A lesson on the use of metaphor in Arabic morphology

In the previous post, we looked at the patterns فِعال and فِعالة and talked about how some words with one of these patterns can be simultaneously verbal nouns and nouns of place. We explained that these patterns indicate some kind of containment, such as a وِلاية (state) containing the وِلاية (act of governing) over the people and land that it governs. This showed us that there’s precision in Arabic morphology—that the pattern a word takes has a reason.

In this post, I would like to expand on what we talked about in the previous post, to show the use of abstraction and metaphor in Arabic morphology that makes it possible for Arabic to be a logically precise language.

In Arabic, the word for containment is اشْتِمال. We say that the patterns فِعال and فِعالة convey اشْتِمال. However, if we think of the English word “contain”, it seems imprecise to say that فِعال and فِعالة convey containment. There are some words with one of these patterns that don’t convey containment at all. For example, a حِزام (belt) does not contain anything.

However, the word اشْتِمال has a much broader meaning than “containment”. To be able to see this, think of the pattern that it has: افْتِعال. This is a form 8 conjugation, and form 8 conjugations often have a reflexive meaning. This means that the direct object is the subject itself.

Let’s take ابْتِعاد as an example. The root ب-ع-د conveys something to do with distance. ابْتِعاد is the act of distancing oneself (from something/someone). The past-tense conjugation is ابْتَعَدَ, which literally means, “He distanced himself.” For example, ابْتَعَدَ عن الحريق literally means, “He distanced himself from the fire.”

So how is اشْتِمال reflexive? We know that this word conveys containment, so does this mean that the subject contains itself? No, of course not.

The root of اشْتِمال is ش-م-ل. As we said, this is a form 8 conjugation. The form 1 past-tense verb is شَمَلَ. For example, you can say, شَمَلَتْهُم السعادة . Loosely translated, this means, “Happiness spread among them.” However, more specifically, شَمَلَتْهُم conveys a sense of engulfing, as if happiness wrapped around them. The root ش-م-ل conveys something to do with wrapping around.

The form 8 of the root, اشْتِمال, indicates that the subject wrapped itself around something/someone (namely, the object of the preposition). This usually translates to “contain”, but it can also be used more literally, such as يَشْتَمِلُ الحِزامُ على الجسم.

Notice the preposition على in this sentence. The word الجسم here is not the direct object. Rather, it’s the object of the preposition. The direct object is the subject itself: “The belt wraps itself around the body.”

The word يَشْتَمِلُ is used to convey containment because when a subject contains something, it’s as if the subject has wrapped itself around that thing. Notice, for example, when we say يَشْتَمِلُ الصندوقُ على أشياء كثيرة, the phrase أشياء كثيرة is not the direct object. Rather, it’s the object of the preposition. This is because the direct object is the subject itself.

It’s important to note, however, that this metaphorical usage of اشْتِمال to convey containment is so deeply ingrained that it’s actually another definition of the word.

Arabic morphology has the capability to be logically precise because the language relies on this kind of abstraction and metaphorical usage of vocabulary: It relies on metaphor so heavily that metaphors often become definitions embedded in the words. When we say that the patterns فِعال and فِعالة convey اشْتِمال, we must take into account the literal as well as the metaphorical usage of اشْتِمال. It doesn’t make sense to say that a حِزام contains the body, but there is no doubt that it does wrap around the body. And as we have seen, “wrapping around” is the more literal usage of اشْتِمال.

Additionally, when we recognize the heavy reliance on abstraction and metaphor in Arabic morphology, we can also see why the اشْتِمال can be abstract, such as in وِلاية and سِفارة.

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