It's a rare newscast today, in any language, that does not include coverage of unrest in one or more countries of the Middle East, where people seem to have reached the limit of their patience with and tolerance of repressive, nonrepresentative governments. Nearly all of the countries in upheaval now are Arabic-speaking countries – and Arabic being a language very remote from English (different alphabet, different language family), we in the Anglophone world form our view of  Middle Eastern events partly through the prism of translation. Even the excellent LinkTV program Mosaic, which digests newscasts from the Middle East in their original language, provides an English translation voiceover. So how much of this tremendous upheaval – upheaval that Aljazeera now dubs the Arab Awakening –  do we really "get"?

We asked our friend and colleague Tim Buckwalter, author of A Frequency Dictionary of Arabic, what he thought of contemporary translations of Arabic journalism into English. He does not find the meanings of any particular words misleading, though he notes that the Arabic word انتفاضة intifāDa (from the root ﻧﻓﺽ nafaDa, shake, shake off, shake out) is now used widely outside the Palestinian context to describe any popular uprising – especially by those who are sympathetic to it. He also finds the usual translation of the commonest chant of protesters,  ash-sha'b yurīd 'isqāT an-niZām, to be spot on: "the people want the overthrow of the regime."

Every journey of words from one language to another runs the risk that something will be lost. Indeed, the idea of something being "lost in translation" is universal and may apply to translation even between languages closely related. The moment you translate a word from another language, you cut it loose from its moorings in that language. The chances that the word you use will find compatible grounding in the target language is not guaranteed.

In our view, this phenomenon is particularly true of translation from Arabic. Though Arabic may appear to untrained Western eyes as only a series a squiggles, and sound like guttural snarls and explosions, it is a language of startling integrity and regularity. It has borrowed considerably less from other languages than most modern European languages have, and its system of morphology would be the envy of a mathematician or systems engineer: theme and variation, along extremely uniform and almost predictable lines, is the rule. If you were going to design a language from the ground up with a goal that it be internally consistent, it would probably look a lot like Arabic.

We've been studying Arabic news reports online with the help of Google News' Arab World edition, looking at some of the words that appear frequently in today's newscasts with a view to contextualizing them better from a native point of view. To show you what we mean, here's a brief and very simplified lesson in Arabic morphology. (Those who want to go in at the deep end may want to look here.)

Most Arabic words are based on a particular three-consonant root (sometimes two consonants and a vowel) that in its simplest form is a verb. The vast majority of words in the language consist of one of these verb roots modified by the application of a template. There are up to a dozen templates for a root verb that can transform it into a different verb with a meaning that is related to the meaning – often in a predictable way – of the root verb. Verbal nouns and adjectives are formed from different templates applied to the roots, and they also display a certain degree of predictability: a particular template, applied to a certain root, transforms the meaning of that root in a predictable – or at least not entirely surprising – way.

The table below shows a few common roots with their most basic meanings at the heads of columns; under the headings, there is a selection of words derived from each root. Words frequently recurring these days in newscasts are linked to their Visual Thesaurus entries.

ظهر Zahara
become visible or apparent

عرض  'aruDa
widen or become wide

ﺜﺎﺭ thāra
stir up, rouse

ﺤﮐﻢ Hakama
pass judgment, decide

ﻧﻈﻢ naZama
put in order, arrange

aZhara show, demonstrate
Zahr top, surface
Zahīr supporter, partisan
Zuhūr appearance
mutaZāhir demonstrator
maZhar guise

'araDa offer resistance
ta'araDa resist, oppose
'urDa target, aim
mu'āraDa opposition
i'tirāD  resistance

athara stimulate, irritate
thawra revolution
thawri rebel
mathār incentive, stimulus
ithāra agitation
muthīr exciting, provocative

Hakkama appoint as ruler
Hukmī legal
Hukūma government
maHkama court, tribunal
Hikma wisdom
iHkām accuracy, precision

niZaam regime
niZāmī orderly, regular, normal
tanZīm control, regulation
manZūm ordered, tidy
munaZZam systematized

The first thing to notice: every Arabic word contains a ghost of sorts, and that ghost is its etymon: the same consonants, in the same order, appear in all words related to a particular root. So if your first language is Arabic, you don't really need to be an etymologist to know where a word comes from: most words carry their derivations on their shirtsleeves. If you read the "Word of the Day" in the Visual Thesaurus, you'll know that this facility does not exist in English: common and uncommon words alike in English may have their roots in any number of languages: Latin, Greek, French, German, Old English, or Italian, for example. As an English speaker you have to be very deeply and broadly educated to recognize, at a glance, the underlying root or idea in a typical word. The general effect of this in English is that many words do not have any particular resonance at all beyond themselves – they do not necessarily invoke a whole family of words and concepts, like Arabic words do.

Another item of interest is the semantic web that is implied by the relationships among Arabic words. Would you expect "opposition" to arise from the idea of widen, or "government" to arise from the idea of judgment? The linguistic ontology of Arabic is in fact quite different from the one that spins out of English. The ontology of Arabic words is also remarkably coherent when viewed from the inside, which is of course the way that native speakers view it; and it gives rise to a very different view of the world than you get if English is your first language.

