Arabic

The Iranian Presence in Classical Arabic and Medieval Islamic Learning

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This article surveys the Iranian presence in pre-Islamic Arabia and the medieval Islamic world, addresses Classical Arabic loans in Modern Persian and features an exclusive English-language listing of 200 Middle Iranian loans in Classical Arabic and their etymologies, compiled by the author.

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A library in present-day Baghdad, named after Bayt al-Hikma; courtyard view, Abbasid-era portion.

On the Prevalence of Classical Arabic Loanwords in Modern Persian

Whereas pre-Islamic Iranian languages are all virtually free of Semitic vocabulary, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic have borrowed a remarkable number of words from Iranian (as did late Babylonian, Achaemenid Elamite, Armenian, Georgian, most Turkic languages, and later, Urdu). Historical linguists have afforded the majority of these languages exhaustive pedigrees of Iranian borrowings, but regrettably few authors have paid attention to the Iranian loans in the Arabic language and literature, and in doing so, have ignored a rich narrative of cultural contact and appropriation.

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The Sassanid Empire (224 A.D.-651 A.D.) was the last Zoroastrian Iranian polity before the arrival of Islam. Sassanian and Byzantine antecedents formed the creative backbone of early Islamic material and visual culture. 

It is no mystery that following the conquest and Islamization of Sassanid Persia throughout the 7th and 8th centuries AD, Iranian languages were shot through, even to the most far-flung dialects, with Arabic loanwords. But never did Arabic attain a currency of a lingua franca in the Iranian world. Instead, knowledge of the Arabic language in Persia throughout the Islamic period was limited to educated city-dwelling Muslim circles, and it was from this stratum of society that Classical Arabic lexica were gradually and purposefully incorporated—often undergoing abstract semantic shifts—into “erudite speech”, which became the basis of New Persian literature, scholarship, and poetry. These Iranian religious figures, literateurs, linguists, poets, historians, mathematicians, chemists, alchemists, astronomers, physicians, geographers, musicians, and philosophers became preeminent contributors to the canonization of the Arabic language and its transformation from a regional nomadic tongue into a universal vehicle of both doctrinal and secular learning. Acculturation was taking place along the same vector– whereby medieval Islamic architecture, horticulture, cuisine, attire, court culture, political offices, etc. were systematically appropriated from earlier Persian and Byzantine models.

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Al-Khwārizmi was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer during the Abbasid Caliphate. The English word “algorithm” is his namesake, and the word “algebra” derives from al-jabr, an operation he used to solve quadratic equations. Here he is pictured on a postal stamp issued by the USSR in 1983 (left) and immortalized in statue at Khiva, Uzbekistan (right).

Knowledge of Classical Arabic was essential and indispensable for religious worship, and the correct reading of the Qur’an was impossible without it. But in the first century of Islamic ascendancy, the Arabs did not produce anything of literary value. If any poetry was composed, it was on the old pagan models and celebrated the poets’ amatory adventures, in stereotyped fashion, rather than the victories of Islam. As Reinhart Dozy notes:

Mais la conversion la plus importante de toute fut celles des Perses. Ce sont eux, et non les Arabes qui ont donné de la fermeté et de la force à l’Islamisme, et en même temps, c’est de leur sein que sont sorties les sectes les plus remarquables. (Dozy, L’Islamisme, p. 156)

It follows that the first grammar of the Arabic language, al-Kitāb, was written by the Persian author Sībūyeh (Arabic: Sībawayh) in the 8th century AD, and many of his Iranian contemporaries with masterful command of Arabic, including Ibn al-Muqaffa’, translated thousands of Indian, Greek, Syriac, and Persian literary works from Middle Persian into Classical Arabic. The epicenter of these intellectual activities was Bayt al-Hikma (literally “House of Wisdom”) in Baghdad, which was the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun’s appropriation of the Sassanid Persian Academy of Gundishāpur, the world’s first center of both religious and secular higher-learning. The Caliph had the contents of Gundishāpur and its world-renowned hospital transported to Bayt al-Hikma, which was staffed by graduates of the Academy of Gundishāpur and wherein the methods of the older Persian academy were to be emulated. The Bukhtishu-Gundishāpuri family were Nestorian Assyrian physicians from Persia who served at the Abbasid court through the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, spanning six generations. The Caliph al-Mansur’s new capital and crown jewel, Baghdad (“God-Given” in Persian), was no exception to this trend; the city had been modeled off of the quintessential Sassanid round city plan (such as at Firuzābād) by a Persian architect and planner, Mashallah ibn Athari, and the auspicious location had been determined by Nawbakht, a Zoroastrian priest. The Abbasid and Fatimid bourgeoisie were patrons of Persian garments, etiquette, court culture, and cuisine, and relied heavily on Persian viziers such as the Barmakid family to oversee crucial matters pertaining to finance and state administration. As such, they adopted the Sassanid postal system and bureaucratic system (diwān).

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Persian gardens (top) have influenced the design of gardens from Andalusia to India and beyond. The gardens of the Alhambra show the influence of Persian Garden philosophy and style in a Moorish Palace scale, from the era of Al-Andalus in Spain (bottom). 

Persian influence increased at the Court of the Caliphs, and reached its zenith under al-Hadi, Harun al-Rashid, and al-Ma’mun. Most of the ministers of the last were Persians or of Iranian extraction. Afshīn Kheydār b. Kāvūs, the all-powerful favorite of the Caliph al-Mu’tasim and a scion of the Buddhist princes of Osrushana in modern-day Uzbekistan, was appointed Abbasid Supreme General and Governor of Sindh, Jebāl, Libya, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Baghdad, Persian fashions continued to enjoy an increasing ascendancy, and the old Persian festivals of Nowruz and Mihrigan were celebrated. Persian raiment was the official court dress, and the tall black conical Persian hats (qalansuwa) were already prescribed as official by the second Abbasid caliph in 770 A.D. At the court, the customs of Sassanians were imitated and garments decorated with golden inscription were introduced which it was the exclusive privilege of the ruler to bestow.

