27 June - 3 July 2002
Issue No. 592
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (448)
Where did that come from?In the course of its evolution, Egyptian Arabic absorbed thousands upon thousands of words from other languages. There are words that are directly descendent from the Pharaonic era and, of course, many more from the successive epochs of foreign rule, from ancient times to the present. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* focuses on Arabised work in the modern period, beginning with the Ottoman era
Ahmed Zaki, or the "Sheikh of Arabism" as his contemporaries dubbed him, was something of an Al-Ahram luminary throughout his life (he died in 1934) for his linguistic insights and for the tantalising way he presented them. In March and April 1929, he presented readers with a new and exciting branch of his work: "wonders in Egyptian colloquial vocabulary".
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Before delving into these lexical delights, a brief biography is in order. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Modern Egypt, the noted philologist was born in Alexandria in 1867. He received his primary and secondary education in Alexandria and then in Cairo, where he graduated from the School of Administration (later the School of Law) in 1888. Having won a competition for employment in the press department at the Ministry of Interior, he began his career in that administration as a translator. Later, he became a writer for The Egyptian Gazette, a teacher of translation in the Royal Academy and then a teacher of Arabic to the French antiquities mission in Egypt. From 1897 until he retired in 1921 he worked in the prime minister's bureau.
Of greater interest than his career was his academic work. Because of his numerous publications and vast knowledge, Zaki was chosen to become a member of the Philological Academy, the Royal Philology and Geographical Society and Royal Asian Society in Britain. In Egypt, he became a member of the board of administrations of Al-Azhar and the Egyptian University in which he was appointed chair of Islamic Civilisation.
Zaki took part in numerous international conferences organised by Orientalists, among whom he enjoyed great respect. Initially an ardent advocate of Egyptian nationalism, he eventually espoused Pan-Arabism and became one of the founders of the Oriental League.
Zaki also played an important role in Arabising European terms and perhaps Sheikh Abdel-Rahman El-Jabarti's famous treatise -- Aja'ib Al-Athar fi Al-Tarajim Wal-Akhbar -- best illustrates how this was done. So intrigued was one scholar -- Ahmed El-Said Suleiman -- by the number of foreign words in the noted historian's work that he compiled a study entitled The Origins of Borrowed Words in El-Jabarti.
In the course of this process, direct contact between Egyptians and foreign language speakers occurred primarily at two levels. Among the upper classes it was through education, whether in the foreign schools -- especially French and American missionary schools -- that spread throughout the country, or during government or privately sponsored study missions abroad. Nevertheless, in spite of the intensity of this exposure, foreign education had less of an influence on Egyptian colloquial than one might think, regardless of how fluently Egyptians spoke the languages in which they were educated.
Of undoubtedly greater impact were the large expatriate communities in Egypt. Of these, the Greeks and the Italians took precedence, the former because of their presence in Egypt throughout the Ottoman era as Greece was a part of that empire, and the second through long standing bonds of trade between the Italian maritime city states and Egyptian ports, notably Alexandria and Damietta. These communities also had precedence in terms of size. With the rise of the modern state, Italians and Greeks accounted for the lion's share of the tide of foreigners that made their way to Egypt in the second half of the 19th century.
Moreover, these two communities came into much more extensive contact with Egyptians than other expatriate communities. On the one hand, Greeks and Italians engaged in the small-scale commercial and industrial enterprises that required day-to-day personal communications with local craftsmen and labourers. On the other hand, they lived side by side with the indigenous populace, if not in the old city then in those urban quarters that sprang up in late 19th century, such as Abbasiya, Sakakini, Faggala and Shubra in Cairo, and their counterparts in Alexandria and elsewhere. Such quarters were far removed from the exclusive, predominantly British and French neighbourhoods of Garden City and Zamalek.
