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root

How well can you identify Arabic roots?

Some letters can lead you in the wrong direction when trying to figure out the Arabic root. Some tricky examples.

Last updated: June 11, 2021

Usually, identifying the root of an Arabic word is an easy task. Today, we will look at some tricky words.

The word اِزْدَحَمَ

The root is ز–ح–م.

The verb means to be crowded. يَزْدَحِمُ / اِزْدَحَمَ is a VIII-verb following the pattern اِفْتَعَلَ.

Arabic is often described as a language that sounds harsh. Interestingly, just the opposite is true. Arabic takes great care that sounds fit together. The root of اِزْدَحَمَ is ز–ح–م. So, what on earth is the letter د doing here?

Well, د has replaced ت in the VIII-pat­tern اِفْتَعَلَ to facilitate the pronunciation! ت in VIII-verbs always turns into د if the first root letter is ز. Hence, the pattern اِفْتَعَلَ changes into اِفْدَعَلَ.

meaningrootpresent tensepast tense
to be crowdedز-ح-ميَزْدَحِمُاِزْدَحَمَ
to swallow; to gulpز-ر-ديَزْدَرِدُازْدَرَدَ
to increaseز-ي-ديَزْدادُاِزْدَادَ

The word تَارِيخٌ

The root is ء-ر-خ.

The word means history. It is worth putting this root on the operating table.

  • The corresponding verb for history is يُؤَرِّخُ – أَرَّخَ which is a II-verb following the paradigm فَعَّلَ.
  • The active participle (اِسْمُ الْفاعِلِ) of the II-verb, the person who writes down the history, is the مُؤَرِّخٌ.
  • The مَصْدَرٌ of II-verbs is formed using the pattern تَفْعِيلٌ. Thus, the مَصْدَرٌ of أَرَّخَ is تَأْرِيخٌ ‎‎‎– notice the هَمْزةٌ on top of the Aleph.
  • The word تَأْرِيخٌ describes the processof writing down history or dates.
  • The result of تَأْرِيخٌ is تارِيخٌ = history. The plural is تَوارِيخُ(diptote!). Notice that the هَمْزةٌ is gone!

In a nutshell:

  • تارِيخٌ is a noun (اِسْمٌ) denoting the re­sult. This idea is often found in the اِسْمُ الْمَصْدَرِ.
  • تَأْرِيخٌ, the مَصْدَرٌ of the II-verb, denotes the process of reach­ing the goal (هَدَفٌ) of the ac­tion.

Remark: ء-ر-خ is probably not an Arabic root. It is already found in Accadian, Aramaic, and Hebrew. The Hebrew word יָרֵחַ (yareah) means moon and יֶרַח means month from which the idea of a calendar and date might be derived. However, some scholars stated that it is a pure Arabic root or that تَارِيخٌ was formed by transposition from تَأْخِيرٌ (delay).

The word مُسْتَشْفًى

The root is ش–ف–ي.

مُسْتَشْفًى (plural: مُسْتَشْفَيَاتٌ or مَشافٍ) means hospital.

It is the noun of place ( اِسْمُ مَكانٍ) of the X-verb to seek a cure (يَسْتَشْفِي – اِسْتَشْفَى) and uses the pattern مُسْتَفْعَلٌ. It lit­erally denotes the place to seek cure.

In order to identify the root, you need to remove the extra letters م–س–ت until you are left with فْعَلٌ. In our example, the last part is crucial: فًى. If you see such an ending, you can be sure that it is a noun with a shortened ending (اِسْمُ الْمَقْصُورِ) with the characteristic permanent Aleph (أَلِفٌ لازِمةٌ).

Such an Aleph is never followed by Hamza (هَمْزةٌ) and cannot be extended.

Remark: The noun of place (اِسْمُ مَكانٍ) and the passive par­ticiple (اِسْمُ مَفْعُولٍ) of a X-verb share the same pattern!

The word اِطَّلَعَ

The root is ط-ل-ع.

The VIII-verb يَطَّلِعُ – اطَّلَعَ (R1=ط) means to examine; to study; to check. It fol­lows the pattern اِفْتَعَلَ.

For that reason, watch out! According to the verb pattern, the verb should be اِطْتَلَعَ. Since this would be difficult to pronounce, ت and ط merge to double ط – written as طّ.

  • The مَصْدَرٌ is اِطِّلاعٌ and means inspection; ex­amination.
  • The IV-verb يُطْلِعُ – أَطْلَعَ (to inform; to tell) almost looks the same. So, what’s the difference? The IV-verb doesn’t have شَدَّةٌ and it starts with Hamza of rupture (هَمْزَةُ قَطْعٍ), the ء in form of أَ which you have to pronounce.

The word مِينَاءٌ

Some say the root is و-ن-ي. But is it derived from a root?

First of all, the word means harbor. Scholars have suggested that the origin of مِينَاءٌ may go back to ancient Egyptian (where port is mni; mena denotes to tie up a boat in a port), from where it entered Greek (limen), Hebrew (namel – נָמֵל), Syriac (lmênâ) and eventually: Arabic.

There are three common Arabic words for harbor:

  1. مَرْفَأٌ (plural: مَرافِئُ). This is the noun of place (اِسْمُ الْمَكانِ) of the I-verb يَرْفَأُ – رَفَأَ (to drag on shore; to mend; repair).
  2. مَرْسًى (plural: مَراسٍ). The only root in the Qur’an connected with the sea is I-verb يَرْسُو – رَسا (to be at rest; i.e., to anchor). مَرْسًى is its noun of place (اِسْمُ الْمَكانِ).
  3. مِيناءٌ (plural: مَوانِئُ or مَوَانٍ). The ending may suggest the feminine gender, but it is masculine! Note that مَوَانٍ is the correct plural, but مَوانِئُ is quite widespread. If you use مَوَانٍ, don’t forget that the ي will show up in a إِضافةٌ-construction, for example, مَوَانِي الْمَدِينَةِ (ports of the city).

Starting from a very early stage, Classical Arabic scholars have tried to find a root for مِيناءٌ, and found و-ن-ي. This is somewhat far-fetched if we look at its core meaning, but it does fit into our morphological framework quite well.

I-verb يَنِي – وَنَى is tricky because it contains two weak letters: R1=و, R3=ي. It expresses to rest;to be weak, to be tired. Some scholars stated that we should therefore think of the port as a place of refuge for ships when they are “weak” and need to rest and to be supplied with fuel, food, and the like.

So, how did we arrive at مِيناءٌ? The Arabic word for harbor was originally مِوْناي following the pattern مِفْعالٌ. This pattern is used to create a noun of instru­ment (اِسْمُ آلةٍ). Like the Arabic word for minaret (#176), it was originally intended to denote a tool rather than a place. However, مِوْناي would be difficult to pronounce. Hence, the more handy مِينَاءٌ was created.

What kind of operations had to be done to get مِينَاءٌ?

  • The و was converted into ي to facilitate that the initial م can carry كَسْرةٌ.
  • The final ي became Hamza which always happens in such circumstances. For example, بِناءٌ (building), سَماءٌ (sky).
  • Why do we use مَ in the plural, although we have مِ in the singular form? This is typical for the مِفْعالٌ-pattern of nouns of instruments. Some examples: مِقْياسٌ‎ → مَقاييسُ (scale) or ‎ميزانٌ‎ ‎→‎ مَوازينُ (scale) or مِفْتاحٌ ‎→ مَفاتيحُ (key).

Picture credit: cottonbro ; Pexels

1 comment
  1. As someone who never really had an affinity for mathematics, when we learned about مضروب (factorial) in class, I joked that I was in a place to get (mentally) beaten. The joke was met with blank faces, of course 🙂

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