The Islamic Golden Age reached its peak during the 10th and 11th centuries, during which Persia was the main theater of academic activity, eclipsing al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) in volume and significance. Persian scholars and polymaths in various fields produced their masterpieces in Arabic—an Arabic whose lexicon they had made applicable to their respective fields in pioneer ways and for which they had popularized phrases, word forms, and grammatical structures through the dissemination of their works. Among the most prominent of these individuals were al-Khwarizmi, Abu Sina (Avicenna), al-Tusi, al-Biruni, Omar Khayyam, al-Haitham, al-Shirazi, and Naser Khusraw. Ironically enough, we can imagine that a rather pure, eloquent spoken form of Classical Arabic was probably in use among Iranian scholarly circles in Khwārezm (a historic Iranian region corresponding to modern day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), while the Arabic vernaculars spoken in major Arab-inhabited urban centers around the Islamic realm such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba were of colloquial provenance and were undergoing gradual deviation from Classical pronunciation, grammar and lexicon under the influence of regional linguistic factors. These colloquial transformations are reflected in contemporary literary productions such as 13th century manuscripts of “Arabian Nights” or “1001 Nights” (Arabic: Elf Leyla wa Leyla, based on an earlier Persian work Hazār Afsāna, literally “1000 Myths”) recovered from Syria and Egypt.

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The story of “1001 Nights”, also popularized under an orientalist misnomer “Arabian Nights”, is a series of adapted stories based on a mythical Persian king Shahryār and a storyteller Shahrzādeh. The core characters and structural framework of the Arabic language version are inextricably akin to an earlier Persian work, Hazār Afsāna, with the addition of a few Abbasid-era stories and Arabian motifs such as the Jinn.

This trend did not escape the observation of the 14th century Arab historiographer, Ibn Khaldun, who elaborately explains the primacy of Iranian culture and learning in the nascent Islamic world:

It is a remarkable fact that with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs. Thus the founders of grammar were Sibawayh and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the Prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven, the Persians would attain it…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture. [Translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; Frye, R.N. (1977). Golden Age of Persia, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p.91)].

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Mughal India, like the Ottoman Empire and the Timurid Empire, was a Persianate society (a society that is either based on, or strongly influenced by the Persian language, culture, literature, art, and/or identity.). Emperor Shāh Jahān (literally “King of the World” in Persian), commissioned a Persian architect from Badakshān named Ustād Ahmad Lāhauri to construct the Tāj Mahal (“Crown Place” in Persian) for his Persian wife and lover, Mumtāz Mahal (née Arjumand Banu Begum.) The Taj Mahal is one of the largest Persian Garden interpretations in the world.

It was via this initially exclusive medium of scholarly and artistic expression promulgated by Muslim Iranian intelligentsia that Middle Persian began to assume a new form throughout the medieval Islamic period. Middle Persian words became archaic and even obsolete in favor of abstract Classical Arabic loanwords, a feature that was characteristic of the speech of the Muslim Persian city-dwelling elite. A modified Arabic orthography was applied to this transforming tongue in place of the Aramaic-based alphabet used to write Middle Persian. This new form of the Persian language became a prestige dialect and would later enjoy widespread patronage and even official currency in the royal courts of the Ottomans, the Timurids of Central Asia, and the Mughals in India. What are modern-day Turkey and the Indian subcontinent even became important centers of Persian literary and poetic production. In Persianate societies, Arabic words were indirectly transmitted via Persian influence into languages such as Urdu, Turkish, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Turkmen, Pashto, Uyghur, as evidenced by the retention of Persian phonological modifications to Classical Arabic pronunciation in these languages. Sarti Uzbek (but not Khwarezmian or Kipchak Uzbek) even lost vowel harmony—a rudimentary feature of Turkic phonology—as a result of Persian substratum and bilingualism.

But this was by no means the first golden age for the Persian language—pre-Islamic Iranian languages likewise exerted a remarkably pervasive influence on neighboring tongues under the aegis of Iranian suzerains and civilized elite in those territories. Classical Armenian contained an impressive sixty percent of its general vocabulary derived from Iranian languages, and most Aramaic languages had been heavily Persified by the time of the Islamic conquest—even serving as media of transmission for Iranian borrowings into Arabic.

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Bukhara (top) and Samarqand (bottom) are still majority Persian-speaking (Tajik) cities in modern-day Uzbekistan. The structures depicted are architectural heirlooms to the region’s robust Persianate past and former economic prosperity under the Samanid, Ghaznavid, and later Timurid empires. From a philological standpoint, we can imagine that it was in urban centers like these that incoming Turcophone groups interacted with the autochthonous settled Persian-speaking population, and wherein the Uzbek language (Sart dialect; progenitor of the modern literary language) gradually lost features typical of Turkic—the vowels /ü/ and /ö/ and vowel harmony—and adopted thousands of Persian words and phrases (*note the Khwarezmian Uzbek language is of Oghuz provenance but features a heavy admixture of Uyghur-Uzbek elements; the Kipchak Uzbek language is closely related to Kazakh. Both of these languages are vowel-harmonized and feature fewer Persianisms in their lexicon and syntax) 

Thus the prevalence of Arabic loanwords in Persian is largely the fruit of a medieval scholarly tendency among Iranian intelligentsia who were composing their works in Classical Arabic to then incorporate Arabic words and phrases into their speech, perhaps in an attempt to “enrich” the non-Islamic Middle Persian tongue and thereby delineate their stratum in society (city-dwelling, educated Muslim families) on the basis of their prestigious vernacular. Iranian scholars and polymaths also played a pivotal role in the standardization and diffusion of Classical Arabic, and Persians, Greeks and Syriacs served as cultural brokers in the Abbasid court.

