Sunday, December 16, 2012

Week 15/16: Finals and Cultural Syncretism

I have been looking forward to writing this post all semester. It is the culmination of all the attention I've paid to the similarities between English, Spanish, and Arabic. But before I get to the final list of linguistic similarities I want to talk about my new found taste in hip hop and the concerts I've attended over the past week. Recently I have started listening to more rap music. I wasn't that conscious of it until I realized that hip hop doesn't exist in Jordan like it does in the States. I think it's a representation of missing home. Yet, I'll be somewhere over the Atlantic a week from now.


Last weekend I visited the National Music Conservatory to listen to traditional music and watch a Dabka dance group. The singer pictured above was unbelievable. Being a westerner, If I closed my eyes I couldn't tell whether or not I was listening to Feyruz. The picture below is of St. George Cathedral. I performed there the past two nights with my choir Dozan wa Awtar. I didn't find out until later but one of the princesses from the Royal Family was in attendance. The decorations were unbelievable.


The list that follows speaks for the way that I look at the world after four months in Amman, Jordan. In the Modern Era, it seems commonplace that cultural differences are given more weight then similarities. Cultures and societies around the world tend to overlook their similarities due to competition for resources, nationalism, and pure xenophobia. The need for an other or an outsider is fundamental to the way that nations have formed and boundaries have been drawn over the past two centuries. Though cultural divergence is a common trend, my beliefs form a counter-argument centered around cultural syncretism. Cultural syncretism addresses the similarities and the abilities of disparate identities to meld together overtime. I believe one of the best sets of indicators for this process are the sounds and words languages impart upon each other with prolonged exposure. I would argue that the remnants of Arabic we still see in Spanish and English came from the eight hundred year exchange amongst Arabs and Europeans in the Iberian Peninsula. I hope these observations lead you to see bonds that we never take enough time to notice as English, Spanish, or Arabic speakers. No matter your culture or language I hope these connections help you too to look for the similarities amongst all the differences. 

Overarching Observations: (some of these might require some background in Arabic)

  • Sun letters/Moon letters: oftentimes one can see the loss of ل in English and Spanish words taken from Arabic 
  • The Arabic article 'al' still remains within many words
  • Key terms remain within our vocabulary because of the impact Arabic thinkers had on Math and Science 
  • Just as in Arabic dialects the letter qaf (ق) can also make a 'g' sound
English-Spanish-Arabic (English phonetic spelling): On specific words I have comments on meaning and the circumstances in which I realized the possible relationship.

*disclaimer* I guarantee there are typos throughout, if you notice any feel free to correct me. I'm sure some of these connections are not based on anything other than coincidence, in which case I'd like to apologize to those who have a background in philology. For words that have no comments the meaning is the same across all three languages.

