Arabic Influence on Konkani
As we all know, language does not remain constant. It changes all the time.
Many common-use terms of one time-period naturally go out of fashion after a while and maybe considered archaic by people of another generation. Conversely, a colloquial term of yesterday may transform itself into a literary word today.
In the case of Konkani, An English-Konkani Dictionary by the Italian Jesuit AFX Maffei is a very good example of seeing the changing nature of words and expressions over a century. That magnificent work was published in 1883. Yet, in fewer than 140 years, a large number of Konkani words found in the dictionary have disappeared altogether from the vocabulary of the population.
Every language, over time, adopts many foreign words. These adopted words may either be discarded after some time or become fully absorbed into everyday use. The gradual localising of the foreign words is so subtle that the speakers are likely to wholeheartedly reject the notion that such words actually belonged to a distant language rather than recognise them as such.
The Konkani-speakers are no exception to these practices.
As someone who took up Hindi at the University-level, and learnt the rudiments of Urdu, Latin, Greek and French in parallel during my teenage years, I progressed to acquire some skills in Arabic years later. After spending years learning Arabic, I cannot claim much proficiency in the language. It is indeed a hard nut to crack.
Arabic – or more precisely the group of languages, spoken and written, that come under the Arabic umbrella – belongs to the Semitic family of languages. I spent several years learning the language as I was researching some information on early Christianity for a book I intended to write. If the reader is not aware, Formal Arabic (MSA) is derived from the Quranic Arabic, considered very close to Aramaic, the language that Jesus supposedly conversed in.
But why not become adept at Greek instead, considering that much of what we know of early Christianity was written in (Koine or ancient) Greek? True, most of the early Christian (or heretic) manuscripts – whether canonical gospels, non-canonical texts or heretical writings – that we have today are in Greek. The Septuagint Old Testament, translation to which took place under the patronage of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285–247 BC), a non-Israelite, in Alexandria is also in Greek.
As an aside, Philadelphus was a son of Ptolemy I Soter, a leading general (and reportedly a half-brother) of Alexander the Great and served in the latter’s campaign in India. After the death of Alexander, Soter seized control of Egypt, and then went on to enhance the trade with the West Coast of India by establishing the Alexandria and Socotra trade hubs.
The Israelites may have chosen Greek for the written texts, but their culture was still Israelite. I use the term Israelite to encompass all the 12 tribes, one of which was the tribe of Judah (i.e. Jewish people). Israelites then were culturally very close to Arabs of northern Arabia. As already stated above, the Quranic Arabic and Aramaic are considered extremely close languages.
A side-effect of my learning Arabic was the accidental discovery of more than 100 Konkani words which would have derived from Arabic – either directly, through Persian, or some other intermediary language. Indeed, there are a few Kannada and Tulu words as well.
Let us look at the following four Arabic-origin words used in Konkani currently:
1. Sawaal (question)
2. Zawaab/zaap (response)
3. Barkaat (blessing, hope of receiving salvation)
4. Birmot (needs mercy).
It is virtually impossible to know when the first two became part of Konkani. These two are not only part of the everyday language but have managed to obliterate entirely the use of the original Indo-European terms for the purpose.
The third word, Barakat is used very differently by Konkani Catholics and Muslims. With the former, the word is used more as a colloquial term, typically as a negation. For example: ‘taaka barkaat naam’, to mean ‘he is damned to a life in hell / he has no hope of receiving salvation’.
The Muslim Konkani speakers likely use the word like other Muslims, with its Arabic baraka (“بركة”) meaning: blessing.
But the word Barakat is in its Persianised form (both in spelling and the sound). The Persianised Arabic words commonly have the ending consonant of ‘t’. This suggests that the original Arabic word entered Konkani through the interactions with Persians.
The Arabic word baraka has existed in the Semitic culture and thought since perhaps the time of Moses, if not earlier. From the Christian perspective, at least, the concept of being saved by the Messiah (i.e. Christ) is associated with the term.
When an Arab prays blessings of the Almighty on his friend, he might say: “بارك الله فيك” (baarak Allah feek) – in formal Arabic. In a dialect, it is common to hear “الله بارك فيه” (Allah baarak fee). The equivalent Hebrew word is brakhot (ברכות) which also means blessing.
The fourth word, Birmot is clearly derived from the Persianised Arabic word b-rahmah (lit. with mercy). This Arabic word is a very ancient one. It has been found on the pre-Islamic inscriptions in Yemen where it was associated with the Almighty. The word entered the Konkani vocabulary most likely during the 1784-1799 period when our forefathers were the guests of Tipu Sultan Mysore.
Although my main work is yet to be finished, I have compiled a booklet titled Influence of Arabic on Konkani. The booklet may be considered work-in-progress, as more information will be added over time. The booklet is free for reading and distribution and is available at www.shastrey.com.
Hopefully, when the work is eventually completed, it could form a tiny part of the study material of future students of Konkani, as an aid to expand their view of the language.
I request the reader to provide any feedback and/or comments. If the reader volunteers to translate the booklet to Konkani (in various scripts), that would be most appreciated. Due credit will be given to the translator(s).
Author: Bert Naik
October 11, 2020