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Tricks for learning Urdu vocab: Arabic roots

When I first started learning Urdu, I struggled with learning vocabulary. I am a native English speaker and although Urdu is English’s linguistic cousin, at first Urdu vocabulary just didn’t stick.

I had studied French before studying Urdu and since English has borrowed many words directly from French, vocabulary was not too difficult.

Urdu was another kettle of fish.

Over my years of studying Urdu, I have found several tricks for memorizing vocabulary quickly. One trick is learning Arabic roots.

As I’m sure you know, Urdu draws from many languages for its vocabulary: English, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit, Prakrit, Gujarati, Tamil, Arabic. The list goes on. Three languages Urdu is particularly indebted to are Sanskrit, Persian, and Arabic. While Sanskrit and Persian are in the Indo-European language family, Arabic is in contrast from a different language family. It is a Semitic language which is a branch of the Afroasiatic language family.

Basically this means Arabic vocabulary borrowed into Urdu is formed in a fundamentally different way than Sanskrit or Persian vocabulary is. Sanskrit and Persian words are, like English words, formed around root words or syllables with affixes attached. Arabic words are not formed like this.

Arabic words are formed by isolated sets of consonants, usually sets of three (sometimes two). Then, words are formed by filling in vowels and other consonants around these three consonants.

Here is an example. علم ain-laam-miim is the Arabic root “to know.” A very common word from this root is معلوم maaluum “that which is known” featured in the common phrase مجھے معلوم ہے mujhe maaluum hai “I know,” or مجھے معلوم نہیں ہے mujhe maaluum nahiN hai “I don’t know.”

This word معلوم is formed on the pattern m-a-uu- and is the Arabic passive participle of the “first form” or simple root.

Another word from the same root علم is عَالِم aalim is an adj. and masculine noun, “learned man.” It is formed on the pattern aa-i-. This is the Arabic active participle of the first form.

These two basic patterns that معلوم and عَالِم are formed on will help you figure out the meaning of many other words. I have referenced CM Naim’s explanation of Arabic roots in his “Introductory Urdu.” 

Words formed like معلوم are passive words, they are often adjectives, and when they are a noun, it is a person to whom something is being done. The key word is passive. Other examples of words formed on the same pattern as maaluum: مجبور majbuur “helpless, oppressed, forced; that which is constrained, that which is forced” from the root جبر “to compel, constrain,”  معصوم maasuum “innocent; that which is defended or protected” from the root عصم “to defend, protect,” منقول manquul “copied, narrated, cited; that which is transcribed or copied” from the root نقل “to copy, transcribe,” and مکتوب maktuub “letter; that which is written,” from the root کتب “to write.”

Words formed like عَالِم are active words and are doing something. For example, جابر jaabir from the root جبر means “that which forces, tyrant,” ناقل naaqil means “that which copies or narrates, narrator, copier,” and کاتب kaatib means “writer, scribe” from the root کتب “to write.”

Once you become familiar with Arabic roots and these patterns, you will start seeing them everywhere. It will help a lot with pronunciation as well. Happy Urdu-ing!

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