List of Middle Iranian Loanwords in Classical Arabic (Compiled by the Author)

Ahmad Amin writes “at a glance one can see that the Arabs in every point or every way they turned or for every necessity of life were obliged to use Persian words. Besides the words themselves they adopted the phrase-making ideas and expressions used by the Persians in explaining various matters or in defining things.”

Hundreds of Iranian words and terms began to enter into Arabic language, sometimes via an Aramaic milieu, and were Arabicized (ta’rīb) in eccentric ways according to the phonetic and morphological system of that language. Verb derivatives were even formed from Iranian nouns according to the Arabic patterns (awzān). It follows that Iranian lexical borrowings in Classical Arabic (mu’arrabāt) pertained to all domains of civilized society, including botany, culinary matters, administration, architecture, minerals, philosophy, zoology, musical instruments, and items of luxury and power adopted from Sassanian Persia. The following are some notable and readily-recognizable Eastern Iranian/Parthian, Middle Persian (MP) loans, and Early New Persian (NP) that remain in Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) as well as most dialects, although borrowings in Classical Arabic and Mesopotamian/Gulf dialects are far more widespread and numerous.

LIST


abad- eternity (MP: a-pād “without foot, endless”)

‘abqari- genius, highest perfection, unsurpassed (MP: abargar “superior, highest”)

adab– literature; courtesy, civility (constructed from MP: dab)

‘anbar- ambergris (MP: hambar)

anbār– warehouse, depot (MP: hambār)

argīla– waterpipe (NP: nārgīl “coconut”)

‘askar, ‘askari- army, military (constructed from MP: lashkar)

‘atr, ‘attar, mu’attar– perfume, perfumist (constructed from MP: atr)

azraq, zarqā’- yellow (constructed from MP: zargōn “golden”)

Baghdād (MP: baga+data “Given by God”)

bahlawān- clown, gymnast (MP: pahlawān “champion”)

bakht- luck (from MP: bakht)

banafsaj- purple, violet (MP: wanafshag, NP: banafsha)

bandar– port, harbor (MP: bandar)

baqshish- tip, gratuity (MP: bakhshish “gratuity”)

bāriz, baraza– prominent; to elevate (constructed from MP, Parthian: borz “high; elevate”)

barīd– post, mailing (constructed from MP: burida-dum “a docked mule appointed for the conveyance of messengers”)

barnāmaj- program (MP: abarnāmag)

bas- (coll.) but, enough, stop (NP: bas)

bashkīr– hand towel (MP: pēshgir)

bathinjān- eggplant (MP: bādengān)

baTT- duck (MP: bat)

bayān- statement, report, accouncement (MP: payām)

baydaq– a footman [in chess] (constructed from MP: payādag, NP: piyāda)

bulbul- bird (MP: bulbul)

bulūr- crystal (MP: bolur)

bunduq– hazelnut (MP: pondik)

bunj- anaesthetic (MP: pōng)

burj– tower (MP: burg)

burwāz- frame (MP: parwast “enclosure”)

bustān- garden (MP: bostān)

bāmiya- okra (MP: bamiya)

bārija- battleship, flagship (MP: bārūja “flower pot”< “a deep-hulled vessel”)

bāzār– market (Parthian: wahāchār, MP: wāzār, NP: bāzār)

būsa- kiss (MP: bōs)

dabīr, dabbara- manager; to oversee, plot (constructed from MP: dipīr)

daftar- notebook, office (MP: dabtar)

darb- gate (MP: darpân “gatekeeper”, Arabic reflex of this term)

darwīsh- ascetic, particularly Sufi (MP: dreyosh “one who lives in holy indigence”)

dashin, yadshin– dedicate (constructed from MP: dashn “gift”)

dumbek– drum (MP: tumbag)

dukkān– shop (MP: dukan)

dulāb– wheel (MP: dol-ab “water wheel [machine]”)

dunyā- world (MP: dunya)

dustūr- constitution (MP: dastwar, NP: dastūr)

dīn, diāna, tadayyun- religion, piety (constructed from MP: dēn> OP: daēna)

dīnār– unit of currency (MP: denār)

dīwān- high governmental body, council (MP: dēwān “archive”)

falak- orb, sphere (MP: parak “the star Canopus, brightest star”)

Fārsī, Bilād al-Furus– Persian, Persia (MP: Pārsīg)

fattash, taftīsh, mufattish- inspect (constructed from MP: pitakhsh “viceroy”>p-t-kh-sh>f-t-sh)

fayj– courier (MP: payg, NP: payk)

fayrūz- turquoise (MP: pērōzag, NP: firuza)

fihris, fahrasa- index, register (constructed from MP: pahrist)

finjān- cup (MP: pengân)

firdaws- paradise (MP: pardēs)

fiSfiSa- alfalfa (MP: ispist)

fustuq- pistacchio (MP: pistag)

fīl- elephant (MP: pil)

filfil– pepper (MP: pelpel)

fūlādh– steel (MP: polad)

fūTa- towel (MP: pusha)

handasa, muhandis- engineer (constructed from MP: [h]andāzag “measure, quantity”, NP: andāza)

hawā’- air, atmosphere (MP: havā> OP: hvayāv “good current”)

haykal- framework, outline (MP: paykar)