Perhaps nothing has a more potent effect on language than the daily interaction with foreign neighbours. Consequently, it was Greek and Italian, rather than French and English in which the upper classes were instructed, that had the greater fortune in imparting vocabulary to modern Egyptian colloquial. This is ironic, in view of the fact that Greek and Italian schools did not so readily open their doors to Egyptian students -- they had enough children of their own to fill the classrooms. The American community, by contrast, was paltry in size, which may explain why most of the students in the many American schools in the country were Egyptian.
Against this background, we return to the "alien vocabulary" in Egyptian colloquial Arabic as presented in Al- Ahram in early 1929. On the front page of the newspaper's issue of 17 February that year, Ahmed Zaki opens his account of this phenomenon with the article, "From the history of words: alal-hurukruk"
Alal-hurukruk, Zaki explains, means "at the last moment; the decisive or crucial moment for reaching an aim or destination". By way of illustration, he relates: "A faster is aboard a train that winds its way along the tracks, much the way his stomach and intestines coil within him beneath the chirping birds of a Ramadan sunset. Then, by the grace of God, his tram sets him down at the entrance to his alleyway, just as the cannons boom the permission to break his fast. He reaches his home alal-hurukruk -- by the skin of his teeth." Citing another use of the expression, Zaki writes, "A man has entered the delirium of death throes. He is alal-hurukruk (hanging in the balance) between life and death."
Zaki goes on to write that in response to the constant prodding of a friend to explain that expression, "I set to the search but could find nothing that was similar to that word in Arabic." Then, after lengthy contemplation, there came to him a flash of inspiration in the form of the French ric-a-rac. Not only did the word sound close to the Egyptian expression but it was close in meaning: "They (the French) say that a person pays his debts ric-a-rac, which is to say in full, exactly on time."
Zaki further observes that alal-hurukruk is a purely Egyptian expression but how did it come to be so? He writes, "I have never seen or heard this word, or acquired any knowledge of its use in this sense anywhere except in Egypt. It is thus not Arabic, whether in origin or as a loan word. That the Nile Valley alone has claim to this expression leads me to the conclusion that it has been Arabised; specifically, Arabised from the French."
He then asks, when was it Arabised? Probably, he conjectures, this occurred at the time of the French expedition to Egypt. "Certainly, the soldiers of the French occupation must have used it frequently enough to make it commonplace. It then would have rang and reverberated in the ears of the sons of the Nile, who then added the letter 'h' and modified the internal vowel structure."
This was how the expression alal-hurukruk originated to the best of his knowledge, Zaki concludes, adding, "But, if anyone has anything to add or a correction to make, I express my debt of gratitude to them in advance." By "anyone" he was specifically referring to such noted scholars as Sheikh Abdel-Wahab El-Naggar, Sheikh Ahmed El-Iskandari, Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Mutalib and Ahmed Taimour Pasha, to whom he appealed to give further consideration to the question.
It was not these individuals who were the first to respond, but rather Dawoud Barakat, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram. In a lengthy column which curiously appeared immediately adjacent to Zaki's article, Barakat rejected the contention that the Egyptian expression was adopted from the French. He believed that the origin of ric-a-rac was Latin and that not only did the French adopt it from that language but so, too, did the Egyptians.
To support this contention, Barakat cites a number of Egyptian words that derived from Latin. For example, boosh, a derogatory word for the Germans in the war, derived from the Latin of Rome in its days of glory. "The Romans used it to refer to people whom they deemed of no value," Barakat wrote. "The people of Egypt and the Levant use this word today in the very sense the ancient Romans used it. They say, such a person is boosh, or 'a good for nothing'."
As Italian is the closest European language to Latin, Egyptian colloquial words derived from that language helped Barakat in driving home his point. For example: "The traffic policeman in Egyptian streets calls out wardah as a caution to pedestrians. The word derives from the Italian 'watch out!'" In like manner we have many words, such as baston (baton) and tarabeza (table), which were taken from Italian because the Italians were the first of the European nations to come into contact with us. Indeed, until only a short time ago our Egyptian newspapers used the Italian words for the months."
