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What is this Tutorial About?

A set of base letters (in a particular order) gives us an abstract meaning, and nothing more. Morphology will tell us which patterns we can apply to these letters, what the result of applying those patterns will be, how to conjugate the resulting word (if possible), and what tangible meaning the new word conveys. Each pattern will give a slightly different meaning, but the underlying concept afforded by the base letters will always be present. This is known as Lesser Etymology (الاشتقاق الصغير).

Lesser Etymology works at the level of a set of base letters and it recognizes the common meanings that different words with the same root letters share. There is another type of etymology, however, called Greater Etymology (الاشتقاق الكبير) that recognizes the common meanings words with different base letters share. It looks at the common thread that runs through different words that Lesser Etymology would consider completely unrelated. And it gives strong attention to the relationship between letters and the meanings that they convey.

This tutorial discusses Greater Etymology.

A Note on this Topic

This is by no means a mature science. It has been recorded to some degree in the books of Abu l-Fath cUthmān b. Jinnī (Cf. al-Khasā’is), Abu cAli al-Fārisī, and Abu l-Fadl cAbd l-Rahmān b. Abi Bakr Jalāl l-Dīn al-Suyūti. Other revered saints have commented on this science in passing, but it remains largely undiscovered territory.

Therefore, what we present here is based on the observation of scholars such as Ibn Jinnī. There are no rules, no systematic methodologies except those we impose ourselves, and no observations are to be taken as universally applicable regulations.

Subject Landscape

Even after well over a millennium, this science is still experiencing its birth pangs. Here we attempt to categorize the sub-topics that it covers in order to get a better understanding of the definition and extent of this science.

This science asks:

·         What is the relationship between (base) letters and the meanings they convey?

·         How are different permutations of the same base letters related in meaning?

·         Is the occurrence of a specific letter in the same position of different bases significant?

o   And what if more than one letter is shared?

·         What is the significance of the form and position of extra letters?

Relationship Between Letters and Meanings


Often times, the letters that make up words – in terms of their sounds, their weight, and other qualities – give an indication towards the meaning they convey. In other words, they are onomatopoeias. And this was something done intentionally by the Arabs when they were coining new words.

For example, the croaking of frogs to an Anglo-Saxon would sound like “ribbit, ribbit”. But to Arabs it sounds more like “dafda, dafda”. Consequently, the Arabic word for frog is ضَفْدَع.

Furthermore, the sound of someone loudly munching on food such as dates (or peanut butter) sounds like “smack, smack”. Early Arabs recognized this sound as “khadam, khadam”. Therefore, the Arabic word for munching is خضَم-يخضِم.

And similar to this is the sound of munching on something hard, as in an animal munching on pellets or its bridle. To us this may sound like “cachunk, cachunk”, but to the Arabs this sounded like “qadam, qadam”. As a result, the Arabic word for munching on something hard is قضَم-يقضِم or قضِم-يقضَم.

Quality in Letters vs. Quality in Meaning

The letters of the Arabic alphabet have several associated qualities such as being light or heavy, being easy to pronounce or being difficult, and so forth. Most of the qualities have been listed below.

·         the  letters in فحثه شخص سكت are pronounced weakly and with a flowing breath, whereas the other letters are pronounced with more vigour and do not flow as well

·         the letters in أجد قط بكت are hard when pronounced, while the other letters are softer

·         the letters in خص ضغط قظ are the heaviest letters of the language; they are heavy, fat, thick, full-mouth letters, while the other letters are not as intense

·         the letters ص، ض، ط، ظ are especially full letters and the tongue rises to the top of the mouth and embraces the palate during their pronunciation

·         the letters in فر من لب are articulated very easily, quickly, swiftly, and with minimal effort, whereas the other letters are not quite as easily pronounced

·         the letters in قطب جد, when without vowels, will be pronounced with somewhat of an echo

·         the letters ز، س، ص create a slight whistle when articulated

·         the letter ش vibrates in the mouth when pronounced

·         the letter ر causes a vibration and shiver of the tongue

·         the letters و and ي flow very nicely and they have the capacity to be extended to several morae

Often the letters of a word have qualities that reflect the meaning that the word conveys. If the letters are intense, for example, the meaning may have an aspect of intensity to it.

An example of this is found in the word خفّ. It has two ف – a letter which is weak, flowing, easy to pronounce, and so forth. And interestingly, this word means to be light or nimble. Similarly, the words حاق and ضاق contain letters that are hard, thick, and have other such qualities. And they both mean to squeeze, constrict, or envelop. And finally, the word غِلاظ, whose letters are very intense, means to be rugged, tough, or thick.

Furthermore, a letter in a given word that has a particular quality may be replaced with a counterpart letter that has the opposite quality. On their own, the two words might mean roughly the same thing, but often – and especially when juxtaposed – their meanings contrast in a manner similar to the contrast of the two letters.

