New essays about the Arabic Alphabet: Ba and Ta (by Michael Beard)

(illustration  by Houman Mortazavi)




excerpt from “Ta is for Dragoman”

Ta is for the Arabic verb T-M-M tamma, to be complete. (Tamma, “it’s over.”) One verbal noun is the word tammâm, completion, perfection, the end, a word which readers of the first edition of FitzGerald’s Rubai‘yât of ‘Umar Khayyâm (1859) will see at the bottom of the page under the last poem, where he adds, without translation, “Tamám shud,” the Persian term for “It’s over,” “it’s complete,” “that’s all she wrote,” “finito,” “finis,” “khalâṣ,” “the end,” “ta ta.”

If we’re in this for the shape of the letters we should be ready for disappointment. Except for the dots, it’s just another saucer shape like Ba or Pa. Ta and Ba do not, however, come from the same ancestor. Ta (like the following letter, Tha) was, in an early Nabataean form, two vertical lines, one of which bends to touch the other, something like our lower-case “h.” In successive shapes it gets simpler and simpler, loses its visual identity, gives in to peer pressure, and assimilates to the shape of Ba, with nothing to distinguish it but the dots.

The two dots float side by side above the plate shape (or above the lip at the beginning of a word, or the little notch in the middle of one). In its terminal form two dots above the curved horizontal line seem a little like two eyes hovering over a narrow, wan smile. It would make a good emoticon.

Ta is one of the commonest prefixes in Arabic, and a common suffix as well, an alphabetical handyman who is likely to show up in any part of the word. At the end of a past tense verb (actually verb tenses in Arabic are complicated, but leave that to the experts), Ta can designate the first person. The same suffix can signal that the agent of a past-tense verb is feminine (object or person). In a present tense verb (present being, again, an approximate term) Ta at the beginning can mean it’s a second-person “you” who performs the action. The same prefix attached to a third-person verb signals feminine agent. For other reasons, independent of tense, it can show up in the middle of a word with no warning for the uninitiated reader.

Hard Worker

The new student of Arabic is greeted early on with a list of variations around the three consonants. The stem D-R-S, “to write,” in default form is darasa, “he studied” or “learned.” Double the middle consonant (i.e. darrasa) and we have the second form, “he caused to learn,” or “he taught.” Lengthen the first vowel, and it’s dârasa, “to study.” (There are seven other potential forms that I know of, not our subject.) That second form, darrasa, has a verbal noun with a Ta prefix, tadrîs, “learning,” “instruction.”

Arabic dictionaries are alphabetized by verbal stem, so Ta often just gets in the way. You see the word tadrîs and you may want to look it up: you won’t find it under Ta, but under Dâl, for D-R-S. Pick up a passage of Arabic and we see Ta words everywhere on the page, but most of them are prefixes. Actual Ta words take up only thirteen pages (out of 1301) of the Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary. It’s different in Persian or Turkish dictionaries, where the Arabic verbal nouns are heard as separate loan words and listed under Tay, so that all those Ta prefixes look like separate words, and the Ta entries in Persian or Turkish dictionaries go on for a while.

Tatmîm, “completion,” comes from a Ta verb, T-M-M. Taḥqiq, “research,” comes from a stem Ḥ-Q-Q, “to be correct.” (The noun Haqq, “truth,” is a family member.) The stem which gives us the Arabic numeral “one,” W-Ḥ-D, as a number is wâḥid. Tawḥîd means “unity,” but in a religious sense “belief in the oneness of God,” “profession of faith,” one of the five pillars of Islam.