Two days later, Al-Ahram featured another response to Zaki's suggested etymology of alal-hurukruk. By way of presenting himself, the "eminent scholar, Yahuda", as Al-Ahram described him, confessed that he had only recently arrived in Egypt, "a fugitive from cruel climes to a resplendent land". The article on the origins of alal-hurukruk had drawn his attention, all the more so "when I discovered that it was appended by the signature of my great friend, the reviver of Arabic literature and preserver of its purity, Ahmed Zaki Pasha". Yahuda expresses his gratitude to Zaki for including him in his literary salon. In this forum for "amiable deliberations and affable exchanges and debates, in which I enjoyed his friendship and that of his literary and intellectual companions, we would espouse ideas on literary and linguistic subjects and delve into the questions of the articulation of Arabic dialects".
Yahuda was inclined to support Zaki's etymological analysis of alal-hurukruk. The Egyptian dialect, he wrote, was prone to contraction, as was evident in the Egyptian pronunciation of Arabic numbers. Nor was the addition of the letter 'h' surprising, as it probably originated from the French preposition 'au', as in 'au ric-a-rac.' Indeed, it was undoubtedly the amalgamation of the 'h' that facilitated the tendency to contraction, giving rise to the expression as it was currently pronounced.
Yahuda further disagreed with Barakat's attribution of alal- hurukruk to Latin. It was rare to find Arabic words taken directly from Latin. If anything, words of Latin origin came into Arabic via the Latin derivatives -- Italian, French and Spanish "and especially from their vernacular". He concludes, "Generally speaking, such words entered the Egyptian dialect through the common people because of their various interactions with foreigners in commercial activities and their diverse crafts and industries. Some of these words were translated into Arabic, others were phonetically modified, while yet others remained in their original form."
Still determined to defend his point of view, the editor-in- chief took exception to Yahuda's claim that the Egyptian dialect was given to distorting the pronunciation of Arabic words. The Arabs and the peoples of the lands that adopted the Arabic language pronounced Arabic words as they came down to them. "The people of the Levant received their language from Tamim and as such we find them more inclined to internal vowels than consonant clusters. The people of Lower Egypt received their language from Qais, as opposed to the people of Upper Egypt who received their language from the Yamanites. It is for this reason that there is such a marked difference between the pronunciation of lexical items and the perception of their meaning between the two regions of Egypt."
It was not long before two of the individuals to whom Zaki appealed to take an interest in the subject entered the debate. Sheikh Abdel-Wahab El-Naggar believed that there were two possible explanations for the origin of alal-hurukruk. The first and most likely was that posited by Zaki. The second was that it derived from the Arabic word, haarik, or withers, "which is located at the base of the horse's mane and which cavalrymen clutch when they are riding." This word, then, "Egyptians modified in accordance with the spirited way they play with words like hurukruk, much as they generate nicknames by transforming Nafisa to Nafusa and this to Susu, or modifying Fatma to Fatamtam."
As for the derivation of the meaning, El-Naggar surmised that, since the withers was the most precarious place to sit on a horse, to say that a person sat on his horse alal-haarik, or alal- hurukruk, implied that if he moved any further forward he risked falling off. Nevertheless, El-Naggar did not conclude his article before suggesting a third possibility -- that the word derived from harkaka, which in turn was a modified form of harqafa, meaning the haunches of a horse. A rider seated on his horse ala-harakik was on the verge of falling off.
Sheikh Ahmed El-Iskandari's response revealed a tongue most firmly planted in the cheek. He writes, "I would have answered sooner had so much as a thread of guidance steered me to something that would have gladdened the heart of both the solicitor and petitioner of opinion. I thus chose to remain silent until God graced me with some inspiration." And, thus he would have remained were it not that the pasha (Ahmed Zaki) was "of the nature to think the best of people and believe that the silence of such as myself spoke of some knowledge that I kept concealed. But it was only that my thoughts were as yet ill- formed and was, therefore, displeased with what I could deduce with regard to the derivation of the term alal-hurukruk. Now, however, I find that the pasha has placed me in the most awkward position for he will only be satisfied with one of two alternatives. Either I pronounce my opinion however unconvinced I am or I shall have my tongue burnt with fire. I thus pray for mercy for issuing a pronouncement in a manner to which I am unaccustomed."
