Do you know how many Arabic words there are for 'love'? To celebrate UN Arabic Language Day, the British Council's Faraan Sayed shares some lesser-known facts about the language.
There are more than 300 million Arabic speakers in the world
Arabic is the official language of the 22 countries that form the Arab League. There are more than 300 million Arabic speakers across the world, though they predominantly live in the region stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations (UN). Yet, in the UK, only one per cent of the adult population can hold a basic conversation in Arabic.
Arabic has different forms depending on the context in which it's used
Arabic is a Central Semitic language, closely related to Aramaic and Hebrew. Standard or Classical Arabic – Fusha – is the distinct form of the language used in media, newspapers, literature and other formal settings. ‘Aamiya, which is colloquial (spoken) Arabic, has many forms that are used in ordinary conversation, and it varies from country to country, and even town to town. The different forms are used side by side to serve different functions in society.
At its core, Arabic developed through a predominantly oral and poetic tradition that flourished in the Arabian Peninsula before the emergence of Islam and a codified Arabic script. The Arabic script is widely used in art through calligraphy and it is now common to see more modern and contemporary Arabic art being produced; some of it uses a fusion of calligraphy and graffiti, known as 'calligraffiti'.
Arabic constructs words from basic roots
As in other Semitic languages, Arabic has a complex and unusual method of constructing words from a basic root. This means that a pattern of three letters such as ‘k-t-b’, will always be the foundation of words that have the semantic field of ‘writing’, such as the work ‘kitaab’ which means ‘a book’ and ‘maktab’ which means ‘a desk or office’. Using the root system means that direct translation, particularly of poetic texts, is often difficult – the root of a word may contain a meaning that could take a few sentences to translate. However, this can be beneficial, and the beauty of it is that it conveys a depth of both meaning and emotion unmatched by many languages.
There are at least 11 words for 'love' and hundreds of words for 'camel'
Arabic has at least 11 words for love and each of them conveys a different stage in the process of falling in love. The word 'hawa', for example, describes the initial attraction or inclining of the soul or mind towards another. The term comes from the root word ‘h-w-a’ - a transient wind that can rise and fall.
'Alaaqa', which comes from the root word (‘a-l-q) which means ‘to cling on to’ describes the next stage when the heart begins to attach itself to the beloved, before evolving into a blind desire 'ishq' and all-consuming love 'shaghaf'. The final stage of falling in love, 'huyum', describes the complete loss of reason.
Interestingly, the most common word for love in Arabic, 'hubb', comes from the same root as the word ‘seed’ – that which has the potential to grow into something beautiful.
The word for heart, ‘qalb’, comes from the root word (q-l-b), meaning to flip or turn something over. Although the word refers to the physical heart, spiritually the root word becomes appropriate when we think of our hearts as something constantly turning over emotions, decisions and opinions. Be careful to pronounce the first letter correctly as the word 'kalb' translates as ‘dog', and is very insulting.
This expansive vocabulary is not just limited to the world of poetry and literature, but also practical life. Arabic is said to have hundreds of words for ‘camel’. For example, ‘Al-Jafool’ means a camel that is frightened by anything; ‘Al-Harib’ is a female camel that walks ahead of the others by a great distance so that it appears to be fleeing.
‘Trust in God, but tie up your camel’ is a great (and practical) Arabic proverb used to express the nature of destiny and personal responsibility. The matter of destiny is also very much embedded within everyday Arabic phrases such as ‘Insha’Allah’ (If God wills). The expression can be used so fervently that, when asking someone’s name, I was once given the response ‘Ahmed, Insha’Allah’.
Arabic has sounds that don't exist in other languages
There are many differences between Arabic and English, the most obvious one being that it is written from right to left. There are also a few sounds that don’t exist in other languages, such as 'ح' , which is a ‘h’ sound as in ‘hubb’ (love). To get an idea of how this is pronounced, imagine breathing on a window pane to create a mist.
English has many words of Arabic origin
English has many words acquired either directly from Arabic or indirectly from Arabic words that have entered into Romance languages before passing into English. Examples include: racquet, alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, (the article ‘al’ in Arabic denotes ‘the’), amber, arsenal, candy, coffee, cotton, ghoul, hazard, lemon, loofah, magazine, sherbet, sofa, tariff – and many more.
The algebraic letter ‘x’ that represents an unknown number, originates from the Arabic word ‘shay’ (thing), which eventually became translated to ‘xay’ in Spain, leading to its final abbreviation and use in algebra as ‘x’.
Even the number system used today was introduced to Europeans by Arab merchants.
18 December 2015 is UN Arabic Language Day. It marks the anniversary of the General Assembly approving Arabic as an official language of the UN in 1973.
UK primary school teachers, download our education pack and introduce your pupils to Arabic language and culture today.