sharbat), ‘sofa’ (suffah) and tariff (taareef).

Many Arabic words appeared in English in a thinly veiled form and can still be recognised with a little effort. For example, saffron (zaafraan), ‘spinach’ (asfaanaakh) and ghoul, or a demon that preys on the dead, (ghol), all sound only slightly different. Similarly, such Arabic words as ‘syrup’ (sharaab), ‘calibre’ (qaalib) and ‘cotton’ (qutun) are easily identified.

‘Admiral’ is derived from ‘ameer-ul-ala’ or ‘ameer-ul-bahr’. ‘Artichoke’ is from ‘al-kharshof’. ‘Candy’ is a slightly different form of Arabic ‘qand’ or ‘qandi’. ‘Makhaazin’ (singular: makhzan) or the ‘storehouses’ became ‘magazine’.

A large number of Arabic loan words entered the English lexicon through Spanish since Spain had been ruled by the Muslims for centuries. Some such words are: ‘alcaide’ or ‘alcayde’ (al-quaid; we can safely assume that the English word ‘guide’, too, is a form of ‘quaid’, or one who leads), ‘alcazar’, or a palace, (al-qasr).

The French language absorbed many Arabic words which were later transmitted to English with some changes. The words that arrived through French include: ‘azimuth’ which in Arabic is ‘as-samt’ (direction).

Another astrological term is ‘zenith’ that came via French. The origin is Arabic ‘samt-ur-rass’. ‘Nadir’ too is a gift from Arabic though the original was not that brief: samt-un-nadhir. Yet another stranger that adapted to western conditions is ‘carafe’, which is from ‘gharafa’, or ‘draw water’.

‘Alcove’ is from ‘qubba’, or ‘al-qubba’, which literally means ‘dome’. ‘Ream’ is from Arabic ‘rizmah’.

Another interesting word is ‘assassin’. Derived form ‘hashasheen’, this word is a reminiscent of a fanatic, militant sect that would intoxicate young men by making them consume hashish or cannabis and order them to murder their political rivals.

Do not forget ‘arsenal’ while talking about murders, for it has been derived from ‘as-sana’, literally meaning ‘fire’.

To take war off your mind, let us talk about love. ‘Gazelle’ is in fact ‘ghazaal’ in Arabic, the same word which has given us a beautiful genre of Urdu love poetry: ‘ghazal’. And if you need some rest, get some ‘mattress’ which is from Arabic ‘matrah’, meaning ‘the place to sit on, a cushion’.

Italian, too, has been a corridor through which alien Arabic words entered the realms of English. ‘Garble’ is one such word. It is from Arabic ‘ghurbaal’, meaning ‘to sift’, though ‘Noor-ul-lughaat’ says it is the Persian word ‘gurbaal’ that has been ‘Arabicised’. Here I have not mentioned words such as mufti, emir, haj, harem, muezzin, jihad, fakir, sheikh or Hadith, etc, that are comparatively newer entrants and are used to denote the same meanings.

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