Thursday, 21 October 2010


Once when I was walking on the street coming home from work, it happened that I heard somebody who was speaking Gipsy (Romani, AKA Ghajary) language. It was fascinating. He didn't demonstrate his knowledge on Romani language, but he used it. It never happened to me like this in Hungary before, and I was impressed.

So I decided to look it up, what is to know about this language and I found that there are even efforts to standardize it. Moreover, a kind of reform arouse, which includes the tendency to replace loan-words with Hindi ones.

One of these neologisms caught my eyes.

Misal मिसाल, which means "example".

This was necessary because the majority of Romani dialects uses loan-words from the local language that surrounds it, as it can be clearly seen in case of primer (in Slavic areas), bajšpilo (German), and példa (Hungarian).

But as for the misal, it was so striking for me because I understood it immediately, as it is an Arabic word. So this praiseworthy endeavour, to unite Romani language using Hindi words, failed a little here, considering that even Hindi loaned this word. Hence, it blocked keeping things original, because this Hindi word itself is not more original than those to be replaced.

Arabic however generously presented its words to other languages. This word was also adopted by several other languages. Not to go too far, right here it is the Turkish misal, the not-really-surprising Urdu مثال (misal), which can be interpreted as a Persian word as well, and we can find its tracks in the Indonesian misalnya too. As for the Urdu and Persian words they even reserved the original spelling.

The original word مثال (mithál, with the th-sound, as in "both") derives from the Semitic root مثل mathala, which means: to be similar, to resemble. The languages above not only adopted its derivative meaning "example", but also several other forms like amsila, masal, misl, tamsil, those meaning reflects resemblance as well as the "example", "specimen", "model" all resembles to, similar to something.

One of the very useful features of Arabic language is revealed here. This is the radical-system and the pattern driven word forming derives from it. The root letters were emphasized here in order to make easy to realize what kind of patterns are drawn in the specific words, while the order of the root letters never changes.

Moreover, this word is one of those not too rare Semitic words, which share not only similar meaning but also similar pronunciation. Likewise it is in Hebrew mashal (parable/to support with examples), and Amharic msale, msalet (example).

musafir, safari

Once an Arab has told me that Arabic and Romanian are of the same kind of languages. I couldn't hide my opposition. Seeing this, he immediately revealed his argument:

- It's because Romanian when asks how are you doing, what does it say? Ce faci? Right? And likewise the Arabic says: Chefach!

It was an excellent example of a hasty conclusion based on weak knowledge.

Indeed, Romanian says Ce faci, but it literally means: what are you doing? It wouldn't be hard to find the parallels of these words in any Romance languages. Even if he mentions the Slovak čo (a word for "what"), could come closer to the truth than thinking of Arabic.

The Arabic however doesn't say che fach, but it says chef-ach. And it says like this only in some closely distinct dialects in Syria and Jordan. Otherwise it says Kayf (how?) and the 2nd person singular suffix: kayf-ak, كيفك. Therefore it literally says: How are you?

Nevertheless, it really exists something between the two languages, what caught the eyes of their speaker. And this relation is the prominent number of Arabic loan-words in Romanian. As far as I know, this feature didn't get more emphasis in Romanian education than in the Hungarian one.

Such loan-words are the musafir and the world-famous safari as well. Why these two together? I tell you soon. Musafir means guest in Romanian, and according to the Etymological Dictionary of the Romanian language (DEX) it derives directly from the Turkish word misafir. The first written form of this word was müsafir which also means guest. Interesting feature, that Romanian ignored the ü/i version, and accepted the u-version, or in some dialects the currently also widely used o-based transcription: mosafir (cp. Mohamed), which is closer to the original as well. Maybe this tendency can be seen in case of the transcription of the Hungarian word Csík into Ciuc, although the original sound in this word is different.

Noteworthy, that the word musafir can be found in modern Greek as well in the form μουσαφίρης (~musafiris).

The original word was the Arabic musáfir - مسافر, which literally means traveller, who was traditionally received too. This itself derives from the root سفر safara, with the general meaning: to travel.

Here comes safari into focus, which also derives from this root, and in its original meaning it means journey, travel as well. This word travelled through the whole world and appeared in English in 1858 as safar and in 1860 as safari in the meaning: journey, expedition, taken from Swahili directly.

taraf, tarifa

The Romanian word taraf derives from Turkish. In Romanian it means ensemble, small orchestra, band. In Turkish however it means side, facet. Turkish itself loans this word from Arabic (طرف), where it means extremity. It derives from the root tarafa, which means to blink, to twinkle. How it comes from wink to extremity and from extremity to ensemble is obscure for me.

Nevertheless, this has nothing to do with the world famous word tariff (Hungarian tarifa), which also derives from Arabic, but from a different word ta3reef (تعريف), information, announcement, notification, list of fees to be paid. This was adopted by Latin, Italian and English as well. Its root is 3arafa (عرف), to know, to recognize.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

What goes through the needle's eye?

There's an old debate amongst Christians on should the camel or the cable1 force itself to go through the needle's eye in order to be able to enter rich men into Paradise. But let's see what says the Qur'an about it.

Jesus is considered to have said that „For it is easier for a camel to go through the needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Luke, 18:25). However the camel in no way wants to go through the needle's eye. Hence some church fathers – who had more property than to be called poor men – must have felt inconvenience about it. Examining the Greek manuscripts one can see that they sometimes even tried to soften the edge of this phrase. Although the word camelos means camel in Greek, with an elegant maneuvre it can be easily tamed to mean cable, when man writes it with iota instead of eta. This way will turn camelon into camilon (καμηλον -> καμιλον), and likewise will be easier to enter rich men into Paradise. Providing that cable fits into the needle's eye.
Or you think it's impossible?
Well, the author of the text must have ment the same. Considering that the phrase even traced back to ancient times of Semitic languages, and means something like „when hell freezes over”.

