More Arabic Mnemonics

This is a companion to my earlier post on mnemonics for Arabic roots. An interesting feature of Arabic is that most words can be decomposed into a root and a pattern. The root consists strictly of consonants (usually three), while the pattern consists of vowels plus possible additional consonants.

In English we can see something of how this works by considering the words sing, sang, sung, song, singer. We could think of these composed of an underlying root s-ng overlaid on various patterns 1i2, 1a2, 1u2, 1o2, 1i2er.

We could combine some of these patterns with a different root dr-k to yield new words: drink, drank, drunk, drinker (but no dronk, unfortunately).

To repeat my earlier example, in Arabic, there is a root ك ت ب (k-t-b) which has to do generally with writing. Some of the words formed from this root by fitting it into different patterns would be:

كَتَبَ (kataba = k-t-b × 1a2a3a) "he wrote"
كِتَاب (kitaab = k-t-b × 1i2aa3) "book"
مَكْتَبَة (maktaba = k-t-b × ma12a3a) "library"


Most (not all) Arabic roots consist of exactly three consonants. The earlier post described a fairly complicated method for encoding these three consonants in an English word of phrase. This is not so simple because Arabic distinguishes many consonant sounds which English doesn't.

To be honest, the previous method is a sledgehammer, really important only for the most stubborn cases. Many roots (like the forementioned k-t-b) can stick in the mind with modest effortespecially if you remember just one of the derived words (such as "book").

In putting this method into practice, I realized that the puzzle needed another piecean idea I borrowed from Heisig's method for Chinese characters. This extra piece is an English name for the root, analogous to Heisig's keywords. In the case of Arabic, I don't call this name a "keyword" but rather a "syndrome." For example, the syndrome for the forementioned k-t-b root is "write."

One-by-one I peruse my Arabic dictionary (which groups together words sharing the same root), and do my best to choose an English syndrome which comes closest to capturing the spectrum of meanings associated with the root. I don't do this for every Arabic word I encounter, but only for those that I find particularly hard to remember.


For example, one pair of words that gave me trouble was:

طابِق (Taabiq), plural طَوابِق (Tawaabiq): a floor or story of a building, versus:طَبَق (Tabaq), plural أطباق ('aTbaaq): a dish or course of a meal.

Both share the root طبق (T-b-q), but I could see scant connection in the meanings. But perusing the various words associated with this root, it seems most are related to the idea of one thing on top of another. The floors of a building are arranged this way, as is the lid for a dish. The idea of a "dish" of a meal seems to be derived from the latter. I therefore chose the word "superpose" as the syndrome for the T-b-q root.

Here's a list of some of the syndromes I have selected thus far, along with a sample word for each.


dissociate
هجر (h-j-r)
هاجَرَ haajara (migrated)
disjoin
فصل (f-S-l)
فَصْل faSl (to dismiss, fire)
highborn
شرف (sh-r-f)
يُشْرِف yushrif (supervises)
hone
حدد (H-d-d)
حّدِيِد Hadiid (iron)
fan out
نشر (n-sh-r)
نَشَرَ nashara (published)
confer
خول (kh-w-l)
أَخْوال 'akhwaal (maternal uncles)

This leaves the issue of the pattern. How do I remember that طابِق (Taabiq) is a building story and طَبَق (Tabaq) is a dish rather than vice-versa? (This particular pair was a real issue for me.) These words have the same roots but different patterns. The Arabic grammarians had the clever idea of using the root فعل (f-`-l) "do" as a "neutral" root. They then described a given pattern by applying it to this "neutral" root. For طابِق (Taabiq), the pattern of vowels is (_aa_i_). For طَبَق (Tabaq), the pattern of vowels is (_a_a_). The Arabic terms for these patterns would be فّاعِل (faa`il) and فَعَل (fa`al), respectively.  

