Grasping the Arabic Language Through Roots and Patterns

Lisa J. White was a Senior Instructor of Arabic (2009–2019) and former Executive Director (1993–97) of CASA (the Center for Arabic Study Abroad) at the Arabic Language Institute of the American University in Cairo, where she taught for over thirty years.

A morphology and translation enthusiast, she received the 1999 University of Arkansas Translation Prize for her translation of Mohammed Afifi’s Little Songs in the Shade of Tamaara (2000).

Here, White gives us insight into her new approach of learning Arabic, one that makes it easier for non-Arabic speakers to derive meanings, retain vocabulary, and understand the roots of words.

You said during an interview “Embodiment is the idea that human experience–and therefore human thought–is necessarily tied to the body. Without a body, we die, and so bodies have a hard-wired power over our thinking.” Is this recognition the initial driving force behind Rooted in the Body?

The seed idea for this book was actually a discovery I made while putting together a vocabulary worksheet for a higher elementary Arabic class. Because roots and patterns are essential tools for students of Arabic as a second language, it makes good sense to introduce new vocabulary side-by-side with its companion root.

You studied Arabic and have been teaching it now for over three decades. How intimidating can Arabic derivation and root attribution be for a student? Does using Arabic metaphors help to explain some of the language morphology and grammatical rules?

Arabic would be much more intimidating without its ingenious derivative system. This system is what allows students to make educated guesses about the meaning of words and the semantic links between words that share a root, or alternatively, that share a pattern. Without the derivative system, learning Arabic as an adult would be a true nightmare.

Which would be your favorite body metaphor if you had to choose one?

It’s impossible to choose a favorite. But, coming from English, one unexpected metaphor can be found in vocabulary derived from al-qalb, one of Arabic’s terms for the heart.

English tends to associate the heart with romance (heartfelt/ heartache/ heartsick/ heartbreak) and health (hearty). Arabic, however, looks at al-qalb as an organ in motion, one lacking in stability.

How advanced does the reader’s Arabic need to be in order to benefit from this unique language learning textbook?

My primary target audience is students of Arabic as a second language at the intermediate level and beyond who want to get a firm grasp of the language’s derivational system, something which greatly facilitates vocabulary acquisition and retention. This book allows students to pick and choose, smorgasbord style, and go at their own pace.

When and how did you fall in love with Arabic?

By the time I had reached my senior year in college, I had studied a little bit of a lot of languages. But when I dipped my toe into Arabic waters, I could tell that this language was one I really wanted to pursue.

At first, I loved its mysterious ‘otherness’ and was very intrigued by its morphology—those amazingly systematic roots and patterns. But I was also curious about Arab peoples, and wanted to learn more about a region I knew next to nothing about.

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