A word that does not appear in the native Arabic semantic web is democracy. Like many languages around the world, Arabic uses a Greek loan word for this concept: ديمقراطية, demokratia. There is an Arabic compound word Hukm ash-sha'b, "government of the people," with a similar meaning, but contemporary news reports – and the people and developments they report on – use the loan word. So we wonder what kind of resonance this foreign word "democracy" has in the minds of the people who so fervently seek it now. But more than that, we wonder how much of what is in their minds that we don't really get at all.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Monday May 2nd 2011, 10:12 AM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Well said sir. The English speaking or mis-understanding populace miss the points and parts of our own speech. It occurs to me that we are still living in the proverbial Tower of Babel.
Monday May 2nd 2011, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Holly B. (Grand prairie, TX)
Thank you for this very timely insight into Arabic. I would like to note an important difference between interpretation and translation, however. Those who work with the spoken word (for example, providing voiceovers) are interpreters, and they provide imterpretation. Translators work with the written word and provide written translations. A person providing both services is a translator and interpreter. I know it seems like a minor difference but these are actually two separate professions (similar to the difference between a psychologist and a psyhiatrist). Thanks again and best regards.
Monday May 2nd 2011, 2:25 PM
Comment by: Tiktaalik
A child's brain develops in a physical sense so that it is "hard-wired" to fit both the language and culture of its native enviornment. An Arab will not experience the same feeling, let alone meaning that an occident speaker intends to convey. Even if they have become fluent in the second language. In fact, the effect is often the opposite.
Monday May 2nd 2011, 6:37 PM
Comment by: Martin J.
Perhaps just a quibble, but the author wonders 'what kind of resonance this foreign word "democracy" has in the minds of the people who so fervently seek it now'. To this native English speaker, "democracy" is as foreign a word as "republic" or "monarchy". These words show their Latin or Greek roots to anyone who's looking.

People of the Arab states should not be patronised by Americans (or Australians) who may note that Arabic has adopted a foreign word for a basic concept. Like the canard that the French don't have a word for "cheap", or the French riposte that the English don't know how to say "bon appétit!", it's a cheap shot — and it can boomerang.
Tuesday May 3rd 2011, 8:02 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for your comments. Martin: I do not intend to be patronizing; my intention was to draw attention to a linguistic aspect of conflict in the Middle East and to generate interest in the Arabic language. I’m not convinced that democracy is a basic concept – and if it is, it is curiously absent in implementation anywhere in the Arab world, whose people have had as long to try it out as any other culture. If I may quote the blogger “Shylock Holmes” from a post about a month ago:

“For my part, I've become increasingly skeptical of the extent to which fostering democracy in third world is likely to produce better outcomes for the West. In particular, I now tend to think that democracy is the symptom of a society that works, not the cause. What causes society to work is more likely a set of values devoted to pluralism, peaceful resolution of disputes, and a view of fellow countrymen based on shared ideas rather than tribalism. In other words, if there's already some form of civil society you end up with democracy.”

Whether the Arabic language is a cause or a product of a value system that does not promote democracy is a big Whorfian question that I did not explore – though it would be an interesting one to look into.
Thursday May 5th 2011, 1:30 AM
Comment by: nicholas S. (Chesterville, ME)
A sensitive, enlightening commentary. Shukran.
Friday May 6th 2011, 10:33 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Great article Orin! I love linguistic morphology and ontology. It is interesting to hear that Arabic is so systematic, along the lines of constructed languages like Esperanto or Lojban (well, probably not *that* systematic).

I have to confess that I find spoken Arabic quite ugly to listen to. I wonder how much of that is culturally derived, given that Arabs have been so demonized in the U.S. since 9/11. It reminds me of the negative perceptions of German during and after World War II. Would I have the same perception if 9/11 had not occurred and the Arab world were properly revered as an ancient source of scientific and philosophical knowledge? Would we perceive French as ugly if France had been the aggressor during World War II?
Friday May 6th 2011, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comment, Wood. I think a lot of the "ugly sound" rap that spoken Arabic gets -- in addition to what you point out -- is from the fact that the typical sound bite you hear on TV news is from some enraged soldier/protester/victim/jihadi, speaking their own dialect of Arabic. For an antidote, go to the Mosaic website (link at the top of the article) and listen to some of the female newsreaders from Middle Eastern countries. I find their Arabic quite beautiful to listen to, and the many consonants in it that are not found in English -- almost a dozen -- make it interesting.
Monday May 9th 2011, 1:14 PM
Comment by: Olinda
My native language is Hebrew and reading your short, and enlightening, essay made me realize how structurely similar are these two languages (Arabic and Hebrew). I have tried numerous times to ilustrate to my American friends the sturctural differences between English and Hebrew, and surely could have benefited from your concise and clear essay. Thank you.
Wednesday May 11th 2011, 10:15 PM
Comment by: charles F.
I've introduced this nicely written, clearly articulated article into several discussion groups and find that among local college students and faculty there is very little understanding of your salient points. I've come to the conclusion that this lack of understanding is yet another example of the dismal failure in education some parts of our country are undergoing.
Thursday May 12th 2011, 7:01 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you, Charles and Olinda, for your comments. As for failure in education in the US -- I like to think that it is never too late! I wish more people (and more teachers and their students) would take advantage of the Mosaic program on LinkTV, which I reference at the top of the article. It is an eye-opener to see how the very same events are presented in such different lights by Western broadcasters, and by new organizations in the Middle East.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

How Egyptian protesters played with language to tell Mubarak to go.
Translating the Bengali poetry of Rabindranath Tagore into English.
Glossed in Translation
Exploring the chameleon-like feature of language called loan translation.