English loanwords in Arabic: data from the early 20th century   2 comments

Not too long ago Riccardo Contini highlighted the importance of travel literature for scholars interested in the diachronic investigation of Arabic by examining Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (first published 1888).[1] Similar, though more paltry, data useful for this kind of linguistic research may also be found in a somewhat unexpected resource, and it is this resource I would like to point out here.

I spent part of the weekend reading H.L. Mencken’s excellent The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the Unites States, originally published in 1919, followed by revised editions, the last of which, the fourth, appeared in 1936. Mencken also augmented this first thick volume with two equally sized supplements. I can hardly praise the book highly enough, both for the information it provides and for the delightful prose and wit in which that information is couched. At the end of the first volume, Mencken offers some remarks on a number of languages spoken in immigrant communities in America, and Arabic is happily among that number, his data having been provided by H.I. Katibah and S. Baddour (pp. 683-685). Here (with modified orthography) are some of the English-influenced lexical items,[2] mostly verbs, he lists, along with a few remarks of my own:

  • sannas earn a cent, as in l-yom mā sannasnā, “We didn’t make a cent today.”
  • šannaj make change (money)
  • šarraj charge
  • darrav drive
  • narvas become nervous
  • layyat be late, as in l-trēn mlayyit, “The train is late.”
  • baḏar bother, as in lā tbaḏirni, “Don’t bother me.”
  • barrak park
  • sammak smoke. The original way to say “I smoked” is šaribtu l-duḫ()āna, “I drank smoke (or tobacco),” etc. (Lane p. 1526, col. 1),[3] but subsequently a denominative II verb from duḫān developed: daḫḫantu (Wehr, Dictionary, p. 317). Cf. D.R. Woodhead and W. Beene, A Dictionary of Iraqi Arabic: Arabic-English, pp. 154-155, 238.
  • faksan fix, as in hāda muš mfaksan, “This isn’t fixed.”
  • [fabrak manufacture. This word is included in the list as though it were an English loan, but it much more likely derives from French fabriquer.]
  • haldab hold up
  • sayyan sign (a document)
  • kaddam say “God damn”
  • some English nouns with Arabic feminine plural marker added: hawsāt (houses), starāt (stores), bazāt (bosses), šuzāt (shoes [as noted in the list, a plural of a plural!]).

As can be clearly seen, most of the verbs, whether taken as from triliteral or quadriliteral roots, are put into the phonological and morphological pattern of the II verb, and this practice is common across Semitic languages for making new verbs, often from nouns (denominative). It’s too bad more examples were not given for these lexical items, but we at least see some participles for the verbs, both active (mlayyit) and passive (mfaksan). Especially interesting are haldab and kaddam, both of which each come from two words in English.


[1] “Travel Literature as a Linguistic Source: Another Look at Doughty’s Najdi Arabic Glossary,” in F.M. Fales and G.F. Grassi, eds., CAMSEMUD 2007: Proceedings of the 13th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, Held in Udine, May 21st-24th, 2007 (Padua, 2010), pp. 305-314.

[2] On evidence of language contact in Modern Standard Arabic see Hans Wehr, Die Besonderheiten des heutigen Hocharabischen mit Berücksichtigung der Einwirkung der europäischen Sprachen (Berlin, 1934), and Majed F. Saˤid, Lexical Innovation through Borrowing in Modern Standard Arabic (Princeton, 1967).

[3] Arabic is not alone in this idiom. As one example outside the Semitic languages note the old expression in German “Tabak trinken”: “Tabak rauchen” dates only from the second half of the 17th century (Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, vol. 8, col. 244). Among Neo-Aramaic dialects, we may similarly cite, at least, šty “drink” used for both liquids and tobacco in the dialects covered by Yona Sabar’s Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dictionary (Wiesbaden, 2002), p. 305. In the dialect of Barwar, inter alia, the verb grš “pull, drag” is used for smoking (G. Khan, The Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Barwar, vol. 2, Lexicon, [Leiden, 2008], p. 1128; idem, A Grammar of Neo-Aramaic: The Dialect of the Jews of Arbel [Leiden, 1999], p. 553; idem, The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Sulemaniyya and Ḥalabja [Leiden, 2004], p. 584). Maclean (A Dictionary of the Dialects of Vernacular Syriac [Oxford, 1901], pp 58, 314) cites both verbs for this meaning. The use of the verb “pull, drag” instead of “drink” may be due to Iranian influence: cf. Persian چبوق كشيدان “smoke a pipe” (Steingass, Dictionary, p. 387) and سگار كشيدان “smoke a cigar” (p. 690).

2 responses to “English loanwords in Arabic: data from the early 20th century

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  1. As a native speaker of Arabic and student of Arabic for 12 years, I’d like to say that this article is not accurate. those words has totally different meaning other than those mentioned in this article. besides that that might be the case in some colloquial Arabic but not in the slandered Arabic. I’m still looking for loan words in the Arabic but so fat I can’t find any .

    • As the title of the post and the source of these words make clear, these words were recorded from Arabic-speakers in early twentieth-century America, that is, immigrants speaking some variety or other of colloquial Arabic in an environment of American English. Such borrowings are not uncommon in mixed-language environments, as studies of loanwords in many languages have made clear.

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