Most words in the Arabic language are derived from a root. A word is created by applying vowels, prefixes and suffixes in an often predictable manner to the original root. According to Karen Ryding in ‘A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic’, there are between 5,000 and 6,500 lexical roots in Arabic.

Each lexical root is a combination of usually three letters. For example the root m-l-k conveys the concept ‘to possess’. From this root, the Arabic language derives numerous other words related to the concept such as: owner, property, king, realm, royalist, transfer of ownership and talent! A cursory glance at the English words indicates that all of them are very different. In Arabic all words contain the same three letters, making the words easily recognisable. The letters must be in the same order.

The root system found within Semitic languages has been described as one of the “great miracles of man’s language” (Lohmann). It is logical and mathematical and unsurprisingly the Arabs are mighty proud of their ‘verbal miracle’.

There is also a joke about this miracle – every root means four things: its basic concept, the opposite, something related to a camel or horse and something so obscene you need to look it up for yourself. An example is the root j-m-l.

Naturally, any Arabic learner will realise that this is an exaggeration but, nonetheless, the Arabic learner will gain a lot of enjoyment by looking up an Arabic root and learning about all the different words – often surprising and sometimes rude.

Further reading about Arabic roots

Learn more about the Arabic Root and Pattern System by ArabicOnline. Short online lesson here.

Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic – Hans Wehr (2011).  Link to Amazon.

A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic – Karen Ryding (2011). Link to Amazon.


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