How Hebrew teaches us something about ourselves, Part 3

The awe-inspiring passage of the trilateral root, from Hebrew to Arabic and back. [1]

“And it happened when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ then they would say to him, ‘Say now, “shibboleth” [corn spike].’ But he said, ‘sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it correctly.”

– Sefer Shoftim (Book of Judges) 12:6.

This story from the Bible tells us something about the birth of languages, and the nuances between dialects. It stands in contrast to another biblical story, that of the Tower of Babel, when God babbled the speech of its inhabitants; they no longer spoke a single language, were incomprehensible to one another and thus dispersed. The Book of Judges story above humanizes the tale of languages by originating from its most precise component: phonetics. It is also telling of the varying pronunciations that give away the speaker’s origins.

For example, a contemporary tale from the Lebanese civil war says that Phalangist militia men used to stop Palestinians at checkpoints and ask them to say “tomato” in colloquial Arabic. If they pronounced it “bandura,” this proved they were Palestinian, and if they said “banadura,” they were Lebanese. “I say ‘banadura’ and you say ‘bandura’,” sang the Lebanese Yasmine Hamdan, in a pop song memorializing the infamous tale.

I am always faced with this question: Which is the original language, Arabic or Hebrew? I would always respond by asking back, which is the original dialect, that of the Delta province of Daqahliya or Sharqiya? In order to simplify thinking about these ancient languages, we should compare them to colloquial dialects. This way we can demystify the origin of languages. Think of the words you used back in your village, which you stopped using when you arrived in Cairo. Think of words you have stopped using altogether. Think of the emigrants coming home after many years abroad; think of the new words they hear for the first time, and the outdated words they continue to speak.


Linguists commonly refer to the group of languages that Arabic belongs to as Semitic languages. These include Hebrew, Ashuri Aramaic, and Ethiopian Amharic. The assumption here is that there is a single Semitic mother language, which branched into various ancient Middle Eastern languages, with mere nuances among them, as illustrated in the excerpt quoted above. Those languages then somehow evolved into more distinct languages. The term Semitic is derived from the biblical Shem or Sam who is, according to the Torah, the son of Noah, and the father of Asshur, Aram and others, who are the ancestors of the people of the region. Abraham or Ibrahim was one of Noah’s grandchildren, who will later bring us the legendary offspring, Isaac and Ismail, along with the two sacred languages of Hebrew and Arabic.

There is very little that we know of the origins of these two languages, and it does not seem we will learn anything new anytime soon. The Torah, followed by the Quran, have, however, provided us with a legendary tale to fill this gap: Ibrahim migrated from Iraq to Palestine, married Sarah, who gave birth to Isaac. He also married Hagar, who gave birth to Ismail. Ibrahim then abandoned Ismail and his mother in the Arabian Peninsula, and we will know little of their story and their lineage. As for Isaac, he settled in Palestine/Eratz Israel and had a child, Jacob, whose son Joseph was sold in Pharoanic Egypt and later became a minister. Joseph was chased down by his jealous brothers, who will later make up the Tribes of Israel, who were enslaved in Egypt, and then departed under the leadership of Moses. Then came the revelations at Sinai, where God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, and upon which Judaism was founded.

This is of course a mythical tale, meaning that the only proof of its existence is in religious books. The only truth that we know for certain is that Hebrew and Arabic are two very similar languages. Apart from the different scripts, the rules of conjugation and word roots are very similar. In fact, despite the occasional differences, the word roots are almost identical. This also applies to Aramaic, which is a language rarely used. 

At college, I met a dear friend, Ahmed Mounir. He gave me cassette tapes of Lebanese singer Fairouz, which I began passionately listening to. I kept trying to decipher her Lebanese accent, which was not easy for me at the time, but I was thrilled with the new words I was learning. I think this is when I fell in love with language. I was building a linguistic reservoir of Hebrew, Arabic, Egyptian and Lebanese dialects and whenever I struggled with a Lebanese word, I would open the Arabic and Hebrew dictionaries to try to identify its potential meaning. There was no Internet at the time, at least not in our house.


I remember this one time, also during university, when we were learning the Hebrew term “pilpul,” which refers to wittiness and sharpness in legal analysis of the Talmud. Our linguistics professor at the time, the late Mohamed Bahr, asked us if we could figure out the origin of the word. When we could not guess, he told us that “pilpul” is likely derived from the word pepper “filfil” in Arabic and “pilpil” in Hebrew. Professor Bahr then taught me a memorable lesson: “Whenever you are thinking of the meaning of abstract words, think of the tangible origin of the word.” This lesson applies to Arabic as well. He gave us the example of the word “jidal” (debate), which is derived from the verb “jadal” as in “dafar jadila” (to weave a braid). This tells us that the tangible reference of debating involves people engaged in the act of braiding.

