When visiting Jordan most people will have a go at learning a few basic phrases in Arabic, such as:
Shokran/ Afwan - thank you/ you are welcome
Ahlan wa Sahlan - welcome
Salaam alay kum/ wa alay kum As Salaam - Peace be with you/ and with you Peace
and so on..
However, there is one thing EVERYONE should understand about Arabic and with this little bit of knowledge you have a key to understanding some of the phrases you hear in the news and other commentary about Muslims and Islam.
Before I go on I should take some time to explain that Arabic is an extremely rich language in it's expression. The language lends itself to poetry and it is no secret that Bedouin people love poetry (as do most Arabs). The depth of meaning and how words can have many layers of meaning all come back to one marvellous thing... wait for it ...
Every word has what is referred to as three (sometimes four) ROOT letters.
These letters have a basic general meaning.
Then you add various letters before, in between the root letters, at the end and you add vowels (above and below).
A word is crafted with a specific meaning and a core ROOT meaning.
I think anyone would admit linguistically and in terms of poetic potential that is kind of cool.
This linguistic gem does make a minefield for a person newly starting to learn Arabic because you suddenly start to realise you are hearing lots of very similar sounding words all slightly different so you always feel unsure if you have understood correctly or not. It takes some time to understand how the language works, learn all the various variations and then to confidently understand what is being said.
Beginners in Arabic studies aside, lets take a look at some ROOT letters and how using them makes words that are related to each other:
ع ل م
These three letters are
- "Ayn" pronounced a bit like a throaty "A"
- "Lam" like the English letter "L"
- "Mim" like the English letter "m"
These three letters have a general meaning - to learn. Lets put some letters around those letter and see what we get (the ROOT letters are the capitals):
- muALiM/a - teacher (male)/ (female)
- tALeeM - education/ you learn
- ِALeeM - scholar
- istALaM - inquire
Now lets look at the ROOT letters
ص ل م
- "Sad" like an "s" but with the tongue on the roof of the mouth and more flat sounding, almost like a "dh". Not a "sss"
- "Lam" like the English letter "L"
- "Mim" like the English letter "M"
These letters have a general meaning - peace. It is a bit deeper than that but lets keep it simple for the moment! Lets put some letters around those letter and see what we get (the ROOT letters are the capitals):
- muSLiM - a Muslim, therefore what is being expressed is that a person who is a Muslim is one in a state of peace. This can be spiritually/ internally, at peace with god, at peace mentally and also indicates a physical state of peace.
- SaLaaM - how Muslims greet each other, with peace. Who says the hippies were ahead of their time when they started to greet each other with the word "peace"? Muslims had been doing it for years!
- iSLaaM - as in the Religion. The Religion is called Islam because this is the method or way a person can follow to attain what? Why peace of course!
Lastly I want to do one last group of ROOT letters:
د ر س
- "Dhal" like the English letter "d"
- "Ra" like the English letter "r" but it is usually rolled.
- "S" like the English letter "s"
These letters have a general meaning - to study. Lets put some letters around those letter and see what we get (the ROOT letters are the capitals):
- DaRaSa - to study
- maDRooS - thoughtful
- teDReeS - teaching
- maDRaSa - school. Now it sounds much less scary when you call it a "school" rather than a "Madrassa"... right?