For example, the word نضَح means to flow or splash (as in a river). The letter ح has the quality of being weak and it flows in the mouth easily. Consequently, this word indicates on a gently moving stream. The letter خ, however, is much thicker and harder. Therefore, we can make a switch in this word resulting in نضَخ. This new word, although it may or may not be found in a dictionary, indicates on a gushing stream. Similarly, the word قدّ means to cut something lengthwise. Notice that the letter د has a long echo. The letter ط also has an echo, but it is relatively shorter and this letters is pronounced much more quickly. Hence, if we switch the د with ط, we end up with قطّ which means to cut width-wise.

This sort of thing is, of course, سماعي and not قياسي.

Making these switches is at the height of eloquence, it is the ne plus ultra of literary perfection and it represents the pith of lexicological proficiency. It is no wonder that this sort of thing is well found in the Qur’an. The example of the gushing stream is used by His Ultimate Majesty in the following verse.

﴿فِيْهِمَا عَيْنَانِ نَضَّاخَتَانِ﴾

Therein will be two springs gushing forth

Yet another example of this is found in the following verse that speaks of the people of Thamud. In the verse, the word طغوى has been employed using a واو as opposed to a ياء. Both are allowed, but the former is a stronger letter and it does not glide as well as the latter. Hence the واو version of the word is more intense, indicating on the extreme severity of the insolence of the Thamud people.

﴿كَذَّبَتْ ثَمُوْدُ بِطَغْوٰهَا﴾

The people of Thamud denied (the truth) out of their insolent rebelliousness

Base Letter Permutations

Although every set of base letters has a unique meaning, it has been noticed that the same set with different permutations has an underlying connotation that is common to all permutations. For example, the roots (ج، ب، ر), (ج، ر، ب), (ر، ج، ب), (ر، ب، ج), (ب، ج، ر), and (ب، ر، ج) all have different meanings, but they share a common abstract connotation by virtue of the fact that they share the same letters.

This is not universal, of course, but it is far too common to ignore. Every set of three letters has six permutations. Now all of these might be actual roots (as in the case of ج، ر، ب) or it may be that not all the permutations are meaningful.

Let’s take the letters ق, ل, and و as a quintessential example. These letters (not in any particular order) give the abstract connotation of nimbleness and haste. Now consider the chart below which considers all six permutations of these letters (all of which are meaningful) and analyzes how this abstract connotation comes into play.

(i.e. a set of
base letters)

Some Associated Meanings

Connection with the abstract meaning

ق، و، ل

قول: speech

speech is called قول because it is the thing to which the mouth and tongue hasten and for which they are nimble

ق، ل، و

قلو: wild donkey

because this type of donkey is observed to be quick and nimble

قلا: to bake/fry

because baking causes the food to become dry, light, and it hastens to break apart

و، ق، ل

وقل-يقل: to climb (mount. goat)

due to the goat’s quick and nimble movements up a mountain

و، ل، ق

ولق-يلق: to rush

this is clear

ل، و، ق

لوّق: to work with the hands

as in to knead something and move it quickly within the hands

لَوقة: cream

cream is called لوقة because it’s light and moves easily

ل، ق، و

لَِقْوة: eagle

an eagle has been called لقوة due to its swift movements and nimble strides.

We can thus make the conclusion that base letters such as these have two levels of meanings: the first is the one from the letters themselves, and the other is from their permutation.

Below is a similar table with a different set of letters. The letters are ك, ل, and م which hold the abstract connotation of strength and intensity/severity.


Some Associated Meanings

Connection with the abstract meaning

ك، ل، م

كَلْم: wound

called such because it is serious and life threatening

كلام: speech

because it causes the most intense form of pain

ك، م، ل

كمل: to be complete

when something is complete, it is stronger and more intense than when it was incomplete

ل، ك، م

لكم: to punch or box

a strong and severe blow to the cheek causing intense pain

ل، م، ك

Does Not Exist

م، ك، ل

بئر مكول: a dried up well

called such due to the serious and intense impact a dried up well has on a desert community

م، ل، ك

ملك: to own or rule

due to the strength the ruler has on the ruled

Similarly, the letters س, ق, and و carry the abstract meaning of collecting (e.g. سوق means market, a place where merchandise is collected). And likewise there are many other examples.

Common Letters

The previous section dealt with roots that share all three of their base letters. Here we discuss the case where one or two letters are common between different roots and they occur in a common position. For example, when the letter ت occurs in the second position (whatever the first and third positions may hold), the meaning is often that of cutting or spreading.

Notice that the difference between this section and the previous is twofold:

·         previously, all three letters were the same, while here one or two are different

·         previously, the positions of the letters didn’t matter so long as they were the same, while here the position is important

Taking our example with the ت as the second base letter, consider the following words and their meanings.