Hind- India (Persian name for Sindh, product of h>s Iranian/Indo-Aryan isogloss)

hindām– symmetry (MP: [h]andām “symmetry, arrangment”)

ibrīq- jug (MP: abrēk)

īwān- a chamber or vault, often at the exterior entrance of a building (MP: aywān)

jāmūs– buffalo (MP: gāwmēsh)

janzīr– chain (MP: zanjīr)

jaSS, jaSSās- gypsum; plasterer (MP: gach)

jawhar- essence, substance (constructed from MP: gōhr)

jawhara, jawahir- jewel (constructed from MP: gōhr)

jawz- walnut (MP: gōz)

jazar– carrot (MP: gazar; descendents Larestani: gazrak, Armenian: gazar))

jund, jundīyya, tajannud, tajnīd- army, military service, enlistment (constructed from MP: gund “army”)

jāsūs, tajassus- spy, espionage (constructed from MP: goshash>g-sh-sh>j-s-s, “hearer, listener”)

julnār- pomegranate blossom (MP: gulnār)

jūrāb- socks (NP: jawrāb)

ka’ak– a type of pastry (MP: kāk)

kabāb, kubba- roasted meat on skewers (MP: kabāb)

kahrabā’- electricity (MP: kāhrubā, “yellow amber”)

kamān, kamānja- a musical instrument (MP: kamān “bow”, kamāncha “little bow”)

kānūn- campfire, furnace (MP: kānun)

kanz- treasure (MP: ganj>OP: ganza)

khām- raw [materials], ore (MP: khām “raw, crude”)

khandaq- moat, pit (MP: kandag)

khanjar- dagger (MP: khōngar)

kharj, kharrāj– tribute, duty, work (constructed from MP: harg)

khiār- cucumber (MP: khyār)

khurda- scraps, fragments (MP: khurdag)

khammana, takhmin- guess, speculate, value (constructed from MP: gumān g-m-n > kh-m-n)

khān- shelter, rest stop (MP: khān “house”)

khashin, khushūna- rough, harsh; severity (constructed from MP: khashen)

khazīna, makhzan- treasury (constructed from MP: ganjēna g-j-n > kh-z-n)

kīmīā’– chemistry (MP: kimiā)

kīs- bag (MP: kisag)

kisra- idol (from MP: Kasra, Khosrow)

kūz- vase, storage vessel (MP: kōz)

laymūn: lemon (MP: lēmōg)

lāzaward: lapis lazuli (MP: lajward)

lubiya- bean (MP: lobiya)

mahara, muhr- stamp, seal (MP: muhr)

mahrajān- festival (MP: Mihrigân, Zoroastrian autumnal equinox celebration)

al-Māristān– premier hospital complex of Abbasid-era Baghdad (from MP: wēmāristān; NP: bimārestān)

marj – field (Parthian: marg, MP: marv)

marjān- pearl, coral (MP: margān)

mās– diamond (MP: almās)

masaka, massaka, amsaka, tamassak– adhere, stick, cling, take hold (constructed from MP: mashk “musk”)

mask– musk (MP: mashk)

mawz– banana (MP: mōz)

maydān- city square, field (MP: mēdān)

mezza– taste, starter (MP: mizag, NP: mazza)

mihrāb- niche in the wall of mosque indicating the qibla or direction of Mecca (MP: Mihrāba “Mithraeum”)

miswāk– toothpick, toothbrush (constructed from MP: sawāk, from MP sūdan “to rub, scrape”)

muzarkash, zarkash- colorful, decorated (constructed from MP: zarkesh “gilded”)

nabāt- sugar crystals, “sugar candy” (MP: nabat)

nabīdh– wine (MP: nabēd)

nadhar, intidhār, munādhir, mandhūr– to look, watch, wait (constructed from MP: negar, negaristan)

nafT- oil, petroleum (MP: naft)

namr- cushion, pillow (Parthian: namr “meek”, NP: narm)

naqsh, munāqasha, niqqāsh, naqqāshi, manqūsh- painter, artist (constructed from MP: nakhsh)

narjis- narcissus flower (MP: nargis)

nasrīn- sweetbriar flower (MP: nasrēn)

nishān- badge (MP: nishan)

numūdhaj- exemplary (MP: namudag)

nākhudhā- ship captain (MP: nāv-khudā)

nāranj: orange, clementine (MP: narang)

nāy: reed flute (MP: nay)

nīlūfar: nenuphar, lotus, water lily (MP: nilōpal)

qabr- grave, coffin (MP: gabr “hollow, cavity”)

qafaS– cage (MP: kafas)

qahramān- champion (MP: kār-framān, “manager, overseer”)

qas’a- serving pot (MP: kāsa)

Qazwīn- Caspian (MP: Kasbīn)

qirmiz– crimson, scarlet (MP: kermest)

qubba- vault, dome, cupola (MP: gunbad)

qumbula- bomb (MP: kumpula)

raSāS- lead, tin (constructed from MP: arziz > Parth: archich)

rizq, razaqa, istarzaqa, rezzāq- daily wage, sustenance; to bestow or endow (constructed from MP: rōzig, Parthian: rōchik “daily bread”)

Saidala, Saidaliyya– pharmacy (constructed from MP: chandal “sandalwood”)

Saqr- hawk (MP: chark)

Salīb- cross (MP: chalipa)

Sandal- sandals, sandalwood (MP: chandal “sandalwood”)

Sandūq– chest, crate; treasurer’s office (MP: sandūk)