  1. alchemy-alquimia-الكيمياء (al kemea): If you have read The Alchemist you might appreciate this instance of linguistic overlap. 
  2. alcohol-alcohol-الكحول (al cahool): As you can see with many of these first entries that the article 'al' still remains in many words making them dead giveaways in terms of lineage.
  3. alfalfa-alfalfa-الفصفصة (alfasfisa)
  4. algebra-álgebra-الجبر (al jabr)
  5. algorithm/logarithm-algoritmo/logaritmo-لوغارميان (logarmeyen): I'm not sure if this is relevant but I noticed the words algo (something) and ritmo (rhythm) within the word algoritmo. This is probably a coincidence.
  6. almanac-almanaque-المناخ (alminah):  In Arabic almanac literally means "the climate." This is one of my favorite connections because of its undeniable relationship between the languages in question. Every American remembers hearing about Poor Richard's Almanack in middle school. Under the pseudonym Poor Richard, Ben Franklin published his almanac to give the colonies a rough forecast for the coming seasons and help farmers decide when to plant/harvest. So in a sense the meaning climate still remains in the English word almanac but we are often unaware of how it traces back to Spain and beyond to the Middle East.
  7. asthma-asma-ازمة (azma): This is another surprising connection I made a couple months ago. While travelling around Amman by taxi, cab drivers always use the word azma because its meaning in Arabic is blockage or crowdedness. The linkage is obvious yet I still am not sure if azma in Arabic has any relevance in the field of medicine.
  8. bathtub-bañera-بانيو (banyu)
  9. camisol-camiseta-قميص (qamees): It's possible this connection comes from French rather than Spanish and French colonial rule in the region rather than Al-Andalus.
  10. cave-cueva-كهف (kehif)
  11. cipher-cifra-صفر (sifr): Here is another representation of linguistic exchange through Math. Cipher is not a common word in English, I see cifra more commonly used in Spanish. Sifr means zero in Arabic. Though cipher or cifra can mean any numerical figure in Math, the first meaning in an English dictionary is actually zero. And according to dictionary.com you can call someone a cipher if you want an alternate route to calling them a zero or a low life.
  12. cotton-algodón-القطن (al cutin): From studying the Jordanian dialect of Arabic I have experienced firsthand how the letter ق qaf can be changed to make a 'g' sound. This would explain the difference between the Spanish and English words for cotton.
  13. coffee-café-قهوة (kahwa)
  14. cow-vaca-بقرة (bakira): One starts to wonder why the letters 'p' and 'v' remain in the Spanish alphabet when speakers persist in pronouncing them as the letter 'b'. In Arabic this sound and pronunciation is consolidated in the letter ب or 'ba'.
  15. cup-taza-طاسة (tasa)
  16. cut-cortar-قص (qas)
  17. drawer-girador-جارور (jirour): It's correlations like this that make me wonder if I'm picking up on English words that have been recently taken into use by Arabic (freezer, to save, fabricate). Yet, the presence of girador in Spanish leads me to believe that there is a common lineage behind these words.
  18. el Cid-el Cid-سيد (sayd): I hate to be break Spain's nationalistic bubble but el Cid, the Catholic Crusader hero, took his name from Arabic. In Arabic one uses sayd as a formal reference such as Mr. To set the record straight el Cid most likely spoke Arabic. Furthermore, he fought as a mercenary for Christian rulers and various Muslim princes of Al-Andalus. So my question is how does one make a crusader out of el Cid? The answer comes by means of the Spanish historian Ramón Menendez Pidal and his contributions to Franco's propaganda.
  19. enough-bastante-بس (bas)
  20. f***-j***-***هذ: those who know the words I'm talking about can see the relationship, but for those who don't know the spanish f-word comes from the Arabic to throw a 'bad' substance on someone. 
  21. facade-fachada-فساد (facade): corruption in Arabic
  22. guitar-guitarra-قيثارة (gethara)
  23. until-hasta-حتى (hata)
  24. hallelujah-hallelujah- الحمد لله (al hamdulilah)This is one of the common phrases you hear in Arabic. Ask anyone how they are doing, the response most of the time is alhamdulilah. It sounds similar to hallelujah and creates the same idea as "thanks be to God."
  25. hopefully-ójala- ان شاءاللة (in shah allah): This is great example of the continued presence of the Arabic word for God or Dios in Spanish.
  26. jewel-joyería-جوهرة (jaohra): This was one of my first realizations here in Jordan. I was in a restaurant eating humus with my whole program when I looked across the traffic circle and sounded out the word for jewelry shop for the first time in Arabic. I was immediately struck by its similarity to Spanish.
