Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins and how their meanings and pronunciations change over time. At first glance, this might seem like a very dry subject, but it can offer unique insights into the history of the people who speak the language. Take for example the Arabic word for ‘merchant’ تاجر ‹tājir›. On the face of it, it is a normal Arabic word whose root is t-j-r. But according to Lipiński (1997),‹tājir› is actually a borrowing with roots in the ancient Assyro-Bablylonian language.
Assyro-Babylonian (or Akkadian) was once the official language of several empires based in ancient Mesopotamia. Owing to these empires’ political and economic might, the language exerted great influence on surrounding languages, including Aramaic which was spoken in the neighboring Syrian desert. The Arameans were originally a nomadic tribal people who conquered large swathes of land between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. The eastern tribes were eventually subdued by the Assyrians who assimilated them into their society, where they became the prime traders. Over time, as Aramaic became the primary trade language, the Assyrian empire abandoned its own Assyrian and adopted Aramaic, first as the language of government and later of everyday speech.
Despite having died out, Assyro-Babylonian left its mark on Aramaic, not just in pronunciation but in the lexicon as well. One of the words that this new form of Aramaic borrowed was ‘merchant,’ which in Assyro-Babylonian was ‹tamkār-›, from the root m-k-r. Aramaic borrowed it as a slightly altered ‹tangār-›, where the voiceless became a voiced and the bilabial partially assimilated to the velar . This newly adopted word was then affected by a pronunciation rule called nasal assimilation, where whenever ‹n› occurred immediately before another consonant, it assimilated to it. Thus ‹tangār-› became ‹taggār-›.
Centuries passed and just as Assyro-Babylonian was displaced by language of the nomadic Arameans, Aramaic was in turn displaced by the language of the nomadic Arabs as the dominant regional language. Arabic too had the root m-k-r and a verb ‹makara› which originally meant ‘to trade, sell,’ but the root underwent pejoration (i.e. acquired negative connotations) and came to mean ‘deceive’ (this is the meaning in the modern language). Therefore, there was a semantic “hole” that was perfectly filled by the Aramaic word ‹taggār-›, which in modern Arabic is pronounced ‹tujjār-› (original ‹g› developed into ‹j› in Arabic). Because its form was identical to a certain type of plural, this borrowing was interpreted as ‘traders/merchants.’ From this word, the Arabs backformed a new root t-j-r and a new verb ‹tajara› ‘to trade,’ and from that new verb, they created a verbal noun ‹tājir› ‘trader/merchant.’
Its unclear whether Lipiński’s account of this word’s etymology is accurate. However, it clearly reflects the rise and fall of the Middle Eastern empires, and more significantly, the importance of commerce and economic power throughout the region’s history. Of course, this is neither an obscure nor surprising fact, but it is a testament to how the history of a language can provide unique insights into the history of its speakers.
Source: Lipiński, E. (1997). Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar.