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Words You Need To Know

Words from Arabic

Words from Arabic have come into English in two different ways. A relative few, in more modern times, have made the jump directly as loanwords. In these instances, Arabic had a name for something that was either unknown in English or lacked a name. The more frequent route of Arabic words into English was in previous eras, often traveling through other languages on the way. For that reason the spelling of Arabic words in English is not consistent, but there are nevertheless a few clues that you can watch out for.

Tip from the Top

The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, and among these are letters that represent half a dozen sounds that do not even exist in English. Thus, when a word crosses over from Arabic to English, there is always a compromise about how it will be spelled and pronounced, which sometimes results in inconsistencies. Some English consonants have to do double or triple duty, representing various sounds in Arabic that native speakers of English don't make.

Folk Etymology

Is it just coincidence that mohair describes the hair of a goat? Not exactly. Mohair—like dozens of other words in this book—is the result of a process called "folk etymology." Folk etymology sometimes occurs when a word travels from one language to another. Speakers of the new language (ordinary "folks") often change the word in a way that makes it more like words in their language. To help them remember just what the word is, they might even change a part of it to match a word that is already familiar to them. The original Arabic for mohair is mukhayyar. The element hayyar doesn't mean "hair," but its sound was close enough for English speakers to make the connection. Watch out for other words that you suspect might have elements of folk etymology in them!

Now You Try

  1. 1. Elixir is typical of a word from Arabic in that it has three consonant sounds, not counting the l that is from the Arabic definite article. Why do you think elixir is spelled with only two consonants after the l in English?

    The letter x represents two consonant sounds: \ks\.

  2. 2. Arabic has three different letters, all with different sounds, that English speakers convert to a \k\ sound. How many different ways is \k\ spelled in the list of words from Arabic?

    The \k\ sound is spelled with k (as in alkali), c (as in carmine), q (as in Qatari), que (as in mosque), ch (as in alchemy), and kh (as in mukhtar).

Spelling Tip

Double consonants are often seen in words from Arabic. More often than not, they occur in the middle of a word as in mummy, cotton, henna, foggara, coffle, tarragon, and several other words on the list. Their appearance at the end of a word (as in albatross and tariff) is usually because of the spelling conventions of English or some other language that the word passed through to get here.

Spelling Tip

A typical word from Arabic has three consonant sounds, with or without vowels between them. Gazelle, safari, talc, carafe, mahal, tahini, alkali, hafiz, and salaam are typical examples.

Spelling Tip

Note how many words on this list begin with al: This spelling can be traced to the definite article al ("the") in Arabic, which sometimes gets borrowed along with a word. Most of the time the spelling is al in English, but note el in elixir.

Spelling Tip

A long e sound (\ē\) at the end of a word from Arabic is often spelled with i as in safari and several other words on the list but may also be spelled with y as in mummy and alchemy.

Spelling Tip

The schwa sound (\ə\) at the end of a word from Arabic is usually spelled with a as in henna, tuna, algebra, alfalfa, foggara, and diffa.