Monday, December 05, 2005


World of Three Letter Words

[This post is dedicated to my good friend Cecile. Although Dutch, she is more of a southern European in disposition… if we follow Fredrick Nietzsche’s categorization! I hope it may be of some use in her frustrating efforts to learn some Arabic.

The train of thought that led to this particular post was initiated by a message I received some time ago from a correspondent who was surprised that there were more than a hundred words in the Arabic language for the word “love”.]

The word Semite generally refers to one of the human races. The prevailing idea is that people of this race are descendants from Sam son of Noah. However, the word, as used by historians and anthropologists, generally refers to a group of languages which have common features. The most prominent of these features is that most words of the language derive from roots.

I am not familiar with other Semitic languages, but in Arabic, the roots are usually three-letter verbs. The immediate question that comes to mind is how could three letters of the alphabet generate a sufficient number of words to cover the very diverse human communication needs? The answer is simple: by cheating!

There are three vowels in Arabic and they come in two types: short ones and long ones. The short ones are not normally explicitly written (although, strictly speaking they should) but are usually inferred. They are therefore not counted! And this is what I mean by cheating!

Those short vowels are not considered letters; they are called ‘movements’. There are three main ones: a short “a”, a short “o” and a short “i”.

As an illustration of the derivation of words from those roots, consider the Arabic verb corresponding to ‘to write’: kataba. All three vowels are short ones in this case and the verb is written: k’t’b’ : ﹶﺏﹷﺘﹷﻜ or, less formally, ktb : ﺏﺘﻜ
Hence it can be regarded as a three-letter word.

The interesting feature is that many words can be derived from these three letters. For example: (I will denote short vowels by one character and long vowels by two.)

Kataba – he wrote
Katabat – she wrote
Katabaa – they (two, male) wrote
Katabataa - they (two, female) wrote
Katabu - they (male) wrote
Katabna – they (female) wrote
and so on for numerous verb variants for past, present and future tenses like…
Yaktubu – he writes
Taktubu – she writes
Yaktubaan – they (two, male) write
Taktubaan – they (two, female) write

Iktub – write (command tense, male)
Iktubee – write (command tense, female)

Other verbs can be derived from the original verb root, for example:
Kattaba – to dictate
Kaataba – to correspond with
… these become roots for the same derivations of verb tenses similar to those mentioned above!

Apart from verbs, numerous other words are derived from those ‘three’ letters (similar to, say, ‘writer’, ‘writings’, etc. in English). Below are some examples to illustrate the concept.

Kitaaba – writing
Kaatib – writer
Kaatiba – writer (female)
Kitaab – book
Kutaib – booklet
Maktoob – letter
Maktab – office
Maktaba – library
Mukaataba – correspondence or contract
Kuttaab – school (old form)
Kitba – fate

This actually leads to a profusion of words that can be derived from almost every verb. The result is a wide variety of words that refer to the same basic thing but with slightly differing shades of meaning.

There are indeed more than a hundred words in the Arabic language for the word “love”. Now I hope you know why. There are also hundreds of words for things like walking, running, smiling, crying, the camel, the horse, the sword, rain, clouds and many other items and feelings. The greatest benefactor has naturally been Poetry. It has to be mentioned though that some of those subtle differences in meaning are being lost, perhaps forever, in these times of utility, speed, junk food and junk words.

I have mentioned before that my own favorite poet is someone called Al Mutanabbi who lived about 1000 years ago. Another great poet, Abul ‘Alaa, was so fond of Mutanabbi that he once wrote something like: “When I read through the collected works of Mutanabbi, I find that I cannot replace a single word of his with a better one”. He then goes on to painstakingly demonstrate his point. This, to me, is perhaps the greatest compliment paid to a Poet by a great critic.

Finally, and while on the subject of language, it may be worth mentioning that because of the ‘flowing’ shapes of Arabic characters they lend themselves naturally to the beautiful art of calligraphy.


Readers who are not confused enough by this post should have a look at the link sent to me by a reader. It is written by an American trying to come to grips with the Arabic language. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it made me chuckle a few times… but I’m sure most non-Arabic readers will have a different opinion!

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