Sanj– harp (MP: chang)

sarādiq- pavillion, canopy (MP: srādag)

sardāb- basement (MP: sardāba)

sarīr- throne, bed (MP: sarir)

sawsan– lily (MP: sōsan)

shakush- hammer (MP: chakuch)

shāhīn- falcon (MP: shāhēn)

shatranj- chess (MP: chatrang)

shā’ib, shā’ibа, ashīb – grizzly (constructed from MP: āshub)

shāwīsh– sergeant (MP: chāwush “seargent, herald; the leader of a caravan”)

shāy- tea (MP: chāy)

shibbith– dill (MP: sheved)

shīsha- waterpipe (NP: shīshag “bottle, flask”)

siāl, sayl, musīl– flowing, runny (constructed from MP: sayl, i.e. saylāb)

sifir- zero (MP: zifr)

simsār, samsara- middleman, broker (MP: samsar)

sirāj- lamp, light (MP: chirāgh)

sirāT– path, way, custom (MP: srat, “street”)

sirdāb- tunnel, cellar (MP: sardāb)

sirwāl- pants, trousers (MP: shalwār)

sufra- dining table (MP: supra)

sukkar- sugar (MP: shakar)

Sīn- China (MP Chin, name for China, from the Qin dynasty)

sādej- plain, simple (MP: sādag)

sīkh- skewer (MP: sikh)

Sīnīyya- tray (MP: chini, in reference to imported chinaware from the East)

sīra: juice (MP: shirag)

Tabaq- plate, dish (MP: tābag “frying pan”)

Tābūr- line, queue (MP: tabur)

Tarāz- type, brand (MP: taraz)

Tarbūsha– a type of hat, “red fez” hat (NP: sar “head” + pūsh “wear”)

takht, takhta- platform, bench (MP: takht “throne”)

tanbal- lazy (MP: tanparvar)

tannūr- oven (MP: tanūr)

tannūra- skirt, dress (MP:tanvar)

tarjuma, mutarjim– translation (constructed from MP: targumān)

tarzī- tailor (MP: darzi)

tāj- crown (MP>Parthian: tāg)

tāzej– fresh, new (MP: tāzag)

tūt- mulberry, berry (MP: tut)

ustuwāna- disc, cylinder (NP: ostovāna)

ustādh- teacher, master (NP ostād>MP: avistād “master, skillfull man”)

waqt- time (from Parthian, Eastern M.Irn: bakht)

ward, warda- flower, rose (Parthian: ward, Early MP: varda> OP: varda)

wazīr, wizāra- vizier (MP: vichira “bureaucrat, member of Sassanian court”)

yasmīn- jasmine (MP: yasmēn)

yāqūt- ruby (MP: yākand)

Yūnān- Greece (MP: Yonan, Persian name for Ionia)

za’farān– saffron (MP: zarparōn)

zaman, zamān- time [abstract] (MP: zamān, zamanāg, Parthian: zhamān, zhamānak)

zandīq- heretic (MP: zandik)

zanjabīl- ginger (MP: singibir)

zayt, zaytūn– olive (MP: zayt)

zilzāl- earthquake (MP: zilzilag)

zinzāna- prison, dungeon (MP: zindānag)

zumurrud– emerald (MP: uzumburd)


Persian Factors in pre-Islamic Arabia and the days of the Prophet Muhammad

The contacts between Arabia and the Sassanian Persian Empire were very close in the period immediately preceding Islam. The Arab Kingdom centered at al-Hira on the Euphrates had long been under Persian influence and was a headquarters for the diffusion of Iranian culture among the Arabs. Throughout the titanic struggle between the Sassanids and the Byzantine Empire, where al-Hira had been set against the Kingdom of Ghassan, other Arab tribes became involved in the conflict and naturally came under the cultural influence of Persia. The Court of the Lakhmids at al-Hira was in pre-Islamic times a famous center of literary activity, and Christian poets such as Adi ibn Zaid lived long at this court and produced poems containing extensive Persian loanwords. But the Iranian influence was not merely felt along the Mesopotamian areas; it was an Iranian general and Iranian influence that overthrew the Abyssinian suzerainty in southern Arabia during Muhammad’s lifetime.

640px-Kamal-ud-din_Bihzad_001
A Persian manuscript from the 15th century describing the construction of Al-Khornaq castle In Al-Hira, the Arab Lakhmids’ capital city. The Lakhmids were a Christian Arab tribe of Yemenite stock who established their center in southern Iraq in 266 A.D., near the Sassanid capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

In the early days of the Prophet’s mission, there were only seventeen men in the tribe of Quraysh who could read or write. It is said that an Iranian man, known as Hammad ar-Rawiya, seeing how little the Arabs cared for poetry and literature, urged them to study poems. In fact it was Hammad who selected the Mu’allaqāt, the seven Arabic poems written in pre-Mohammedan times and inscribed in gold on rolls of coptic cloth and hung up on the curtains covering the Ka’aba. In this period, Hammad knew more than any one else about the Arabic poetry. According to Edward Browne, before the advent of Islam, the Arabs had a negligible literature and scant poetry. It was the Iranians who after their conversion to Islam, feeling the need to learn the language of the Qur’an, began to use that language for other purposes.

Ph. Gignoux hypothesizes that the Quranic phrase bismi’llahi’l-rahmani’l-rahim was modeled on the Middle Persian pad nam-i yazdan. Although there were antecedent Jewish and Christian parallels, a similar formula was also current among Zoroastrians and Manichaeans.

In The Vocabulary of the Quran, Arthur Jeffrey enumerates over 40 words of Iranian origin in Qur’an, among them the following: ebriq, estabraq, barzakh, burhan, tanur, jizya, junah (from gonah), dirham, din, dinar, rezq, rauza, zabania, zarabi, zakat, zanjabil, zur, sejjil, seraj, soradaq, serbal, sard and zard, sondos, suq, salaba, ‘abqari, efrit, forat, firdaus, fil, kafur, kanz, maeda, al majus, marjan, mask, nuskha, harut and marut, wareda, wazir, yaqut.