Back to pepper as a reference for wittiness, I remember this particular film poster from my childhood years, for a movie called Al-Hidiq Yifham (The Witty One Gets It). I recall asking my sister whether “al-hidiq” is meant to refer to someone “hadiq” or salty (which is the literal meaning of the word in colloquial Egyptian). She said that it meant cleverness, not saltiness. Thinking of the word now, the colloquial “hidiq” is derived from “hidhq” in standard Arabic. Among the definitions I found for “hidhq” is “the increased sharp-tasting tartness of vinegar.” This is how the meaning has transformed from tartness to cleverness, from saltiness to wittiness, in an amazing voyage from the tangible to the abstract. The different tastes and flavors have often been used to describe human traits. Take, for example, the word “harrif” in colloquial Egyptian, which donates “skillfulness”, and is literally used in both Hebrew and Arabic to describe “something tasting spicy or hot.”

As days go by, this play with words will become my favorite game. I think of an Arabic word, and then play around with its letters (change the letter “sad” to “dad,” “shin” to “sin,” “tha‘” to “shin,” “‘ain to ghain,” etc.) I also think of the trilateral verbal nouns in Arabic, Hebrew, and the colloquial dialects to try to dig out the shared history of the word. Let’s think, for example, of the Arabic word, “al-haq” (the truth).  In Hebrew, “huq” means law and its trilateral root is “haqaq,” which means to dig or carve. Here is how we can glimpse into the lineage of the word: “Haqaq” is a Hebrew verb meaning to carve, and law in Hebrew is called “huq” because it was literally carved in stone, then Arabic adopted “haq” as one of God’s names (that encompasses a series of attributes like truthfulness, justice and righteousness).  Think of the Quranic expression, “Those upon whom the word of your Lord has been verified” (Yunus: 96). The original Arabic for “verified” is “huqqat,” which could also be explained as God’s words have been engraved on them, as if being carved in stone.

It also seems to me that the word “din” in Arabic, with its two pronunciations (“din,” meaning religion, and “dayn,” which translates into debt) is derived from the Hebrew legal idiom “al-hukm” (verdict). The Day of Judgment is “yawm al-din” in Arabic, “yum hadin” in Hebrew and “yum dina” in Aramaic. The Arabic name of God, “al-dayyan,” accordingly, means “The Just.” And in the Hebrew legal terms of the Talmud, the inference of judgment is phrased as: “‘Dinu’ is as such…” meaning, “Its ruling is as such.” This is in addition to the obvious legal underpinning that Arabic has preserved from classical Hebrew in the use of the word “adan” (to condemn).

In an unexpected move, however, the Arabic word “din” (in its meaning of religion) has also passed into Hebrew, this time entering the contemporary Israeli Hebrew lexicon. I was once crossing one of Cairo’s streets with an Israeli friend, and because he is not trained in the art of crossing wild Cairene roads, he was mortified by the car that almost passed him over. He screamed a curse word that I will recognize years later as “yin’al dinak,” which he had pronounced in an Ashkenazi accent as “’inal dinak” (may your religion be cursed).

Because Israelis live with Palestinians on the same land, they were forced to exchange expressions and terms, in this context forging a relationship between a dominant and a dominated language. I have previously written an article about how the Arabic derogatory word “’ars” (pimp) has entered contemporary Hebrew. But it was not only insults — especially the most offensive and hurtful — that have traveled from Palestinians to Israeli tongues. Israelis have also internalized Palestinians’ most poignant emotional expressions. In contrast to swearwords like “’inal dinak,” Modern Hebrew also includes “b-hyat dinak” (for the sake of your religion), which is used to garner sympathy.

It is likely that the European Jewish settlers have perceived Palestinians as the more dreggy other, while distinguishing themselves as the civilized Europeans who listen to classical music and frequent the theater — notwithstanding the role played by Eastern Jews as linguistic intermediaries between Modern Hebrew and Palestinian Arabic.

On the other hand, Palestinians have adopted official words from the Israelis, ones that represent the everyday policies they are subjected to. Palestinians, for example, say “mahsum,” which is Hebrew for checkpoint. The checkpoint experience is, after all, one of the most shared among Palestinians living under occupation — a daily halt, and an uncertainty of passage. It is interesting to note here that “mahsum” is derived from the Hebrew root “hasm” (to close). This leads us to the Arabic trilateral root, which is also “hasm” (to clench/halt/end).


