You might have heard of the term we stand on the shoulders of giants. You might use this term in science, where a new breakthrough idea made possible by the work and discoveries of prior scientific efforts. Well, today we show languages are similar and how common English words have benefited from many languages.
As language learners, we think little about where a word originated from or why this or that word if used. Were often more concerned with remembering a word or pronouncing it correctly. But often there is a wonderful history behind a word, and in today’s English lesson we explore some English words that relate back to Arabic.
The internet has good things and bad things, but mostly it just makes some things easier. I found a wonderful website that makes finding the etymology, etymology just means the origin or history of a word, of a word so much easier, you can find it here. Some people get excited when they find a funny video on the internet, I get excited when I can learn more about languages!
If I have seen further ... it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.
⭐ Isaac Newton, 1675. In a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke
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Etymology Eclectic Algebra Algorithm Opponent
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English is a mixture of all sorts of different languages – the Latin based languages, like French, Italian, Spanish and of course the influence of the Romans, when they occupied Britain. But also much of our language is Germanic, with words from Anglo Saxon - it looks similar to Dutch or German or the Scandinavian languages. But we also have words in our language from outside Europe.
We have Indian words for instance, and of course, Arabic words too. This mixture is one of the things which makes English a bit difficult – because it’s an ‘eclectic’ language –that means that it’s a mixture of kinds of languages. But when you get comfortable with English, it’s rich and varied – and expressive because of this.
So what English words are there, that you’ll know, which come from Arabic?
Well, first of all, let me just acknowledge that our whole number system, and that adopted by most of the world, is of course Arabic. Before that we have the Roman Numeral system. That’s a difficult one – any child who’s had to work with Roman Numerals as an exercise in Maths at school – any child knows that they’re quite difficult to manage, especially when you get onto big numbers.
If you want to say the year 1998 for example in Roman Numerals, it’s MCMXCVIII. Ah – too difficult – can you imagine doing maths with that lot? So thank goodness for Arabic numerals – all sorts of things are possible because of the Arabic numbering system.
And while we’re on the subject of numbers, the word ‘zero’, ZERO in English, meaning ‘nothing’ – as in 1 minus 1 = 0 – ‘zero’ is an Arabic number and an Arabic idea. Again the Roman Numeral system fell short here as it didn’t have a way of expressing ‘nothing’ – so Fibonacci apparently introduced it in the 13th century.
And the word ‘zero’ in English can be tracked back to the Italian ‘zero’, which started out as ‘zefiro’ and originated with the Arabic ‘sifr’ صفر (‘Ssss-fff) meaning ‘empty’. And there are other common words in English which are Arabic in origin.
Ironically, the word ‘alcohol’, ALCOHOL is Arabic – I say ‘ironically’, because many people in Arab countries don’t drink alcohol. But of course, there are also many people who do. So here the Arabic word ‘al-kuhl’ كحول (‘Coh-hole’) led to the French word ‘alcool’(‘al-cool’) – and then to English ‘alcohol’. ‘Alcohol’ actually is a term from Chemistry as well – whenever you ‘distil’ something, that’s DISTIL, you remove part of the liquid by heating, leaving behind something more concentrated - and that is ‘an alcohol’.
Another common word in English – ‘sugar’, SUGAR. If you like your coffee or your tea sweet, then you’ll add sugar. This word exists in a similar form in German ‘Zucker’ and French ‘sucre’, Italian ‘zucchero’ (Zzzuck-erroh’) and Spanish, ‘azúcar’ (‘Athh-ucar’) and I’m sure it’s a similar word in many languages.
And this is because the original word is Arabic –السكر alsukar (‘Ass-uckero’) – I think it’s like that – I’ll try again–السكر alsukar (‘Ass-uckero’)! And this is because Arabic traders first brought sugar to Europe. So the history gets woven in with the language. Everybody got their sugar from the same place, so the same word for sugar, or similar words for ‘sugar’ in different languages.
A photograph of a spoon full of white sugar. Used to help explain the origin of the English word sugar
And back to more numbers - if you did algebra at school, you probably either loved it or hated it. ‘Algebra’, ALGEBRA in English is when you substitute letters for numbers – because you don’t know what the value of the number is.
You use algebra in mathematical formulae – if you like Maths. And in Physics and Chemistry too – Einstein’s E=mc2 is a formula. And the word ‘algebra’ sounds Latin, but actually it comes from Arabic word ‘al-jabr’, meaning ‘the restoring of broken parts ’. And the modern Arabic word is aljabar (al-jab-rro), الجبر.
The word ‘al-jabr’ became known after a book was written in the 9th century, called ‘The Science of Restoring and Balancing.’ written by the Persian mathematician and astronomer al-Khwarizmi 1 (ALCHH-HOWER-IZMEE). In the book, al-Khwarizmi is exploring mathematical formulae and the idea that where you have an equals sign (‘=’) in a formula, things on either side must balance.
So this book was a revelation. And guess what? al-Khwarizmi (ALCHH-HOWER-IZMEE) gave his name to the word ‘algorithm’ in English, ALGORITHM. Little did a Persian mathematician and astronomer of the 9th century know that his name would still be in such common use in our computerized age!
Another word, which you’ll probably know in English – lemon, LEMON. A yellow citrus fruit, with a sharp taste. You might cook your chicken with lemon, or put lemon in your G&T.
Well, this name ‘lemon’ comes from the Arabic limun (LEY-MORN-Û ), ليمون. Trying again - limun (LEY-MORN-Û ), ليمون. So again, Arab traders brought lemons reputedly from India to the Middle East and thence to Spain, France and Britain. Interesting that in Spanish it’s clearly the same word, limón (LEE-MAN), Italian does Limone (LIMM-OAN-EY), we do ‘lemon’, but in French it’s ‘citron’ and German has ‘Zitrone’ – so the last two follow the Latin, ‘citrea’ (KITREA) instead.
I love these links between languages – you can often see that there are different paths for a word to go down – so do you follow ‘limon’ or ‘citron’?
Shall we do one more? If you play chess, CHESS in English and your opponent, that’s OPPONENT, that’s the person you’re playing against, if your opponent says ‘Checkmate!’ - that’s the end of the game.
It means ‘Your king is dead’ - your king cannot escape – So that’s checkmate, CHECKMATE! Well, the reason why we say ‘Checkmate’, which sounds all very English, is that we’re actually saying in Arabic ‘Shah’ (SHARE-HEM) شاه or ‘Shah’ – that’s king and mat’ مات (MAT-un)– ‘is dead’.
So ‘shah mat’ or trying to do a better pronunciation here, ‘Shah’ (SHARE-HEM) شاه مات (MAT-un) became ‘Checkmate’ ‘Your king is dead’. Well, I didn’t know that! I knew the word ‘Shah’, but I didn’t know that.
Anyway, there are some interesting digressions for into links between Arabic and English. If you’re an Arabic speaker, please don’t judge my pronunciation too harshly – but let me know what I got wrong!
It’s really about just loving different languages and being interested in them and the links between. If you’ve got any you want to share – let us know.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.