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If you’re reading this on a computer, then you have Arabic to thank. While it doesn’t seem even remotely related to English (we use left-to-right Roman type; they read their garble from right to left), Arabic has left its mark on many other languages… including the Queen’s English and the binary code that’s powering your computer system!
English has picked up a bunch of Arabic words over the centuries, including ‘garble’ (which comes from gharbal, or ‘to sift’) as well as maths and tech terms such as ‘algorithm’ (named after the Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi) and ‘algebra’ (from al-jabr, which means ‘to restore broken parts’), and even a word that hard-working techies will know very well: ‘coffee’ (from qahwah, which originally meant ‘wine’)!
Orange, lemon, alcohol, cotton, magazine … English has dozens of Arabic-inspired words in its arsenal (there’s another one!). But to really appreciate the global influence of the Arabic language and culture, you have to go back to its origins.
The history of Arabic
The language was first spoken by nomads on the northwest frontier of the Arabian Peninsula (the word literally means ‘nomadic’). As it was the original language of the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, Arabic spread as the Islamic faith spread – east towards India, south into Africa, and west towards Spain.
As a result, says Shaykh Imtiyaaz Isaacs, a lecturer in Arabic at the Madina Institute in Cape Town, the Arabic language had a profound effect on other languages. ‘In the India-Pakistani region, most of the classical or traditional Islamic school systems teach Arabic via the local language, Urdu,’ he explains. ‘Many of the cultures and traditions of Urdu and Arabic overlap – even to the extent that you’ll find many Urdu words being Arabic.’
In Africa, meanwhile, Shayk Isaacs says that most classical and traditional schooling systems in Somalia teach Arabic, while almost all Somali-language root words come from Arabic.
You’d expect that from a language that has more than 310 million native speakers and is the official language of 26 countries (along with being one of the six official languages of the United Nations). As Italian came from Latin and as Afrikaans came from Dutch, it makes sense that a few newer languages trace their roots to Arabic. But what you might not expect is the influence Arabic had on other, more established languages.
The influence of Ancient Arabic on the world
‘Spain was one of the major centres of the Umayyad Caliphate,’ says Shayk Isaacs, pointing to the 700-year of Muslim rule in Spain and Portugal’s Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. ‘There were Muslims residing in Spain speaking Arabic, and a lot of our Islamic scholarship came from that region, which was known at the time as Al-Andalus. You’ll find that many of the leading reciters and classic scholars of the Qur’an today come from Spain. The influence Arabic language is definitely apparent in Spanish, even though the Islamic culture might be lost in today’s Spanish culture.’
But Arabic’s biggest influence on global culture is something you use every day, without even noticing it. Binary coding, based on 1s and 0s, underpins most modern computing. The numbers we use to count – 0, 1, 2, 3 and so on – are all Arabic numerals. Until the 1200s, Western cultures used Roman numbers – I, II, III, etc – and didn’t have a 0. The word ‘zero’ comes from the Arabic sifr (that’s also how we got the word ‘cypher’), and it was imported to the West from Persian mathematicians in Baghdad. No zero, no binary code … and no quick-thinking, fast-processing digital computers either.
So the next time you’re opening WhatsApp or Insta, say a silent ‘Thank you!’ to Arabic … Or better yet, ‘Shukran’.