A comparison of Frank Herbert’s “Fremen” and Modern Arabic

The language of the Fremen people in Frank Herbert’s Dune novels is essentially a typographically simplified version of modern Arabic, in that in most cases Herbert appears to have simply dropped the dots and other diacritics used when representing Arabic in the Roman alphabet. Only in a few rare examples, such as subakh ul kuhar does he seem to have applied some sort of “sound change” in the standard sense of the term. Some of his spellings also appear to have been taken directly from the late nineteenth-century British travelogues Mogreb-el-Acksa: A Journey in Morocco by R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Travels in Arabia Deserta by Charles Montagu Doughty. (Represented in the table below by a dagger † and double dagger ‡, respectively.)

In addition to using more consonants than are available in the alphabet, Arabic also makes a distinction between normal (or short) and long (double, or geminate) consonants and vowels. Of these, Herbert preserved only the double consonants (bakka, jabbar, tahaddi). In real linguistic terms, this loss of consonantal and vowel length distinctions would result in a significant increase in homophony and ambiguity.

The table below lists the Fremen terms used by Frank Herbert and their original Arabic forms and meanings, along with the Dune books in which the terms appear, and the sound change “rules” they can be interpreted as representing.

Symbol Key: ʕ and ʔ represent the voiced pharyngeal fricative and glottal stop, respectively. VV represents a long vowel (as opposed to a normal length one: V). ø represents the null symbol, indicating the complete disappearance of a sound or sounds.

