Thursday, July 30, 2009

in praise of stems

i mean stems of words. all words in all languages have origins, but in most, the stem or root is buried in the modern word or eroded to a new form: looking at "good bye" one cannot know that the root of "good" here is actually "god," and "bye" is a mashing together of "be with ye."

but languages whose vocabulary branches out from ancient units, which one must know in order to use a dictionary, allow one to glimpse more easily the accretion of meanings. we still need a scholar to tell us exactly how one meaning evolved to another, but at least we can enjoy that sense of layering, like looking at the steps of building an old building: the old boards and mortar inside the modern wall.

using the arabic dictionary, for all its hassles (trying to divine roots from words is not always easy), has this pleasure. today i came across another one. i looked up the word (heard on a tv program) "qurud." i looked up the root "qarada" and there it was: it meant "loans." glancing at the stem qarada, i saw it meant "to gnaw, nibble, corrode, to loan money."

what a poetic evolution. you can really see, or imagine you see, the logic behind the evolution.

private loans in recent decades have become more chomping than gnawing. in the late 70s the US government decided usury was OK, and now it is common to see interest rates of 20 percent or more. it is immoral and shows how the people of this country are casually sacrificed for the profits of the powerful.

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