Weeks ago, the Egyptian novelist, Makawi Said, published an article in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, titled “Rwaytak fashikha awi” (Your novel is very “fashikha”). The article engages with the word “fashikh,” the meaning of which will be clarified below, and a term that is somehow considered a symbol of youth lingua. In the article, Said writes, “A pretty girl noticed me, dragged her friend by the arm, greeted me warmly and then said: ‘Sir, your novel has “fashakhetni”.’”  Said then continues to describe his reaction: “I completely blanked out for a second, then smiled and fled. I was stunned for a while until a young friend explained to me that what she meant was that she really liked my novel … Oh well! For how long have we been making fun of the Lebanese, who, when we were in their country asking for directions to the hotel, would point to it and say, ‘after five “fashkhat”?’”

What Makawi did not realize — despite his empathy with “the new language of the youth” — is the linguistic origins of the word “fashakha.” The immediate meaning of “fashkh” is “falq” (rupture or split) or “fasakh” (to rip or break apart). And if we go back to the play with words between Hebrew and Arabic, we can think of an association with the Jewish  “Pessah” (Passover) or its Arabic equivalent “fis-h” or “fas-h.” The first mention of “fis-h” in the Torah was in the Book of Exodus (12:27): “You shall say, ‘It is a Passover [fis-h] sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt’.” One Arabic translation of “passed over the houses” is “ta-fasah” (meaning to promenade), probably because the original Hebrew word used is “passah” or “pessah” (to step or walk or pass over).

It seems to me there is an authentic commonality between “fasakh,” “fashkh,” “fasah” and “pessah” that relates to the opening of the legs or openness in general (to allow passage); this is why different forms of the same trilateral root encompassed meanings from splitting to stepping to walking to passing over.  It also clarifies the reason behind Said’s shock at his fan’s expression since in an old-fashioned lexicon of the Egyptian dialect, “fashakh” was traditionally sexually suggestive. As for the Lebanese dialect, when they say the hotel is “five ‘fashkhat’ away,” what they mean is that it is “five steps away.” And then when the word takes on the form “fashikh,” it refers to the person who is capable of the action of “fashkh.”

And from here we can wonder about the Arabic root “fis-h” and its verbal form “afsah” (to reveal), from which stems “fus-ha” (eloquence). By deduction, rather than solid evidence, we can infer that the verb “afsah” is related to the passage of the ideas from inside the brain to the open, as it forms into words. In other words, Arabs must have understood the idea of articulation of language (al-fus-ha) as a passage from the inside to the outside. Similarly, consider the word “balagha” (oratory), which stems from the root “balagh” (to reach). This is ultimately how “fus-ha” (eloquence) and “fashakha” actually seem to stem from the very same ancient root. It is only ironic that the latter is considered the antithesis of the former, as “fashakha” is viewed as the manifestation of the inarticulacy of the youth linguistic trends of the 2000s. It is worth noting here that the Hebrew equivalent of the Egyptian “fashakha” (meaning rip or break apart fiercely) is “pasaq”, which is very close to the Arabic “fisq” that means to “break away,” from a sect, for example. It is also worth remarking here that the Arabic letter “fa” often corresponds to the Hebrew “pa.”

Ultimately, this is all telling of the endless forms that can stem from the same trilateral root, and to which speakers of the language are often oblivious.

The striking linguistic intimacy is ever more discernable when casting a comparative gaze at dialects. In the various Arabic dialects, “fasakh” and “fashakh” almost express the same meaning of rupture. In Hebrew, “pasah” and “pasa’” both mean to walk or pass over. Why is the word “sirat” (way or road), for instance, sometimes written with the Arabic letter “sin” and other times with the letter “sad”? Why do we have a multitude of phonetically similar words that have the exact same meaning? For example, why do we have two very similar words like “khawi” and “khali” (both meaning empty) and “ighwa’” and “ighra’” (both meaning seduction)? The only explanation is the sheer existence of dialects: one dialect pronounces the word “shibboleth” and the other “sibboleth.” When languages were being compiled in dictionaries, the nuances of dialects were overlooked: similar words were imagined to have different meanings, or one was considered authentic and the other was not, or, as in most cases, the words were listed next to each other with no comment.  