Herbert “Fremen” Modern Arabic Original Meaning Used in* “Rules”
aba ʕabâʔ (aʕbiʔa) aba, cloak-like woolen wrap, occasionally striped (586) D M C G H ʕ > ø; VV > V; ʔ > ø
adab ʔadab culture, refinement, good breeding, good manners (9) D M C ʔ > ø
Alam al-Mithal ʕâlam ʔal-mithâl the world (636) of the similitude (892) D ʕ > ø; ʔ > ø; VV > V
arifa ʕârifa sage, wise man (of a village or tribe) (607) C ʕ > ø; VV > V
bahr bela ma baḥr bila mâʔ sea (42) without (38) water (932) G ḥ > h; initial syllable i > e; VV > V; ʔ > ø
baklawa baqlâwa(t) a kind of Turkish delight, pastry made of puff paste with honey and almonds or pistachios (69) D q > k; VV > V
bashar bashâr man, human being; men, mankind (60) D M C G H CH VV > V
bicouros/Bikouros (ʔa)bîqûrus Moroccan Arabic for missionary < Epicurus C (ʔa > ø;) VV > V; q > k
burhan burhân (barâhîn) proof (56) D C VV > V
cahueit qawwâd pander, pimp, procurer(795) C (Graham’s spelling, based on Spanish loan)
caid qâʔid head, chief, commander (796) D q > c; VV > V; ʔ > ø
Dalal-il ’an-nubuwwa! dalâʔil ʔan-nubuwwa indications, signs, proofs (289) of the prophecy (941) C VV > V; ʔ > ø
dar al-hikman dâr ʔal-ḥikma(t) house, abode (299) of wisdom, philosophy (196) D VV > V; ʔ > ø; ḥ > h
dishdasha dishdâsha(t) a long usually white robe traditionally worn by men in the Middle East C VV > V
djedida jadîda(t) [fem. adj.] new, recent (town) (114) C a > e; VV > V
el-sayal ʔas-sayyâl streaming, pouring, torrential; fluid, liquid, stream (448) D ʔ > ø; el- for article al- & non-assimilation; CC > C; VV > V
fai faiʔ [afternoon] shadow (734); booty, reward, tax D C ʔ > ø
fiqh fiqh understanding, comprehension (723) D (no change)
fit-haquiqa (misspelling of fî-l-ḥaqîqa?) in truth, in reality (192) C VV > V; t for l; ḥ > h; qui mistake for qi?
Fondak funduq inn, hotel C (Graham’s spelling)
ghafla ghafla(t) negligence, inattention, carelessness; foolishness, stupidity (678) D C (final h dropt)
Ghanima ghanîma(t) spoils, booty, loot, prey (686) D M C G H VV > V
ghibli qiblî (coming from) south, southern (740) G q > gh
ghola ghûl (aghwâl, ghîlân) a desert demon appearing in ever-varying shapes; demon, jinni, goblin, sprite, ogre, cannibal (688) M C G H CH û > o (-a suffixed)
ghufran ghufrân pardon, forgiveness, remission (678) H CH VV > V
gom jabbar qaum jabbâr enemy (dialectal, < people, fellow tribesman (800)?), almighty, gigantic (111) D C H VV > V (Doughty’s spelling)
Harq al-Ada Kharq ʔal-ʕÂda(t) tearing, disrupting, breaching (235) the habit, custom (654) C G initial kh > h; VV > V; ʔ > ø; ʕ > ø
Ibad (Eyes of) (ʕabd) ʕibâd slave, bondsman, servant; pl. servant [of God], human being (586) D M ʕ > ø; VV > V
ighir ʔighîr(?) castle; fort, fortified place < Tamazight (Berber): shoulder; mountain M VV > V (Graham spelling)
ijaz ʔiʕjâz inimitablility, wondrous nature [of the Koran] (592) D ʔ > ø; ʕ > ø; VV > V
ilm ʕilm knowledge, learning, science (635) D ʕ > ø
Ish yara al-ahdab hadbat-u. (M?)ish yarâʔ ʔal-ahdab had[a]batu A hunchback does not see his own hunch. CH VV > V; ʔ > ø
istislah ʔistiṣlâḥ reclamation, cultivation (523) D ʔ > ø; ṣ > s; VV > V; ḥ > h
jihad jihâd fight, battle; jihad, holy war (142) D M C G H CH VV > V
jubba (cloak) jubba(t) jubbah, a long outer garment, open in front, with wide sleeves (110) D (dropt final h)
Kitab al-Ibar Kitâb ʔal-ʕIbar The Book (812) of Warnings (587) D C VV > V; ʔ > ø; ʕ > ø
koolish zein kullish zain very/all good (835?, 390) C spell: u > oo; ai > ei
la, la, la lâ lâ lâ No no no! D VV > V
mektub al mellah maktûb al malîḥ (Mor.Ar.) written (813) in salt (920) M C a > e; VV > V; l > ll; ḥ > h (Graham’s spelling)
mish-mish mishmish apricot (910) D (no change)
mohalata mukhâlaṭa company, intercourse, association (256) C CH u > o; VV > V; medial kh > h; ṭ > t (Graham’s spelling)
Muad’Dib muʔaddib educator, teacher in a Koranic school (10) D M C G H CH ʔ > ø (Weird spelling with apostrophe moved to between doubled consonant)
mushtamal mushtamal cottage (for rent) (487) D C (no change)
naib nâʔib (nuwwâb) representative, agent, proxy, deputy (1008) D M C G H CH VV > V; ʔ > ø
Padishah (Pâdeshâh) Persian: “Master King” D M C (p > b); VV > V
qanat qanâ(t) (ʔaqniya, qanawât) canal, stream, waterway (794) D M C H ʔ > ø; VV > V
Ramadhan Ramaḍân ninth month of the Muslim calendar (360) D ḍ > dh; VV > V
razzia ghâziya(t) (Alg.Ar.) a hostile raid for purposes of conquest, plunder, and capture of slaves D (French loan spelling)
Sareer sarîr bedstead, bed; throne, elevated seat (405) G H spelling: î > ee
sarfa ṣarfa(t) averting, turning away (513) D ṣ > s
selamlik Turk. < Ar. salâmlik selamlik, reception room, sitting room, parlor (425) D H init. syl. a > e; VV > V
Shah-Nama (Shâhnâmé) Persian: “The Book of Kings” D VV > V
Shai-Hulud Shayʔ Khulûd thing of eternity D M C G H CH ʔ > ø; VV > V; initial kh > h
Shaitan Shayṭân (shayâṭîn) Shaitan Satan, devil, fiend (497) D C G H CH spelling: ay as ai; ṭ > t; VV > V
Shuloch (Shluoch) ?Shluḥ < shallaḥa (484) Berber Chleuh (Shleuh, Shluh) people ?? C G (metathesis of Graham’s spelling?)
sirat ṣirâṭ way, path, road (511) D ṣ > s; VV > V; ṭ > t
suk sûq (aswâq) bazaar street, market (443) C G VV > V; q > k
Subakh ul kuhar ṣabâḥ al-khayr Good morning! [lit. the morning of the good] D init. syl. a > u; VV > V; word final ḥ > kh; al- > ul; ?khayr > kuhar
Subakh un nar ṣabâḥ an-nûr Good morning (response) [lit. the morning of the light] D C init. syl. a > u; VV > V; word final ḥ > kh; al- > ul; û > a
taif ṭâʔifa(t) troop, band, group (574) C ṭ > t; VV > V; ʔ > ø; final a(h) > ø
Usul (ʔaṣl) ʔuṣûl root, origin, source; plural: principles, fundamentals (19) D M ʔ > ø; ṣ > s; VV > V
Ya hya chouhada! yaḥyâ ash-shuhadâʔ [long] live (220) [the] witnesses, martyrs (489) D ḥ > h; VV > V; def.art. dropt; spelling: sh as ch; u as ou (French?); ʔ > ø
zanadiq (zindîq) zanâdiqa zendik, unbeliever, atheist (383) C VV > V; final a > ø
zein zayn beautiful, pretty, nice = good (390) D C ay > ei
(Table updated 5 December 2010)

Notes

  1. The transliterations into a mixed IPA-style Romanization in the "Modern Arabic" column of the above table are original here but heavily indebted to the entries in Arabic orthography on Khalid Baheyeldin’s very helpful Arabic and Islamic themes in Frank Herbert’s "Dune" page on his Baheyeldin Dynasty website. Note that this table omits elements not believed to be of Arabic origin, such as Bene Gesserit and axlotl, and adds others not included on Baheyeldin’s page.
  2. Plural forms of nouns are shown in parentheses in the Arabic column. Where Frank Herbert used the plural form (as with Usul), the form in parentheses is the singular. Final (t) indicates tâʔ marbûṭa, pronounced as h when word-final or t when a suffix is added.
  3. Numbers in parentheses in the original meaning column indicate page numbers in Hans Wehr’s A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd (Pocket-Book) Edition, edited by J. Milton Cowan (1976).