Far from the worries of the world, the journey into the universe of words is an inexhaustible source of discoveries, inviting to meditation.
What links, for example, the words “‘Arabi” and “‘Ibri”, that is to say Arabs and Hebrews?
In this Semitic linguistic world, everything starts from a root, minimalist as desired, composed only of consonants but offering a bundle of meanings with their surprising derivations.
I don’t hesitate to use this significant passage from Jacques Berque for the occasion to clarify the picture: “unlike European languages, Arabic words most often derive, in an obvious way, from a root. Maktûb, maktab, maktaba, kâtib, kitâb, for example, are all constructed from a root ktb, “to write”, whereas French for the same objects, resorts to five unrelated words: writing, desk, library, secretary, book . The French words are all five “arbitrary”, the Arabic words welded, by a transparent logic, to a root which alone is arbitrary.
What is valid for Arabic is also valid for Hebrew.
Linguistically, both ‘br and ‘rb seem to arise from a metathesis, either, according to the definition, an inversion or displacement of a letter in a word.
The radical ‘abar designates in any case, in Arabic and in Hebrew, the action of passing, of crossing.
In Aramaic (ancestor of both languages) Abar Nahar means in this sense, literally “beyond the river”. It’s’Eber Nari in Akkadian, that is to say, from the eastern point of view, the region located on the other bank of the Euphrates, rendered by the European term Transeuphratene.
This crossing can be effective, from one bank to another, or marking in a more symbolic way a passage from reigning paganism to absolute monotheism.
In this relationship of meaning, it is no coincidence that the ‘araba defines in Arabic a means of transport, yesterday as today, cart or car.
In this same order of ideas, the universe crossed, consisting of vast plains and open countryside is said in Hebrew: arabahsynonymous with the desert, both a land of welcome and of passage that one crosses from oasis to oasis.
We are here in the world of nomads par excellence.
From the year 583 BC, the Bedouins of Arabia are mentioned in an Assyrian inscription where King Salmanzar III recounts the revolt of Prince Gindibou l’Aribi of the country of Arba.
Moreover, in an article on “Relations between Arabs, Assyrians and Babylonians in the Ier millennium BC. J.-C”, Ali Khedher explains that “the Assyrian texts name the members of the tribe “Arubu”, “Aribi” or “Arabi”, that is to say Arabs. The literal translation of these terms means “Bedouins”.
These same Arabian nomads are mentioned both in the Old Testament and in Greek and Roman writings, which describe their frequent looting in the border towns of the Byzantine Empire, while boasting of their fierce attachment to freedom.
But the Arabs, to speak only of them, historically include a significant group of sedentary people, builders of cities, with the South Arabian people of Himyar as an illustration.
That’s why the words arab and arab, although coming from the same linguistic universe, remain semantically different. The first designates an Arab; the second, more specifically a Bedouin.
A singular interpretation, based on a careful reading of the use of these two words in the Koran, provided by Abd-Rahmane Haouach, tends to see in the word araba reference to the townspeople and their language, while the word arab would designate the populations living around Mecca, leading to an equivalence with the Latin words Urbi and orbi (to the City and to the World).
Land of nomads, the desert is also the privileged world of exalted poets, confronted with the demands of the elements and guided by a thirst for the absolute.
Let us remember the oratorical jousts, the epic odes and the mu’allaqat from the pre-Islamic period!
In this civilization marked by orality, placing the virtues of eloquence at the forefront, a’raba becomes equivalent to expressing oneself clearly; the verbal noun al-i’rabbeyond the link to Arabization, defines the grammatical analysis; ‘ibara is the expression; while ibra still encompasses the notion of going beyond, this time of meaning, to become an object of meditation and an example.
Now, if we were to move from linguistics to mythical genealogies, we would have to remember that in all these patriarchal societies, the reference to the founding father is unavoidable.
Ancient historians used to divide the Arabs into three broad categories: ‘Arab Baïdah (Missing Arabs) having initially populated the country before dying out, the ‘Arab Must’arabah (Arabized Arabs) from the line of Ishmael, established in Hijaz, and the ‘Arab ‘Aribah (Arabic Arabs) also called Béni Qahtane.
The latter, to quote in particular Yaqût al-Hamawi in his “Mu’jam al-Buldân”, are linked to the figure of the one who would have been the first to use the Arabic language, named in his honor: King Ya’rub , son of Qahtan (identified with Joktan, son of Eber).
However, the Hebrews themselves are linked to the figure of the patriarch Heber (also called Eber), father of Joktan!
To return to the linguistic universe, already quite complex on its own, how can we conclude without evoking the parallelism established in the past by specialists between the words “’arab” and “gharb”, that is, the setting sun.
About this, the evening is said ereb in Hebrew, inducing the black color hence Erebus in Greek, divinity of darkness.
As for the words gharb and arabthey are transcribed exactly as a single word in the Arabic language (عرب), if one were to remove the diacritical dots distinguishing the consonants as was customary in ancient writings.
And there, it never ceases to be exciting.
Word erebused in several ancient Semitic languages including Akkadian or Assyro-Babylonian, would therefore leave their name not only to Arabia but also to Europe.
The first known mention of the word Europe, in the sense of West and Sunset, tells us Michael Barry in “Europe and its myth”, appears in the VIIIe century before our era, on the inscription of an Assyrian stele which distinguished the shores of this ‘Ereb, the “sunset”, of those of Assou, the “rising”. These two Semitic terms are therefore “at the origin of the two Greek names Europe and Asia”.
Is it not Zeus, continues Greek mythology, so madly in love with the Phoenician princess Europa, that he kidnapped her from Tire in Phoenicia in present-day Lebanon where she resided, in the direction of the West!
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Arabs, Hebrews or etymology as a hyphen
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