Follow the leader.

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

There is a phenomenon in Arabic known as itbaa' (lit. 'following'); it is when a word is placed after another word that sounds like it for the sake of emphasis. Some linguists also said that a condition of the second word is that it should not mean anything in itself.

An example is to say about a man that he is, "waseem qaseem"; waseem means handsome, while qaseem does not mean anything here, but has just been used to emphasise the handsomeness. Similarly, "hasan basan."

Another example is 'atshaan natshaan for a person who is extremely thirsty.

Also khafeef dhafeef to describe someone who is light and swift in movement.

It is interesting to note also that the Prophet (sallaa Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam) used this construction in a hadith when he asked 'Asma bint 'Umays why she was preparing al-shabram (a type of small grain that is used to help bowel movements). He then commented that it was 'haarrun yaarrun' (in some narrations jaarr), to mean it had a strong laxative effect.

I believe the closest thing in the English language would be the 'schm-' prefix that is added on to words, such as the saying 'luck schmuck.' However, a major difference is that the added prefix in the Arabic words is not constant for every word, and one needs to delve deep into the language to know which word accompanies another. Some linguists even pointed out that the choice of prefixed letter is not random, but rather is adds a new dimension to the emphasised meaning.

3 responses to “Follow the leader.

  1. So the 2nd word has no meaning? I have noticed this phenomna in Urdu when someone says:
    fashion vashion
    or larki warki
    or burger wurger
    or kana wana

    I always thought it was something cultural

  2. Whether the second word has meaning is a point of contention among the linguistis. Some said that it must not have meaning if it is to be considered itbaa’, and it must follow the first word directly without a ‘wa’ (‘and’) between them. Others said in both cases it is okay and it is still itbaa’.

    Some also took the second word that in itself has no meaning, but tried to draw links that led to a meaning (eg, the significations of the first letter of the new word and its properties and how this reflects on the first word etc).

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