While the Syriac Church (who claims that the New Testament was originally written in Aramaic) also stick to the meaning '(thick) rope', the condition of the rich didn't really become less desperate. [Gamlo (ܓܡܠܐ) means in Aramaic tow-rope that used to tow ships as well as camel.]

White hope... (Illustration by Édua

A solution will appear while reading the Quran. While christians argue whether cable or camel should go through the needle's eye, the Quran reveals that doesn't matter which of them. Our key of salvation is not our material essentials, but something completely different.

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ كَذَّبُوا بِآَيَاتِنَا وَاسْتَكْبَرُوا عَنْهَا لَا تُفَتَّحُ لَهُمْ أَبْوَابُ السَّمَاءِ وَلَا يَدْخُلُونَ الْجَنَّةَ حَتَّى يَلِجَ الْجَمَلُ فِي سَمِّ الْخِيَاطِ وَكَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُجْرِمِينَ

„To those who reject Our signs and treat them with arrogance, no opening will there be of the gates of heaven, nor will they enter the garden, until the camel can pass through the eye of the needle: Such is Our reward for those in sin. ” [Quran 7:40]

The original text has „جمل” which can be read as jamal or jummal as well, meaning camel or thick rope respectively.
But it is camel or rope then?
The Quran generously lets the reader decide.

1 In the sense of thick rope.

Koranic Arabic in Clarke's Bible Commentary

Adam Clarke Biblical scholar in his authoritative work spoke in flattering terms about the language of the Qur'an.

Adam Clarke (1760-1832) was one of the most influential methodists, who followed John Wesley. His enormous commentary on the Bible was a standard reference for more than hundred years, and used by all protestant churches. Its thorough and authoritative scientific nature was accepted by Armenian and Calvinist churches as well.

Looking up his commentary at Exodus 20:26 we can find the following sentence: „Mohammed defied all the poets and literati of Arabia to match the language of the Koran; and for purity, elegance, and dignity it bore away the palm, and remained unrivalled.”1
In his work Adam Clarke has mentioned Arabic language several times, which – he wrote – means serious help interpreting the Hebrew and Aramaic texts of the Bible. The scholar himself also set an example by mastering Arabic language, inspiring those who desire to apprehend the message of holy scriptures to do likewise.

1 Of course muslims credit this feature to Allah rather than Mohammed.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The second-most widely used alphabet around the world

Accidentally bumping into an Arabic script, one almost never thinks about that somebody is as familiar with that alphabet as we are with Latin. Yet this is the fact in case of not only minorities but masses!

Arabic is the second-most widely used alphabet around the world (according to Enclopaedia Britannica). Only Latin surmounts to it, which we've already known. Thus if we get learned Arabic alphabet, then we're ready with a remarkable percentage of the world.

Although Arabic is a Semitic language, using Arabic alphabet not only Semitic languages can be written, but also among others Persian, Urdu, Pashto, Malay, Hausa, Swahili, Panjabi, Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Azerbaijani, and Kurdish. Moreover the Jews living in diaspora often wrote Hebrew, and the Ottoman empire used to write Turkish language with it. The list is far from being complete.

In fact, the Arabic script with minor additions is suitable to represent any language. For instance in Europe it was also used to write Portuguese, Spanish, Albanian, Bosnian, Polish (Tatar minority), and Romanian language.

It even fits to write English. For example if we would write "Light comes from the East", it could appear as:
لايْت كَامْز فْرَم ذْ إِيسْت
Of course, there's no standard spelling of Arabic script for English language, hence a slightly different spelling could also be used. But probably anybody - who got used to read Arabic alphabet - could relatively easily and properly read it, depending on the language he/she speaks, even though he/she never has met English before.

There are 30 different writing systems derived from Arabic script, like Xiao’erjing (小兒經, Xiǎo'érjīng, شِيَوْ عَر دٍ) for writing Chinese, and Aljamiado for writing Romance languages (Spanish, Mozarabic, Ladino).

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Why to learn Arabic?

The Arabic language is the cultural language of the middle-east, in fact a lingua franca, and the language of diplomacy and social affairs in all Arabic countries. It has approximately 280 million native speakers along with about 250 million non-native speakers. Accordingly this is the fifth most spoken language in the world.

Arabic influenced many other languages, like Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Persian, Turkish, and more.
Moreover almost all languages has loanwords from Arabic. In English for example among others the following words are derived from Arabic: admiral, algebra, arsenal, elixir, camphor, coffee, magazine, massage, saffron, Satan, syrup, tariff, zenith.

In the middle ages, Arabic was cultural language, the carrier of encyclopedic knowledge, like French in the 18th century. Medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy was transfered by Arabic. Its cultural significance is well illustrated by the fact, that the Arabic word كتاب "book" is used in 15 different languages with the same meaning.
Arabic plays an important role also in studying Semitic languages, for it features enormous literature and vast amount of speakers for almost 3000 years until today. It has written lexicons and grammars long ago. It is a serious help in reconstruction and resuscitation of extinct Semitic languages like Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

And what's probably even more important, that Arabic is liturgical language, the language of a religion. The central language of Islam as well as other religions like Arab Christians, Arab Druze, Mizrahi Jews and Iraqi Mandaeans.
Arabic is the language of the Noble Qur'an and the records about the life of Prophet Muhammad.

Note: You may realized that the author of these posts are a non-native English speaker. I tried hard to avoid mistakes, but I apologize if they happened anyway. Nevertheless I welcome any correction in email.