Much has been said about the influence of Arabic, as the language of Islam, on the speech of majority Muslim peoples. However, not nearly as much attention has been paid to how other languages have shaped and changed Arabic. Persian, mostly through word borrowings, has been one of the most important — if not the most important — of these languages, and what follows is a brief description of the nature of that Persian influence and how Arabic adapted to it.
The first thing to note is not all Persian words entered into Arabic directly. Many of them were borrowed through Aramaic, which was major lingua franca and trade language of the region (as well as serving as the official language of the Achaemenid dynasty of ancient Persia). As such, many of the Arabic words for spices, plants, precious stones, and other common goods are Persian in origin. Examples include the following:
- Arab. ‹ballūr› ‘crystal’ < Pers. ‹belūr›
- ‹fayrūz› ‘turquoise’ < ‹pīrūze›
- ‹hāl›/‹hayl› ‘cardamom’ < ‹hel›
- ‹ˀibrīq› ‘water jug’ < ultimately from ‹āb› ‘water’ + ‹rīxtan› ‘to pour’
- ‹kanz› ‘treasure’ < Mid. Pers. ‹ganj› via Aram.
- ‹lāzaward› ‘lapis lazuli’ < ‹lāj(a)vard›
- ‹līmūn› ‘lemon’ < ‹līmū›
- ‹marjān› ‘coral’ < Mid. Pers. ‹murvārīt› ‘pearl’ via Aram. ‹margānītā›
- ‹mawz› ‘banana’ < Mid. Pers. ‹mōz›
- ‹misk› ‘musk’ < Mid. Pers. ‹mušk›
- ‹nisrīn› ‘dog rose’ < ‹nasrīn›
- ‹sabānix› ‘spinach’ < ‹aspanāx›
- ‹sunbul› ‘hyacinth’ < ‹sonbol›
- ‹šabat›/‹šibitt› ‘dill’ < ‹ševīd›
- ‹xiyār› ‘cucumber’ < ‹xiyār›
- ‹yāqūt› ‘ruby’ < ‹yāqūt›
- ‹yašb› ‘jasper’ < ‹yashp›
- ‹yasmīn› ‘jasmine’ < ‹yāsamīn›
- ‹zanjabīl› ‘ginger’ < Mid. Pers.‹singavēr› via Aram.
- ‹zumurrud› ‘emerald’ < ‹zomorrod›
The defining characteristic of the majority of these loanwords is that they diverge from the typical native Arabic word structure, which is usually composed of only three root consonants that are modified according to specific, productive patterns. Words like <lāzaward> and <zanjabīl> immediately stand out in this regard.
Some of the words that seem to look like Arabic words conflict in meaning. For example, seems to have the root m-s-k, but this is an already existing root meaning ‘touch, grasp.’ Similarly, <xiyār> conflicts with the root x-y-r meaning ‘choice.’
ADAPTATIONS OF THE BORROWINGS
Persian and Arabic, although having a long history of interaction and mutual influence, are not related languages. The former is a member of the Indo-European language family and is genetically related to Greek, Latin, Armenian, Sanskrit, English, etc. Arabic, on the other hand, is a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family, like Aramaic, Ge‘ez, Tamazight, Hausa, Somali, etc. There are significant differences between the two, including in their respective sound systems, which means that when words are borrowed, they must undergo a process of (sometimes drastic) adaptation to the sound, syllable, and word structure of the borrowing language.
This happens in Arabic borrowings into Persian; for example, Arabic ‹ádab› ‘discipline, politeness’ (stress on the first syllable in accordance with Arabic stress rules) becomes ‹adáb› in Persian (stress on the second syllable in accordance with Persian stress rules). And certainly the reverse is true in that Arabic also adapted the pronunciation and structure of Persian words into a format compatible with its grammar. The following three sections highlight some of these changes.
FINAL ‹-g› IN MIDDLE PERSIAN
Many words in Middle Persian ended in ‹-g›; for example, the name of the language was ‹pārsīg›, ‘plan’ was ‹barnāmag›, and ‘pistachio’ was ‹pistag›. Middle Persian was spoken up until the 9th century, meaning that Arabic borrowed many words from this stage of Persian, including ones ending in ‹-g›. Modern Standard Arabic lacks a ‹g›, so the modern reflex of the Persian is usually ‹j› or ‹q›. Thus ‹barnāmag› is Arabic ‹barnāmij› and ‹pistag› became ‹fustuq›. However, it should be noted that developed from an original and that
is pronounced as in many modern spoken varieties of Arabic. So these adaptations are not random substitutions.
As with all languages, Middle Persian experienced changes and eventually developed into New (i.e. modern) Persian. Among the changes was that the final ‹-g› was dropped. In modern Persian, the name of the language is ‹pārsī› or <fārsī>, ‘plan’ is ‹barnāme›, and ‘pistachio’ is ‹peste›. But this sound change only occurred in Persian, meaning it had no effect on any Persian loanwords in Arabic. The result is that Arabic contains “fossilized” forms of many Persian words. Other examples include the following:
- Arab. ‹banafsaj› ‘violet’ versus Pers. ‹banafše›
- ‹baydaq› ‘pawn (chess)’ versus ‹piyāde›
- ‹dībāj› ‘silk brocade’ versus ‹dībā›
- ‹namūḏaj› ‘example’ versus ‹namūne›
- ‹ṭāzaj› ‘fresh’ versus ‹tāze›
Interestingly, in some spoken Arabic varieties, the word for ‘fresh’ is ‹ṭāza›, lacking any evidence of the Middle Persian final ‹-g›. Ostensibly, this would suggest that Persian loans in Arabic were indeed affected by the sound change. However, this is actually an instance in which Arabic re-borrowed the word – this second time however via Turkish, which had adopted it from Persian after the final had disappeared.
