Praise & Disparagement
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In Indo-European languages such as English, the infinitive is usually the basic from of the verb of which the rest of the forms are derived.
For example, the infinitive "to talk" is the source of many derived words:
We see that the main stem of the infinitive stays preserved, while the inflection works by affixing other parts to the stem. At least it is so most of the time.
Unfortunately, in Semitic languages things are a little bit more complex than that.
In Arabic, the basic source of all the forms of a verb is called the "root" of the
verb جَذْرُ الفِعْلِ .
The root is not a real word, rather it is a sequence of three consonants that can be found in all the words that are related to it.
Most roots are composed of three letters, very few are of four or five letters.
The root can be easily obtained from the 3rd person masculine singular past form (the perfective) of the verb.
Look at these roots:
You see that the root is not a word; it is just a sequence of consonants. The consonants of the root are separated by different vowels in different words. They can also be separated by other extra consonants that do not belong to the root.
The root is used to make all the forms of a verb. It is used to make nouns as well.
Each root pertains to a certain meaning, e.g. K T B ك ت ب pertains to "writing."
See the following example:
So basically all these words were created by taking the root ك ت ب and adding letters or vowels to it. This is how Semitic languages work.
Almost all Arabic words are structured on roots. Words in Arabic grammar belong to three categories:
So small words without known roots were not even qualified enough to carry the title of a "word" in Arabic grammar. Many of these "letters" are prepositions and they do not undergo inflection.
The letters of the root are called the original letters of a word الأَحْرُفُ الأَصْلِيَّةُ.
The variable letters that appear between the root letters in different words are called the additional letters الأَحْرُفُ الزائِدَةُ .
The letters that can serve as additional letters are ten: أ ا ت س ل م ن هـ و ي
These letters are rounded up in the word: سَأَلْتُمُوْنِيْهَاْ = "you asked me for/about it."
There are standard patterns for adding additional letters to the root. These patterns are called 'awzaan أَوْزَاْنٌ = "measures" or 'abniya(t) أَبْنِيَةٌ= "structures."
So this structure 'in*a*a*(a) has a specific sense that is different from the basic structure *a*a*(a).
Both structures are structures of active voice past (perfective) verbs. However, there is a difference between the two that is reminiscent of the Latin or French difference between faire and se faire. The 'in*a*a*(a) structure is called a "reflexive" verb because it denotes a self-directed action. You can put so many root letters in place of the stars and you will get the same outcome.
Usually stars are not used but instead the root ف ع ل = "do" is used for giving prototypes of different structures.
So these two structures will be standardized:
Etymology Note: Biliteral Roots
Arabic grammar recognizes three-letter, four-letter, and five-letter-roots, but not anything more or less than that. Five-letter-roots exist only in nouns but not verbs.
However, there are several Arabic nouns that have only two consonants in them, for example:
Classical Arabic grammarians did not recognize biliteral roots and considered them all to be modified from triliteral roots. For example, grammarians of the classical period (8th & 9th centuries) debated whether the root of اِسْم wasس م و or و س م .
However, the truth is that Arabic indeed has biliteral roots. Moreover, there was a time at which Arabic did not have any roots but biliteral roots.
This can be shown by comparing the meanings of different triliteral roots; for example:
Notice that all these triliteral roots have a common general meaning, and they all share the first and second root-letters. This indicates that all these roots were derived from a common biliteral ancestor, which is the proto-root ق ط .
Surprisingly, this is also the root of the English verb "cut!" In fact, this has to do with more than mere chance. Such basic verbs are often related to the sound that an action produces, so it is not unusual that they be similar in totally unrelated languages.
Knowing this idea of proto-roots will be very helpful in determining the original meanings of a large number of roots.
For example, knowing that there was a proto-root ق ط whose meaning was related to cutting and to "pieces" will help us figure out easily the original meaning of the following root:
This verb has an odd meaning compared to the meaning of the proto-root ق ط . However, there is another word of the same root whose meaning seems more original:
The English word "cotton" was borrowed from Arabic in Middle Ages. The meaning of "cotton" is more consistent with the general meaning of the proto-root, so we can easily infer that the verb qatan(a) has an altered meaning and that the original meaning of the root ق ط ن is related to "pieces."
Hebrew has the same root:
(He) became small(er)
Another interesting point is that there are several roots that were derived from the same proto-root but they look somewhat different these days. For example:
These words have the proto-root ق ت , which is very similar to ق ط , and they probably were one thing initially. Because we know the meaning of ق ط , we can easily determine the original meaning of ق ت ("pieces").
Knowing these principles will help us figure out the original meanings of countless vague roots, and it will help us avoid making mistakes like, for example, saying that the original meaning of the Arabic root ع ر ف is "to know." This is clearly false as the proto-root ر ف has a totally different meaning.
So it is clear that the proto-root ر ف had a meaning that is related to "moving," "flowing," or "straightness."
As for the root ع ر ف :
(he) knew, became acquainted with
(used for "being familiar with people, things, etc.," equivalent to the French connaξtre )
This verb is irregular both in meaning and structure, as it is shown in the verb section.
However, another word from the same root is:
comb, crest (of rooster)
This word is clearly related to the original meaning of the root ("moving," "flowing," or "straightness"). Thus, the original meaning of ع ر ف is not "to know."
The proto-root ر ف is an interesting one. The Arabic letter ف was originally a P like the English P, so it is not surprising that roots derived from the proto-root ر ب have similar meanings to the ones derived from ر ف .
All these words, and others, are related to the same meaning which is "moving," "flowing," or "straightness."
So now that we have an understanding of the original meanings of ر ف & ر ب , we can try to answer some famous questions, like the etymology of the word "Arab" عَرَبٌ.
A German man once said that the word "arab originally meant "arid land." This became so popular that it was taught at schools in some Arab countries; but when taking the meaning of the proto-root in consideration, this meaning appears unconvincing.
Another, better, theory said that this word was altered from "abar عَبَر, which is related to "passing" or "traversing." This root is also the root of the word "Hebrew," and they are all related to the nomadic lifestyles of those peoples.
However, by comparing many roots derived from the proto-roots ف ر & ب ر, it appears clearly that the original meanings of these roots were related to "filling" and "earth" not to "moving." So the truth is that the word "abar is modified from "arab not the other way around.
Thus, the word "Arab" originally meant a "wanderer" or a "nomad." The roots ع ر ب
and غ ر ب carry related meanings in several Semitic languages.
Triliteral roots were created by adding a third letter to a biliteral roots. Quadriliteral roots were mostly created by doubling a biliteral root, and sometimes by adding a fourth letter to a triliteral root.
Many examples exist on this page. We will mention here only two examples based on the proto-roots we talked about above:
Quadriliteral and Pentaliteral roots were often extracted from foreign loanwords.
A traditional Arab currency is the dirham, which is still a currency unit in several Arab countries today. A dirham was a silver coin in old times. The name of the dirham comes from the Greek drachmē or drachma. It was Arabized to follow the standard Arabic noun structure fi"lal فِعْلَلٌ .
drachmē → dirham دِرْهَم
Some triliteral roots were also extracted from foreign loanwords. An interesting example is the word siraat صِرَاْطٌ meaning "a way" or "a path." This word comes from the Latin strata = "paved road." The Latin word was rendered into the standard verbal noun structure fi"aal فِعَاْلٌ . This is the same structure as that of the word kitaab كِتَاْبٌ = "a book" or "a dispatch."
strata → siraat صِرَاْط