In addition, many terms in Classical Arabic literature are transliterations or calques of the Persian: Khamsa Mustaraqa from Panjeh-ye DozdidehMushahira from MahianehNisf an-Nahar from Nim-ruzan-Namal al-fares from Murcheh-SavariMaleeh (origin of Levantine Arabic mniih “good, well”) from NamakinBeyt an-Nar from AteshkadehBalut al-Moluk from Shah-balutSamm al-Himar from Khar-zahrehLisan al-thawr from Gav-zabanReyhan al-Mulk from Shah-Esperam.

Sources: 

Eilers, Wilhelm. Iranisches Lehngut im arabischen Lexikon: Über einige Berufsnamen und Titel. Gravenhage: Mouton, 1962.

Lane, Edward William. An Arabic-English Lexicon.
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2002.02.0021%3Aroot%3Dxmn

Hovannisian, RIchard G.; Sabagh, Georges. The Persian Presence in the Islamic World. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Tafazzoli, A. Arabic Language ii. Iranian loanwords in Arabic.
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/arabic-ii.

Browne, Edward. A Literary History of Persia, Vol. I. 

MacKenzie, D.N. A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary. Psychology Press, 1971.

Shir, Addi. Al-Alfâz Al-Fârsîyya Al-Mu`arraba (A Dictionary of Persian Words in the Arabic Language). Library of Lebanon, 1980.

Gharib, B. Sogdian Language i. Loanwords in Persian.
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sodgian-language-i-loanwords

Agius, Dionisius A. Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean. Brill Academic Pub, 2007.

Cheung, Johnny. Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb. Brill Academic Pub, 2007.

علي الثويني. التائه بين التأثيرات اللسانية و عقدة الخواجة 2-9/محمد مندلاوي
http://www.hekar.net/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=8603

تاثیر زبان فارسی بر زبان و ادبیات شبه قاره هند. محمد عجم.
http://www.hozehonari.com/PrintListItem.aspx?id=22896

Arabic Dialectics Series: Muslim Baghdadi Arabic

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This brief survey of Muslim Baghdadi Arabic is intended for intermediate and advanced students of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) who seek a linguistic introduction to the Baghdadi dialect by comparison to MSA and Mashriqī dialects.

1681px-Arabic_Dialects.svg
Arabic dialect families. Dark green denotes Mesopotamian Arabic and yellow denotes North Mesopotamian Arabic. Note Mesopotamian Arabic dialects are also spoken in a few pockets in eastern Iran (Khorasan) and Central Asia (Uzbekistan and Tajikistan). 

The colloquial Arabic varieties of Iraq belong to two main dialect groups: Mesopotamian Arabic also known as the gilit-group (Baghdad, Basra, Central Asian Arabic, Khuzestani and Khorasani Arabic in Iran), and North Mesopotamian Arabic or the qeltugroup (spoken in Mosul, eastern Syria, and by Jewish and Christian Iraqis and Anatolian Arabs). In linguistics, the gilit-qeltu paradigm is based on the different phonological systems characterizing the two dialect groups, which can be observed in the form of the word “I said”—Baghdad: gilit; Mosul: qeltu.

Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, belonging to the gilit-group, is the prestige dialect of the country. In this article, the term “Muslim” is used to distinguish the dialect from Jewish Baghdadi Arabic, a qeltu-group dialect that was spoken by almost one-third of Baghdad’s inhabitants until 1948, and is currently only spoken in Israel and abroad where it faces imminent extinction among the diaspora. Iraq is also home to a number of other languages, including Kurdish languages (Sorani, Kurmanji or Bahdini, Gorani, Zazaki), Neo-Aramaic and Neo-Mandaic, Turkoman (South Azeri), Armenian, and Persian.

iraq_languages_map
Language composition of Iraq

Muslim Baghdadi Arabic is a dialect of Bedouin provenance that features several unique phonetic, lexical, and morphological paradigms vis-à-vis the surrounding Mashriqī sedentary dialects, and is layered with influences from urban Medieval Baghdadi Arabic and foreign languages such as Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, and Aramaic. This dialect, which belongs to the so-called gilit-group, should not be confused with the Iraqi dialects of the qeltu-group (Jewish Baghdadi Arabic, Christian Baghdadi Arabic, and North Mesopotamian Arabic), all of which seem to be direct descendants of Medieval Baghdadi Arabic—a sedentary medieval dialect. The qeltu-group dialects have different sound systems and morphologies from Muslim Baghdadi and also seem to have retained a greater volume of foreign loanwords that have been more vigorously uprooted from the Muslim dialect under the Ba’ath regime.

Figure 1: Mashriqī Dialect Comparison Table prepared by the author; differences between Standard, Maslāwi, Baghdādi, Damascene (Levantine) and Cairene (Egyptian) dialects. Prepared by Afsheen Sharifzadeh