·         أتى: to come (i.e. sever yourself from where you were)

·         بتّ: to sever; achieve; terminate; decide once and for all

·         بتر: to sever; amputate

·         بتك to sever

·         بتل: to sever; make final

·         ختّ: to scrape off

·         حَتْف: death (i.e. severance from life)

·         ختن: to circumcise

·         etc

Notice also from the above list the even stronger resemblance between words that share more than just one letter. For example, the words ختر and ختل both share the first two letters while the former means to betray and the latter means to double-cross. Similarly, the words شفا-يشفو and شفى-يشفي share their first two letters while the former means to be on the verge of death and the latter means to cure someone from the verge of death.

Sometimes the meanings of such words are not related on a literal level. Instead, they are often related on the basis of causality. For example, the word عَسْف means oppression and the word أَسَف means grief; when oppressions prevails, grief follows. Similarly, the word حَبْس means to withhold and the word حَمْس means to be eager or zealous; when something is withheld, people become eager for it. And finally, هزّ means to sway back and forth while أزّ means to buzz; when something (as in a mosquito’s wing) sways intensely and repeatedly, it starts to buzz.

One should not object at this point, exclaiming that these meaning associations are farfetched. In fact this was the intent of the Arabs.

Extra Letters

Extra letters that are added to words are often indicative of the types of meanings they convey.

Base Letter Duplication

The verbal paradigm فعّل is achieved by doubling the middle base letter and one of its most prominent connotations is to indicate that an action has been done repeatedly. For example, the simple verb قطع means to cut, but the enhanced verb قطّع means to cut repeatedly (i.e. to chop). Notice that the multiplicity in the word has indicated on the multiplicity in the meaning.

Moreover, the paradigms افعلّ and افعالّ also have a doubling of a base letter and they afford the connotation of something happening a lot or repeatedly. For example, احمرّ means to become very red or to blush and ادهامّ means to become dark green or black. Notice how the duplication of the base letters has indicated on the intensity and even the multiplicity of the meaning.

Similarly, the hyperbolic participle has many patterns. If we pry deep enough, we will notice that not all of these patterns give exactly the same sense of exaggeration to the root letters. The pattern فعّال (as well as فعّالة) give the sense of doing something repeatedly to the extent that it becomes a habit, a profession, or the like. For example, رحّالة means globetrotter (someone who travels repeatedly). Notice that here too the duplication of the base letter has indicated upon the duplication in the meaning.

This duplication doesn’t, in fact, have to be extra. 4-lettered words with letters one and three the same and two and four the same also connote repetition and duplication. For example, the word قلقل means to be agitated; a state during which one moves around repeatedly. زعزع means to convulse. صلصل means to jingle, rattle, ring, or chink; all of these things are done repeatedly. Notice how the multiplicity in letters has indicated on the multiplicity in the action afforded by them.

Extra Letter Positioning

Not only does duplication play a role in the meaning, but its placement is also significant. Notice from above that with فعّل and فعّال, it is the middle letter that has been duplicated, whereas with افعلّ and افعالّ, it is the last letter.

In the case of the first two patterns, the connotation of repetition  is specific in the sense that the repetition happens quickly; no sooner does one instance of the action stop that the next one begins. Moreover, the action itself is choppy; it happens in small, quick instances. For example, تقطيع (chopping) is something which is done quickly and one instance of the action is not entirely complete before the next starts. So notice how the speed and choppiness of the meaning is reflected in the fact that the duplication happens in the middle of the word; the word doesn’t end before the duplication is indicated.

Conversely, the duplication in افعلّ and افعالّ coming at the end indicates that the repetitions of the action are well spaced (relatively speaking) and that the action is not choppy but smooth. For example, احمرار (blushing) is something that happens saliently and it is not choppy; ergo the connotation of intensity. And this has been indicated by the duplication happening at the end of the word; the action completes, then duplication happens.

Something similar happens in the case of صرّ and صرصر. The former means to hum or buzz (as in a grasshopper) and the latter means to hum with pauses in between (e.g. to whip, as in the wings of an eagle). Notice how the compactness of the letters in صرّ indicates on the proximity of noises in a hum, and how the capaciousness of the letters in صرصر indicates on the sparseness of the noises when whipping.

Thus far, our examples have been limited to base letter duplication. But the meanings afforded by extra letters as well as their positions is by no means limited to this. For example, consider the verb paradigm استفعل. Notice that the extra letters that offer the “seeking” meaning (which is by far the most productive connotation of this paradigm) are brought before the base letters at the front of the word. This is because when you want something, you do not yet have it. First comes the seeking, and then comes the action afforded by the base letters. Hence the extra س and ت have accordingly been brought before the base letters.

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