  27. kiss-besa-بوسة (boosa)
  28. lamp-lámpara-لامبة (lamba)
  29. lemon-limón-ليمون (lemoon)
  30. Matt(check mate)-matar-مات (matt): I have gone by Matthew in Jordan because my shortened name literally means dead in Arabic. More importantly, the term check mate in chess and the verb matar (to kill) show a relationship to Arabic. Check mate in Arabic actually means the leader or king is dead.
  31. masticate(to chew)-masticar-مستكة (mastika): I saw this on a gum wrapper the other day and it reminded me of the verb to chew in Spanish and the uncommon equivalent in English; masticate.
  32. Messiah-Mesías-مسيح (maseeh): When I'm asked my religion by cab drivers, which is about twice a week, the word for Christian that I reply with in Arabic is the equivalent of saying Messiahan in English. It's not a direct translation but it seems Messiah could be related back to semitic lingual roots.
  33. mirror/mirage-espejo/espejismo-مرآة/مرية (miraya/mir'a)
  34. music-música-موسيقى (museeka)
  35. to nail-clavar-نيل (nayila): I cannot verify this correlation in google translate, but my assistant director assures me that the statement to nail a test has the same meaning in Arabic and the verb has a similar sound.
  36. olive-aceituna-زيتون (zaytoon)
  37. other-otra-اخرى (akhra)
  38. oud-oud-العود (oud)
  39. oven-horno-فرن (forn): I believe in Gallego and Portuguese the word for oven is forno. This swap between 'h' and 'f' seems to be common within dialects and languages of the Iberian Peninsula. It seems that it might relate back to Arabic.
  40. pharaoh-faraón-فزعون (faraon)
  41. Portugal-Portugal-برتقال (bortuqal): Portugal closely resembles the word for orange in Arabic.
  42. potato-patata-بطاطة (batata)
  43. priest-cura-خوري (khoury): Though there are other words for priest in Spanish and Arabic vocabulary, sacerdote or kehin, my realization about a common last name of Christians in the Middle East leads me to believe it impacted the word cura in Spanish.
  44. rice-arroz-الاُرز (arruz)
  45. ruckus-lío-الرقص (al rukis): This is another instance of unlikely linguistic relation but usefulness in remembering the Arabic verbal noun for dancing.
  46. Sabbath-sábado- السبت (al sabt): Even though the word Sabbath shows some relationship to Arabic the holy day is the first day of the work week in the Middle East. Yes, the weekend in Jordan is Friday-Saturday as opposed to Saturday-Sunday.
  47. scorpion-alacrán-العقرب (al akrub)
  48. she-ella-هي (heeya)
  49. shrimp-gambas-جمبري (gambree): My first full day in Jordan I saw this word in a restaurant menu. Because it looked similar to gambas in Spanish I pronounced it with the English 'g' sound rather than our 'j' sound. It turns out what I thought was the Spanish way to pronounce the word is also correct in Arabic.
  50. star-estrella-الثريا (atraya): I recently learned the word for chandelier in Arabic (atraya). Though, it was not until I found out that Arab poets frequently call a special star 'chandelier' that I realized the possible relationship to estrella in Spanish.
  51. sauce-salsa-صلصة (salsa)
  52. sugar-azúcar-السكر(asukr)
  53. tea-té-شاي (chai)
  54. tomato-tomate-طماطم (tomatum)
  55. thou-usted-استاذ (ustezz): Though ustezz specifically refers to a professor or teacher in Arabic, speakers often refer to one another with ustezz as a sign of formality. This shows a direct relation to the formal usted in Spanish. The closest equivalent we have in English is thou. Hemingway uses thou a lot in For Whom the Bell Tolls to convey the formality of usted in Castellano Spanish.
  56. yacht-yate-يخت (yakt): This is one of the first words/cognates I learned in Arabic class.
  57. zephyr-céfiro-زفير (zafeer): Though Zephyr is the god of the west wind in Greek mythology the word means exhale in Arabic.
If I am realizing this similarities in the Middle East than it means these common words and sounds existed here before they were transferred to Spain. Though it's possible these similarities were transferred by other routes and languages in which I have no background. I know some of you reading this speak Turkish, Italian, German, French, Swedish, maybe even Farsi. If any of these observations make sense within languages other than Spanish, English, and Arabic feel free to post your realizations of common linguistic lineage. Also, if you realize any new similarities I'd love to hear them. Thank you for reading all the way to this point. I'm leaving Jordan 4 days from now. If you are Jordanian I want to thank you for this experience and for contributing to such a welcoming culture.

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