I never cared much about grammar. In elementary school, we received just enough English grammar education to meet minimum curriculum requirements. My understanding of concepts such as “subject” and “predicate” were limited and fleeting. I remember the couple of days we spent underlining verbs like “run” and “eat,” circling nouns and starring adjectives on lined worksheets. It felt tedious to me, picking apart this language I was born into speaking. I was too young to understand the immensity of my privilege, to have native fluency in a language that imposes itself as a near pre-requisite for upward mobility in most corners of the world.
I was forced to care about grammar, to exert effort in learning to speak, in Arabic class. It was completely lost to me, this language that could have been my mother tongue, if I had just been born into an earlier generation. Or if I had not been so privileged. The demands of life, of “making it” abroad and achieving enough integration to survive, left my grandparents with little time and energy to pass Arabic onto their children. In turn the language was not passed onto me.
I approached Arabic as one may approach a distant relative that one has heard much about, but never had the chance to meet. I was tentative, a stranger. The few words I had acquired from my family’s broken chain of linguistic transmission included “habibi,” beloved, and “wallah,” I swear to God! I had no ability to string any of these miscellaneous vocabulary into a meaningful Arabic sentence.
My first-year Arabic professor took language instruction very seriously. He was intent to give his students the grammar education that they had not received in the American public school system. We learned strange terms like subjunctive and present perfect and pluperfect and conditionality. We were to use these concepts as building blocks of sentences that we constructed like lopsided houses upon our clumsy English tongues.
His lessons were often dense, full of practical knowledge that had to be acquired rather than appreciated. But one day, he taught us a grammar rule that shimmered like a pearl: “Every word in Arabic is composed of a three-letter root. All words that come from a given root are related. ”
This may not sound like much of a revelation. But to me it was transformative. It unlocked a dimension of the world where seemingly distal concepts became connected by a hidden center of gravity.
Perhaps this is too difficult to understand as an abstraction, so I will do my best to explain in concrete terms. In Arabic, words with the same three-letter root will take on a different but related meaning according to the shape that they are arranged in. Take the three-letter root: ج م ع (jim, meem, ‘ayn). This root conveys a sense of the word “together.” The placement of these letters into different shapes yields words that are related to the concept of together:
to gather – يَجْمَع – the act of bringing together
community – مُجْتَمَع – togetherness on a societal level
one of the central places in which we gather, to learn – جامِعَة – university
mosque – جامَع – another foundational gathering place, where we pray together
group – مَجْموعَة – a unit of people who are together
meeting – اجْتِماع – a time and place in which we are together
Perhaps I am strange, or overly sentimental, but I find this profound. It makes my heart flutter a little. To think that all things in the world for which we have a word, there is an essence to which they are connected. That words can be stripped down to their essence if we just remove the glittering crown of vowels with which they are adorned, if we just extract them from the shapes in which we find them.
Seven years since I began studying Arabic, I still experience moments of serendipity when I realize two words are related long after I learned each one of them. Like yesterday, when it suddenly dawned on me that the verb to become (يصبح) has the same root as the word for morning (صباح). Or last week, when I noticed the shared root between hope (أمل) and contemplation (يتأمل).
My mind races to draw out the relationships. Maybe it’s because in the morning, we become a new person. Morning is a time to become. Alive again after a night of sleep.
And hope is related to contemplation, because really contemplation is just hope drawn inward. Giving hope a home inside of ourselves, space to stretch and expand and multiply. Perhaps one day manifesting into plans that become action that lead to dreams realized. Contemplation as a sanctuary within which hope grows.
Maybe. Maybe not.
Maybe there is some other essence that connects morning with becoming that I just can’t see yet. Maybe hope and contemplation relate to each other in another way than I am currently incapable of imagining. I trust that one day the understanding will come to me. Perhaps when I earn a bit more wisdom. I accept that my understanding of how things are connected might change as I change, as I move through this world and acquire new meanings.