Historical Context: Language Roots

by connal on November 9, 2009


The afternoon before we left London for Amsterdam we realized that it was going to be the last chance for us to conveniently purchase any English literature for the next four months, so we swung by a bookstore and picked up a few books to tide us over (thinking specifically of the 6 internet-less days we’ll be spending on the Trans-Siberian train). One of the books was Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language, a fantastic (and very accessible) study of the evolution of language. I could write dozens of posts about the amazing things I found in the book, but I thought this one was especially interesting:

The verbal system of the Semitic languages (such as Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew) is one of the most imposing edifices to be seen anywhere in the world’s languages, but it is founded on a concept of the sparest design: a root which consists of only consonants. The verbal root in Semitic is not a pronounceable chunk like English ‘eat’ or Latin ‘ed-‘, but a group of just three consonants, like the Arabic slm which means ‘be at peace’.

But how can a vowel-less group of three consonants ever mean anything, if it cannot even stand up on its own three legs and be pronounced unaided? The answer is that such roots do not have to be spoken by themselves, because the root is an abstract notion, which comes to life only when it is superimposed on some templates: patters of (mostly) vowels, which have three empty slots for the three consonants of the root. To take one example, the Arabic template (_)a(_)i(_)a forms the past tense (in the third person ‘he’), so if you want to say ‘he was at peace’, you just insert the root slm (‘be at peace’) into that template to get:

Root:  slm
Template: (_)a(_)i(_)a
Result: (s)a(l)i(m)a

When one takes a root such as s_l_m and inserts it into other templates one gets such forms as:

(s)a(l)i(m)a – he was at peace
(s)a(l)a(m) – being at peace
mu(s)(l)i(m) – one who causes to be at peace
i(s)(l)a(m)  – submitting to God, Islam

To English ears, words like Islam, Muslim, Salam, which have hardly any vowels in common, may sound quite dissimilar, but for speakers of Semitic languages, such words, as well as names like Salman, Suliman, Salim, Solomon, (Ab-)salom, are all perceived as closely related variations on a theme: the root s_l_m.

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