For the most part I handle this with a very simple device (also highly adaptable to many other situations). For a given pattern, I choose just one example of the pattern to use as a mnemonic hook for the pattern itself. For example consider the two patterns just mentioned: _aa_i_ and _a_a_. The former also appears in the word هاتِف haatif "telephone" and the latter in the word بَصَل baSal "onions". I use these words to represent their associated patterns. Thus the word طابِق (Taabiq) is broken down into superpose × telephone (root × pattern) while طَبَق (Tabaq) is broken down into superpose × onions. And my trouble in keeping this straight is resolved by creating whatever mental images serve to associate telephone with story of a building and onions with dish

In choosing a keyword to represent a given pattern, I try to choose something concrete, visualizable, and as distinct as possible from other keywords.

Here's a list of patterns and their associated keywords. Both this and the previous list are works in progress. I add words as I find I need them.


عَباءة `abaa'ah wool cloak
فَعَالَة _a_aa_ah
مُدُن  mudun towns
فُعُل _u_u_
صَحْن SaHn plate
فَعْل _a__
فُلُوس fuluus money
فُعُول _u_uu_
بِدَل bidal suits
فِعَل _i_a_
أَرْجُل 'arjul legs
أَفْعُل ’a__u_
مَسْرَح masraH theater
مَفْعَل ma__a_
بَصَل baSal onion
فَعَل _a_a_
قُفَّاز quffaaz gloves
فُعَّال _u_2aa_ (2 indicates double vowel)
رِسالة risaalah letter
فِعَالَة _i_aa_ah
سِجْن sijn jail
فِعْل _i__
خَلِيج khaliij gulf
فَعِيل _a_ii_
أَنْهَار 'anhaar rivers
أَفْعَال ’a__aa_
سَتائِر sataa'ir curtains
فَعَائِل _a_aa’i_
رِياح riyaaH winds
فِعَال _i_aa_
قُفْل qufl lock
فُعْل _u__
مَنْزِل manzil house
مَفْعِل ma__i_
فَواكِه fawaakih fruits
فَواعِل _awaa_i_
عَرُوس `aruus bride
فَعُول _a_uu_
هاتِف haatif telephone
فَاعِل _aa_i_

A couple more examples: طَوابِق (Tawaabiq), plural of طابِق (Taabiq), breaks down into superpose × fruits (T-b-q  × _awaa_i_), whereas أطباق ('aTbaaq), plural of طَبَق (Tabaq), breaks down into superpose × rivers (T-b-q × 'a__a_).



The Arabic verb forms get special treatment. Each verb form is a coordinated set of patterns describing the various verb forms. These are numbered from one I through ten X. Thus for a Form-IV verb, you know not only that the past-tense pattern is i__aa_a, but the present-tense pattern is yu__i_.  More information is available in an Arabic grammar book or various places on the Internet.

For the verb forms, rather than the example method I use for other patterns, I chose a code word for each form from II through X:

Form II
ninja
Form III
maiko, or mikado
Form IV
ramen
Form V
anime
Form VI
shinkansen
Form VII
Godzilla
Form VIII
futon
Form IX
pagoda
Form X
sushi

I was guided by the Major system in choosing the code words, but that is not really important. Almost any set of visualizable code words works just as well once committed to memory. I also chose words with Japanese connotations. You might wonder why. Why not choose words with Arabic connotations—
sultan rather than sushi, for example? The reason is that sultan may well turn out to be a specific vocabulary item to be memorized. Using the same word as a code word creates a minor possibility for confusion. 

You notice also that I have two different code words for Form III. This is to distinguish the two versions of Form III that have different patterns for the "verbal noun". Maiko is used for those verbs with a verbal noun of pattern مُفَاعَلة (mu_aa_a_ah). Mikado is used for those verbs with a verbal noun of pattern فَعَالٌ (_a_aa_).

Form I presents a more complicated situation. Any of the three Arabic vowels a, i, u may appear in the past-tense form, and any of the three may also appear in the present-tense form (although not all combinations appear). The Form I code words are chosen to describe these vowels as well:

tatoo: past a, non-past u
taxi: past a, non-past i
tatami: past a, non-past a
titan: past i, non-past a
tutu: past u, non-past u

(BTW in researching this post I learned that there are actually fifteen verb forms, but forms XI to XV are extremely rare. The system is easy to extend in any case.)

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