Being a native Arabic speaker, one of the most difficult challenges I found when learning English was its lack of familiarity to anything I’ve known before. I could say the same about learning Portuguese, my most recent undertaking since moving to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Although my task was made easier because I could draw upon my experiences of learning English. I imagine I’m not the only who thinks this way. Our lack of familiarity with a language can make learning it frustrating and intimidating. I do think that sometimes we are more familiar with things than we actually know, and our initial impressions are not entirely accurate.
Have you ever heard people conversing in Arabic? I think that those who have no or minimal exposure to it would find it intimidating and perhaps intriguing. Some common observations I would expect to hear are that it’s guttural, rough, and unlike anything they’ve heard. In reality it’s neither, but our reaction is heavily influenced by the languages we already know. To most English speakers, whose language is derived from Germanic, it’s certainly different than what they’re usually accustomed to. This is also true for speakers of romance languages.
Consider any of the romance languages used in Europe and parts of the Americas: Although they are very different, they share a relatively similar alphabet, and on many occasions similar vocabulary. This is not surprising given their common ancestry. In many instances we only need to change our pronunciation, or a letter or two, to arrive at the same word in one or two other languages. The English word “jar,” for example, has the French, Spanish, and Portuguese equivalents of (respectively) “Jarre,” “Jarra,” and “Jarro.” While noting the obvious differences we can also see the clear resemblances. Now consider the Arabic equivalent of the same word; that is the word “جرة”. If you did not know already, “جرة” is transliterated as “jarra.” Phonetically it sounds similar to its English equivalent, and it’s almost identical to its Spanish, French, and Portuguese equivalents. In fact the origin of the word “jar” is Arabic, and it’s one of many hundreds of English words that share that heritage.
This one example is not meant to mitigate the vast differences between Arabic and European languages, but if we look closely we will find many similarities. As I mentioned earlier, the English language is strewn with words whose origin is Arabic: Alcohol, or “الكحول”; magazine, or *“ماغازين”; mascara, or “المسكرة” are just a few examples.
Incidentally, alcohol, or “الكحول” (al-ko’hool), was invented by an Arab chemist named Al-Kindi (أبو يوسف يعقوب إبن إسحاق الكندي, Abu Yoosef Ya’kub Is’haq al-Kindi). Or more precisely the chemical (another word of Arabic origin from “الكيميائية”, “al-keemya’eya”, derived from “الكيمياء”, “al-keemya’a”, which means “chemistry”) process to isolate distilled alcohol and ethanol was invented by Al-Kindi—next time you’re enjoying your vodka-tonic perhaps you could toast in his honour.
Some words of Arabic origin:
- Amber “العنبر” (anbar)
- Crimson “قرمزي” (karmazi)
- Elixir “إكسير” (ikseer)
- Carat “قيراط” (kirat)
- Cottom “القطن” (al-kutn)
- Sherbet “شربات” (sharabat)
- Tahini “الطحينة” (tahina)
- Chipher / zero “صفر” (sifr)
- Mask / mascara “المسكرة” (mascara)
- Alcohol “الكحول” (al-kohool)
- Hazard “زهر” (zahr)
- Caliber “قالب” (ka’leb)
- Jar “جرة” (jarra)
- Chemistry “الكيمياء” (al-keemya’a)
* A side note: While “magazine” is commonly used in English to describe printed publications, the origin of its Arabic equivalent “ماغازين”, (makhazeen), is obsolete. Today we use a similar word to describe a storehouse: ”مخزن” (makhzan). Ironically, we have now adopted the English meaning of this word (magazine, as in a publication) even though its Arabic roots mean something entirely different.