English Standard Arabic (MSA) Mosul, Baghdad (Jewish and Christian) Baghdad (Muslim) Damascus Cairo
“I told you (f.)” Ana qultu laki Ana qeltolki Āni gilitlich Ana ‘eltellik Ana ‘oltilik
“A lot, many, very” Kathīr, Kathīran Ksīɣ Hwāye, Kullish Ktīr ‘Awī, Ktīr
“I want” Urīdu Aɣīd Arīd Biddī ʕāyiz(a)
“She had” Kān ʕandaha Kān ʕanda Chān ʕedha Kān ʕenda Kān ʕandáha
“I didn’t do” Lam afʕal Ma suwwetu Ma sawweyt Ma ʕamelet Ma ʕameltesh
“With them” Maʕhum Maʕhem Wiyyāhum Maʕun Wayyáhum
“How are you (f.)?” Kayfa Hāluki? Ashlōnki? Shlōnich? Kīfik? Izzáyik?
“There exists” Hunāk, Hunālika Akū Akū
“What” Mādha Ashū Shinū Shū Eh
“Here” Honā Hunī Hnāne Hōn Héna
“Now” Al’ān Hessa Hessa Hallā’ Dilwa’tī
“This way, like this” Hākadhā Hēkī Hīchī Hēkē Keda
“They were going” Kānū yadhhabū Kānū yiɣūhū Chānow da-yerhūn Kānu ʕam-birūhū Kānū  birūhū


Phonemic characteristics

1.) Qāf ق is pronounced differently depending on the word. Sometimes this may seem arbitrary, but there is historical and phonemic rationalization for it. For example, in words that denote higher or abstract concepts, the Classical pronunciation of the qāf has been retained, such as the in the words حقيقةHaqīqa “truth”, مستقبل mustaqbil“future”, and اقتصاد IqtiSād “economy”. The archaic uvular pronunciation of qaaf is also retained in borrowings from Medieval Baghdadi Arabic: دقيقة daqīqaminute, moment”, قرأ qira “he read”.

2.) In general in quotidian/mundane words of Arabic origin, there is a Bedouinization of the qāf from “q” –> “g”. For example, “I say” اقول is pronounced agūl, “I arose/began” قمت is pronounced gumit, “heart” قلب is pronounced gaLub (the “L” is emphatic), and “moon” قمر is pronounced gumar. There is also a tendency to retain the “g” phoneme in loanwords and in some instances to evolve in favor of it (i.e. khāshūga“spoon”, from Persian قاشق qāshogh). However as mentioned above, lexical borrowings from Medieval Baghdadi Arabic regardless of usage retain the Classical uvular pronunciation of qāf.

3.) In some very specific instances, the classical qāf sound is realized as “k” (q–>k). This phenomenon is observed in only a handful of words and seems to be rooted in voiced/unvoiced consonant agreement. For example, the word “time” وقت can be pronounced wakit or alternatively waqit. However, in the fixed word شوكت shwakit(“when”), only the former form is used. We also see this sound change in the 3rd person simple past of the verb “to kill” قتل, which can be heard as kital.

These pronunciations are by and large not interchangeable, and in fact switching between the “q” and “g” phonemes can result in change of meaning (i.e. farraq “to divide” and farrag“to distribute”; warga “leaf” and warqa “piece of paper”). Thus the pronunciation of qaaf depends on the word. Also as a note, the Levantine and Egyptian pronunciation of qāfق as hamza ء is not found in any Mesopotamian dialects.

The letter Dādض is always pronounced as Dhā’ظ, and Dhā’ is in turn pronounced as its classical voiced alveolar fricative pronunciation (as in Modern Standard Arabic).


Iraqi Assyrian singer Daly performs song in different languages and dialects of Iraq in this order: Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, Kurmanji (Bahdini) Kurdish, Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, Basrawi Arabic, Basrawi Arabic.


Lexicon

Muslim Baghdadi Arabic is by no means a creole language, despite its lexical and grammatical distinctions. In fact these differences are not nearly as anomolous as features of other dialects in the Mesopotamian and North Mesopotamian groups, such as Anatolian Arabic and Khorasani Arabic. The core vocabulary of Muslim Baghdadi Arabic derives from Classical Arabic, Medieval Baghdadi Arabic, and Bedouin dialects. For a comparison of Muslim Baghdadi lexicon with other Mashriqī dialects, see Figure 1 above.

There are, however, many loanwords from peripheral languages and other areal features that have made their way into common speech via foreign hegemony, historic trade relations, bilingualism and direct contact between groups living in Baghdad. Many loanwords have become obsolete or consciously uprooted from the language, particularly within the last century. 

English Persian Standard Arabic Muslim Baghdadi Damascene Arabic
“Also, too” Ham, nīz Aydhan Ham, hammena Kamān
“By foot” Piyāde ʕala al-Aqdām Pyāda Mashī
“Wheel” Charkh Dūlāb (from Middle Persian) Charikh Dūlāb
“Manly, Womanly” Mardāne, Zanāne Rujūlī, Niswī Mardāna, Zanāna Rujūlī, Niswī
“Good” Khōsh, Khūb Jayyid Khōsh, Zein, Helū Mnīh, Helū
“Cure, remedy” Chāre ʕilāj Chāra ʕilāj

Figure 2: Language comparison tables prepared by the author; some Persian words in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic. Prepared by Afsheen Sharifzadeh

English Ottoman Turkish Standard Arabic Muslim Baghdadi Damascene Arabic
“Slow” Yavash BaTi’ Yawāsh (borrowed via Persian) Shwayye
“Impolite, mannerless” Edebsiz Gheir mu’addab Adabsizz ‘Alīl adab
“Ice cream” Dondurma Būdha Dondirma Būza
“My lord” (archaic) Agham Sayyidī Āghātī Sayyidī
“Maybe, hopefully” Belki Yumkin Balkī Yimkin

Figure 3: Language comparison tables prepared by the author; some Turkish words in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic. Prepared by Afsheen Sharifzadeh


RT Arabic interview (part 1) with Tamara al-Daghestani, speaking in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, while the interviewer speaks in Standard Arabic. Tamara’s family descends from warriors who were brought to Iraq from Daghestan in modern-day Russia.

