Learning Arabic, I see some examples of triliteral roots from which words with apparently different meanings are derived. Example:

ف ط ر (f-ṭ-r)

  • "to break apart or tear": فَطَرَ • (faṭara) (maybe cognate with Hebrew פתר (f-t-r) "to solve"?)
  • "to create": same word, فَطَرَ

س م و (s-m-w)

  • "heaven, sky, firmament": سَمَاء‎ (samāʾ) (cognate with Hebrew שָׁמַיִם, "heaven, sky" or "God"?)
  • "name": اِسْم‎ (ism)

These examples make me curious: "break apart" seems unrelated to "create", and "heaven" seems unrelated to "name".

In Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew, is it always the case that two words with the same triliteral root are etymologically related? Or for example is it possible that two words with different origins in an older language both got mapped to the same triliteral root? And are there any tricks for figuring out when this has happened?

  • 3
    They can have different etymologies. I'm sure there are better examples but some that come to mind are עדה a and b, אשר c and d, שבע e and f. Sometimes the antithesis in e.g. "create", "break" is a tempting link but consider that English "cleave" and "cleave" are unrelated... However, can't comment on specific Arabic roots. – Luke Sawczak Jun 24 at 5:16
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    Yes. Basically any word with multiple etymologies, eg en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D7%91%D7%A8 Just like in any language, can happen because of collapse of sounds within the language, or because of loan words. – A. M. Bittlingmayer Jun 25 at 7:41
up vote 6 down vote accepted

Your cited examples do not involve the same roots in Hebrew and Arabic, they involve similar roots: [t] is not the same as [ṭ] and [f] is not the same as [p]. Semitic šim- "name" appears in Arabic as ism- and in Hebrew as šem: these have the same historical origin, but the synchronic roots are not the same, they are just similar. "Sky" which is from Semitic šamāy is indeed similar to šim (though they mean different things, and don't have the same historical origin). If you change your standard of comparison from "same" to similar, that would be a case of two similar roots (of daughter languages) that come from different earlier roots. Then you can find similar roots with different meanings in one language (Arabic qalb "heart" and kalb "dog"); when you look only at contemporary surface form and overlook some differences, it's easier to find roots in one or more languages that are "the same", when their origins are quite different.

Proto-Semitic distinguished *ħ and *χ, *ʕ and *γ, which Hebrew neutralized to *ħ and *ʕ, so in principle two distinct roots in Semitic could get neutralized in Hebrew, and that is another source of similarity (or possibly identity) with different meaning. Semantic change is another way this can happen. Arabic ṭaḥana and Hebrew taḥán have a common Semitic root meaning "grind", but Hebrew has an added meaning "to talk incessantly"; Hebrew bar reflects multiple Semitic and non-Semitic roots meaning "weight" (from Greek), "bar" (from English), "wilderness" (Semitic), "son" (via Aramaic) and "grain" (dunno the source).

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    Arabic /f/ is indeed "the same" as (that is: the regular correspondent of) Hebrew /p/. – fdb Jun 23 at 22:18
  • Your sense of "same" is "with respect to historical source"; mine is "phonetically". – user6726 Jun 23 at 22:19
  • (But why use "phonetically" instead of "phonologically"? They seem to play the same role in the system) – Luke Sawczak Jun 24 at 5:16
  • Phonological (as opposed to source) identity is another possibility, but it is highly unlikely that the OP has performed a phonological analysis of Arabic and Hebrew and arrived at an analysis whereby they are "the same". What is the metric for comparing sameness across languages? For example, is Arabic "l" the same as Hebrew "r", and if not, why not? Don't refer to any phonetic facts, if you want a pure "phonological, not phonetic" answer. – user6726 Jun 24 at 14:02
  • I think that my question was not very good, perhaps I should have left Hebrew out of it. I was mostly going by the corpus.quran.com links, particularly the second. It gives a list of "smw"-root words which includes both "sky" and "name". Wiktionary says "sky" سماء "samaa'" is from s-m-w and "Proto-Semitic *šamāy-", while "name" اسم "ism" is from "Proto-Semitic *šim-". So I guess that means the origins are separate. But I don't even understand why "ism" should have a "smw" root, or if there is an error in the corpus software. Thank you for your answer in any case, which was interesting. – Metamorphic Jun 25 at 2:14

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