As any learner of Arabic will know, Arabic words can be deciphered according to their root (often a three letter combination). It is a fascinating exercise to look up words to discover their true meaning. To illustrate an example of etymology using the English language, let us turn to one of the world’s leading linguists and philologist, John Allegro:

The study of the relationship between words and the thoughts they express is called “etymology” since it seeks the “true” (Greek etumos) meaning of the word. The etymologist looks for the “root” of the word, that is the inner core which expresses its fundamental or “radical” concept. For example, if we were to seek the root of a modern barbarism like “de-escalate”, we should immediately remove the “de—” and the verbal appendage “—ate”, slice off the initial “e—” as a recognizable prefix, and be left with “scal—” for further study.

The Latin scala means “ladder” and we are clearly on the right track. But at this stage the etymologist will look out for possible vocalic changes occurring between dialects. One of the more common is between L and N, and we are not surprised to find that an early form of the root has n in place of I, so that Sanskrit, one of the earliest dialects of Indo-European, has a root skan – with the idea of “going up”.

It is therefore incredible that a word like de-escalate can be traced back to its Sanskrit origins. Many words in English can be quickly traced according to their Germanic, Latin and even Greek roots but it is surprising how far back these roots go. As any English speaker knows, during the course of time the sounds of the language morph – Guten Morgen becomes Good morning or Pfeffer becomes pepper. In the Germanic languages, this is know as the constant shift. In historical languages, this is also the case. Going back to ‘de-escalate’, Allegro continues with the following:

Sibilants can interchange, also, such as s and z, and short vowels can drop out in speech between consonants, like i between s and c. In fact, we can break down our Indo-European root scan-, “ascend”, still further into two Sumerian syllables, ZIG, “rise”, and AN, “up”.

The etymology can also give us surprising insights into human thought:

Should we wish to track down the root of our word “rule”, meaning “control, guide, exercise influence over”, etc., we should find that our etymological dictionaries will refer us through an adaptation of Old French back to the Latin regulo, “direct”, connected with regno, reign, rex, king, and so on.

The root here is plain reg – or the like, and its ultimate source we can now discover by taking our search back another three or four thousand years to the earliest known writing of all, that of ancient Sumer in the Mesopotamian basin. There we find a root R-I-G, meaning “shepherd”, and, by breaking the word down even further, we can discover the idea behind “shepherd”, that of ensuring the fecundity of the flocks in his charge.

This explains the very common concept that the king was a “shepherd” to his people, since his task was primarily that of looking after the well-being and enrichment of the land and its people. Here etymology has done more than discover the root-meaning of a particular word: it has opened a window on prehistoric philosophic thought.

More information about the root-and-pattern system in Arabic can be found here – Arabic Root and Pattern.

John Allegro’s work can be found at his foundation’s website

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