We are often faced with claims of continuity between the contemporary colloquial and ancient Egyptian languages. Whenever a colloquial word is similar to an ancient one, this is often considered good enough proof that the contemporary Egyptian dialect originates from the ancient Egyptian language, rather than Arabic.

Sometimes the resemblance seems reasonable, while at other times, it is nothing but an ideologically imposed claim. For me, the conclusive decision is reached after thinking of the word’s trilateral root: If it comes from Arabic or Hebrew, then it is unlikely to have originated from an ancient Egyptian language as claimed. We cannot, for example, claim that the colloquial word “khallas” (finish) has originated from the Coptic word “hulus,” as claimed by the Arabic book titled, The Origins of  Colloquial Words in the Ancient Egyptian Language. This is simply because its root “khalas” (to conclude) is authentic to both Arabic and Hebrew. Similarly, we cannot claim that the word “rayyis” (head or boss) is originally Coptic and ignore that the Arabic and Hebrew word “ra’s” hold the exact same meaning.

There is no doubt that ancient Egyptian languages have influenced Hebrew and Arabic, for even if the Israelites did not live in Egypt (as claimed by the Torah and Quran), they have historically resided close by. The Arabs and the Hebrews at the time must have been exposed to the ancient Egyptian language.  But that does not justify directly relating a colloquial Egyptian word to the ancient Egyptian language, while disregarding the role of the intermediary languages of Arabic and Hebrew and their Sematic linguistic reservoir (with the trilateral root at its core).

The trilateral root is the nucleus that makes up Sematic languages: Word roots composed of three letter consonants were created, each transformable to a multitude of forms (awzan) that take on various signs of movement (harakat) in order to express a variety of meanings. What Sematic languages have in common is an endless number of words, synonyms and derivations that can be traced back to common three-letter roots, the trilateral roots. Somehow, this root is the Sematic languages’ ancient bulwark, after which fission occurs; it is simply the nucleus.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that despite being the nucleus, the trilateral root could be historicized. It did not just land from the sky, but have rather possibly evolved from other roots. Examples for this are few, and they are mostly speculative. I think of the Arabic word “mal” (money) as a word that was split from the two-part term “ma-li-fulan” (that which belongs to somebody), which eventually split in two separate words: “ma-li” (money) and “fulan” (somebody). Additionally, if we look at similar verbs like “sakan,” “kanna” and “kan”, or others like “sabaq” and “baqa” (which all revolve around meanings of being, residing and remaining), we will realize that despite each being an independent trilateral root, they are like interlocking parts that can be disassembled and connected.

In Aramaic, Hebrew and Egyptian Arabic, the letter “shin” is added as a prefix to the trilateral root, to either accentuate or alter it.  The form “shaf’al” exists in Hebrew to do just that, changing the trilateral verb to a quadrilateral one. Similarly, in Egyptian Arabic, we can revert the accentuated verb “shahiyas” back to “haas” (both meaning to be rowdy), and “shaqlab” to “qalab” (turn over), and “shakhram” to “kharam” (pierce). It also seems that ancient Hebrew used the letter “sin” rather than “shin” for emphasis. At any rate, both the “shin” and “sin” were often used interchangeably among the Sematic languages  (remember “shibboleth”/“sibboleth” and “salam”/“shalom,” meaning peace). In Egyptian Arabic, the “sin” is used to create the malleable form “istif‘al” to imply pretense, such as in the word “istihbal”, which is the claim of “habal” (idiocy). The form is also used to indicate an appeal for something, such as the case with the word “istifham,” which is a request to understand (“fahm”). Similarly “isti’dhan” is a request to be excused, and stems from “idhn”. The form is also often used to oppose the meaning of its stem: “istimrar” (continuance) is the opposite of “murur” (elapse), as “sabaq” (forerun) is the reverse of “baqa” (remain).

In conclusion, what we are missing in the linguistic field of Semitic languages is a study of the history of the trilateral root. Is the three-letter verbal noun the basis of language, or was it derived from other roots? If so, what did it derive from? What was its original form? A study like this, assuming it does not already exist, will decipher the major genetic relations between Semitic languages, at the heart of which is Arabic and Hebrew. It will accordingly unearth the beginnings of a Semitic mother language, of which we remain clueless to this day. We even have no knowledge of the name of the mother language or its date of birth.


[1] In translating this article, we have loosely followed the standard transliteration rules used to Romanize the Arabic alphabet. We refrained from using diacritical marks for simplicity.  You can find a description of the transliteration system here

This is the third article in a five-part series.


Nael El Toukhy 

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