CHANGE OF ‹č› TO ‹ṣ› OR ‹s›
Persian has a ‹č› sound (as in ‘chair’) which standard Arabic and many spoken varieties lack. Normally, in borrowings from other languages, this sound is usually changed to ‹š› (as in ‘share’), such as Arabic ‹šekk› from English ‘check.’ However, in words of Persian origin, ‹č› tends to correspond to Arabic ‹ṣ› or occasionally ‹s›.
At first glance, this is strange because ‹ṣ› is a pharyngealized sound; that is, it is pronounced by creating a simultaneous constriction in the pharynx as the sound is produced in the mouth. Compare the plain ‹s> of <sūs› (‘licorice’) and its pharyngealized counterpart ‹ṣ> in <ṣūṣ› (‘chick’). The latter sounds very like a deep ‹s› but nothing at all like ‹č›. This is likely due to the tradition of Iranian languages, such as Sogdian and Pahlavi, to use the Aramaic letter representing <ṣ> for <č>. Aramaic speakers would have likely read the letter as <ṣ>, which then was passed on to Arabic speakers. There are a number of loanwords that exhibit this change, including the following:
- Arab. ‹jaṣṣ› ‘plaster, gypsum’ < Pers. ‹gač›
- ‹raṣāṣ› ‘lead’ < Mid. Pers. ‹arčīč›
- ‹ṣandal› ‘sandal, sandalwood’ < ‹čandal›
- ‹ṣārūj› ‘mortar’ < Mid. Pers. ‹čārūg›
- ‹ṣihrīj› ‘cistern’ < Mid. Pers. ‹čahrēg›
- ‹ṣīn› ‘China’ < ‹čīn›
- ‹sirāj› ‘lamp’ < ‹čerāġ›
BACK-FORMATION OF WORDS
Arabic, being a Semitic language, has a root-and-pattern system of morphology, meaning that roots composed of consonants are applied to pre-existing patterns to form words. An example of this is ‹kitāb› ‘book’ and ‹maktab› ‘desk,’ both from the root k-t-b ‘write.’ The plurals of many words are also determined by pre-existing patterns, so that ‘books’ is ‹kutub› and ‘desks’ is ‹makātib›. Notice that the consonants stay the same, but the vowels are altered to indicate pluralization.
Some Persian words that were borrowed into Arabic very strongly resembled certain plural patterns, and indeed Arabic speakers interpreted these words as plurals. Recall from my post on the etymology of ‹tājir› ‘merchant’ that this is not unheard of in Arabic. But by reinterpreting originally singular words as plurals, speakers created a lexical ‘gap’ where a singular ought to have been. The solution was to back-form new singular forms from plurals based on the forms that exist for native Arabic words.
To illustrate, the Middle Persian word for ‘pawn’ (as in the chess piece) was ‹payādag›, which was borrowed as Arabic ‹bayādiq›. Comparing ‹bayādiq› to ‹makātib› `desks,’ one can immediately recognize that while the consonants differ, the vowels are identical. Thus Arabic speakers interpreted ‹bayādiq› not as ‘pawn’ but as ‘pawns.‘ Based on this interpretation, if ‹bayādiq› is a plural whose form matches ‹makātib›, then it would follow that the singular form of the former would match that of the latter. Thus, ‹baydaq› ‘pawn’ — having the same vowels and structure as ‹maktab› `desk’ — was back-formed as the new singular form.
Some other words that exhibit this back-formation include:
- ‹firdaws› ‘paradise’ from Old Iranian *‹paridaiza›, which was borrowed as ‹farādīs› ‘paradises.’
- ‹jāmūs› ‘water buffalo’ from Middle Persian ‹gāwmeš›, which was borrowed as ‹jawāmīs› ‘water buffalos.’
- ‹nibr› ‘warehouse’ from Middle Persian ‹anbār›, which was borrowed as ‹ˀanbār› ‘warehouses.’
Many if not most of the loanwords discussed above were clearly borrowed in pre-Islamic or early Islamic times. This makes sense, given that Arabic was not an established language of prestige in that era unlike Persian, which was the language of one of the two most powerful empires in the region at the time. As Arabic ascended in influence through association with Islam, Persian borrowings into Arabic decreased.
However, they did not stop, and many spoken Arabic varieties continued to borrow Persian words. Obviously, those varieties spoken near or in Iran, such as Iraqi Arabic, contain more Persian loanwords than those that are not. Two examples from my own dialect (urban Palestinian) are ‹bābūj› ‘slipper’ from ‹pāpūč› and ‹šākūš› ‘hammer’ from ‹čakoš›. Neither of these words exists in standard Arabic, but they are both widely used in many spoken varieties of Arabic. The existence of two words for ‘fresh’ borrowed from two different eras of Persian discussed above also demonstrates the continued influence of the language on Arabic.
‘Iranian Loanwords in Arabic.’ Encyclopædia Iranica.
Jeffrey, A. (1938). Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an.
‘Pharyngealization in Arabic.’ UCLA Phonetics Lab.
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.