Grammatical Distinctions

1.) The present progressive tense is formed by adding the prefix da- to the conjugated stem of the verb. This is likely a borrowing and adaptation from Persian into the early Abbasid-era Baghdadi vernacular. For example, “I am listening” is pronounced Ani da-asmaʕ, and “I am laughing” is Ani da-adhHak.

2.) The particle of existence as in “there is/there are” is akū and “there is not/there are not” is mā. The origin of this word is believed to be from the southeastern Babylonian Aramaic that was spoken in central Mesopotamia prior to the Arab invasion (for further reading, see author Christa Muller-Kessler).

3.) The existence of an indeterminate indefinite article fad فد (“a, some”) that precedes the noun it describes is highly unusual and unique to Mesopotamian Arabic (i.e. “fad rijjāl, fad imreyye” = “a man, a woman”). This likely developed from the use of the Classical word fardفرد meaning “one, single (thing)” in colloquial Medieval Baghdadi Arabic (although it would have been pronounced with guttural “r” as in French and Modern Hebrew according to the sound system of that dialect, which provides insight to the development of its modern pronunciation), which is itself probably a grammatical influence from Persian or Aramaic via substrate/superstrate or bilingualism.

4.) The use of the proclitic d(i)-to add a note of impatience to an imperative verb. The role of this marker is just to intensify the sense of imperative (duklū= “eat!”, digʕud = “sit!”, digūm= “get up!”). This was originally a feature of Medieval Baghdadi Arabic.

5.) The word gām as an indicator of the future or “to begin to do something”, which is based on the Aramaic word qa’em formerly employed in Mandaic and Talmudic Aramaic.

6.) The Classical feminine 2nd and 3rd person plural pronouns are retained and exist as intan and hinna and their suffix pronouns are -chan and -hin respectively. This marked retention of feminine plurals is highly unusual among Mashriqī sedentray dialects and can be attributed to the dialect’s Bedouin origin.

7.) Sometimes colloquially there is an omission of the future tense altogether (an influence from Persian). For example “I will come with you” can be expressed Āni ajī wiyyāk.

8.) Muslim Baghdadi Arabic has consonant harmony, which is essentially the ability of certain consonants (emphatic consonant, bilabials, and velars) to affect or “color” the quality of the vowel they occur directly next to. For example, gumar <— Classical قمر qamar (“moon”) ; buSal <— Classical بصل baSal (“onion”); sima <— Classical سماء samā(“sky”).

It is important to note that all lexical and syntactical features of Aramaic origin have reached Muslim Baghdadi Arabic through the medium of Medieval Baghdadi Arabic, rather than direct contact, because that would be inconsistent with the historical development of Muslim Baghdadi Arabic both chronologically and socio-culturally and would not align correctly with the “life span” of those Aramaic dialects.


Another point of interest is the affrication of Kāك to “ch” (k–>ch), which is a Bedouin feature. This occurs again mostly in quotidian words or lexical borrowings from Persian and Turkish. For example, the past tense of the verb “to be” كان kāna is conjugated as follows:

English Modern Standard Arabic Muslim Baghdadi
“I was” Ana kuntu Āni chinit
“You (m.) were” Anta kunta Inta chinit
“You (f.) were” Anti kunti Inti chinti
“He was” Huwa kān Huwwa chān
“She was” Hiya kānat Hiyya chānat
“We were” Nahnū kunna Ehna chinna
“You (pl.) were” Antum kuntum Intū chintū
“They were” Hum kānū Humma chānōw

Figure 4: past tense of  كان kāna in Muslim Baghdadi

In quotidian words of Arabic origin, the “ch” pronunciation is favored over “k”, although there is incidence of both:

kalbكلب —-> chalib (“dog”)

shubbākشباك —-> shubbāch (“window”)

kabīrكبير —-> chibīr(“big, large”)

bakāبكاء —-> bachī(“cry, weep”)

sikkīnسكّين —-> sichchīna(“knife”)

kidhdhābكذاب —-> chedhdhāb (“lier”)


In lexical borrowings:

chakūch = “hammer” (from Persian via Turkish)

-chī= archaic occupational suffix, as in qundarchī“shoemaker” (from Persian via Turkish)

charpāya= “bed, stand” (from Persian)

chakmak = “boots” (from Persian)

chāi = “tea” (from Persian)

pācha = a traditional dish consisting of sheep’s head and hooves (from Persian)

In some instances, foreign lexical borrowings have adopted the “ch” sound when they originally lacked it: chafchīr = “spatula, large pouring spoon” (from Persian kafgīr)

The k–>ch sound change also serves an important morphological purpose–namely, to distinguish between masculine and feminine personal suffixes. The masculine form is -k while the feminine form is -ch. Ex:

Akhūk= Your (m.) brother

Akhūch= Your (f.) brother

Wiyyāk = with you (m.)

Wiyyāch = with you (f.)


“Good Morning Arabs” interview with Iraqi poet, Shahad Shammari, speaking Muslim Baghdadi Arabic while the interviewer speaks Emirati.

The non-Arabic phoneme “p” also exists in Muslim Baghdadi Arabic, but only in loanwords, and can often be used interchangeably with “b“.

parda = “curtains” (from Persian)

pālTo= “overcoat” (from French via Persian)

pāsha= “high ranking official” (from Persian via Turkish)

Salmān Pāk= a town north of Baghdad near the Sassanid-era ruins of Ctesiphon (المدائن), named after a Persian companion of the prophet Muhammad

pūlādh= “steel” (from Mongolian via Persian)


However, some words have been irreversibly adapted to the standard Arabic sound system and have undergone the resulting sound change “p” –> “b”. Curiously enough, the resulting “b” sound is often emphatic:

toBa=”ball, cannonball” (from Turkish top)

guBBa = “room, vault” (from Persian qoppeh)