In El-Iskandari's opinion, alal- hurukruk derived from haraj Al- haraj -- at the direst moment in a critical situation. He was quick to add that he hoped the pasha appreciated this conjecture at a derivation, even if "my answer to him came ala haraj Al-haraj (at the direst moment in a critical situation)."
Because the subject attracted such broad interest, Al-Ahram introduced a special column entitled "Borrowed words in our language" as an invitation to other contributions. Of the many, two stand out. One is from Aziz Khanki, "the celebrated attorney in the Mixed Courts". Through the practice of law, one was exposed to a number of languages, especially French, the language of litigation in the Mixed Courts. This we can sense distinctly in Khanki's lengthy article appearing on the front page of Al-Ahram on 2 March 1929.
Khanki supported the opinion of Dawoud Barakat. Ric-a- rac was not a commonly used word, even in France, he wrote. "I have never heard it spoken by the French or have I come across it in any of their writings over the last 40 years in spite of my many trips to that country and the many French books I have read. I, therefore, believe the Egyptian expression must have another origin."
The noted attorney observed that not only had Egyptians throughout their history adopted foreign words into their languages but Arabic words frequently found their way into foreign languages. It was also the case that many words for an object were the same in different languages but with minor differences in pronunciations. Among the many examples he cites was the word sukkar -- sucre in French, sugar in English, zucker in German and zucchero in Italian. Soap, or saboon, was sapon, sapone and savon in Greek, Italian and French respectively.
Although Khanki was perhaps restating the obvious -- the linguistic cross-fertilisation that has taken place between cultures over successive eras of invasions, population displacements and trade -- his readers would undoubtedly have appreciated many of his other examples: falouka, the famous Nile boat, which came from the Spanish and also yielded the French felouque, safsata (sophistry) from the Greek, lukanda and teatro from the Italian for hotel and theatre, not to mention sikara (cigarette), which he suggests had its linguistic origins among the peoples of Anatolia, who pronounced it shikara.
This etymological phenomenon also applied to a number of fruits and vegetables, notably tamatem, which in English is tomato and tomate in French, u'rz, or rice, "the word for which is virtually the same in all other languages", and bortuqal, the Arabic word for orange and so called "because this fruit originally came to us from Portugal where it is called portocalia".
Intrigued by this phenomenon of lexical cognates, an Iranian living in Cairo was inspired to contribute a lengthy article on "Persian words in Arabic". However, instead of merely citing Persian and Arabic cognates, as Khanki did with Arabic and other languages, Abdel-Mohamed Irani was more interested in the circumstances that gave rise to the cross-fertilisation between the two languages. It was a subject to which he had devoted considerable study because of his work as the managing director of a Persian language newspaper. He writes:
"The use of Persian words in Arabic, whether as they stood or Arabised, began in the first and second centuries of the Hijra calendar when the Arabs were forced to adopt them due to the lack of words in Arabic with equivalent meanings." Citing El- Thaalibi's work in philology, Irani argued that because of the way many words are formed in Persian "the Arabs had to adopt them into Arabic as they stood". Of the many words of Persian origin, he notes the following household utensils: koz (jug), jarra (earthenware jar), ibriq (pitcher), tisht (basin), khawan (table), tabaq (plate) and qas'a (kettle). Then there were some accouterments of luxury: khazz (silk), dibaj (silk brocade), sundus (sarcenet) and ya'qout (sapphire). Other Persian loan words included faludhaj, a kind of sweet made of flour and honey, banafsaj (violet), yasmin (jasmine) and narjis (narcissus).
The Iranian journalist was not one to let the opportunity pass to address Khanki, suggesting that even his name came from the Persian khamki, meaning domestic. One suspects here not so much linguistic chauvinism as a glint of mischief.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
Letter from the Editor
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